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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

starmanjones

Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

capture

The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

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To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.

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Recent readings

I’ve been reading a lot for review recently – not just SF Mistressworks, but also Interzone, Vector, and Daughters of Prometheus. But I do occasionally read for pleasure as well – although the reads don’t always turn out to be pleasurable…

ON THE BEACH,  Nevil ShuteOn The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957), is apparently a classic and is often claimed for science fiction since it depicts a world immediately after a nuclear holocaust. The Albanians started it all off, the Egyptians then attacked NATO, and NATO thought it was the Soviets and so the nations of northern hemisphere wiped each other out in Mutually Assured Destruction. Now the last few humans, in southern Australia, pass the few months remaining to them. A lone US nuclear submarine has survived the destruction of the US and made itself available to the Royal Australian Navy. When a series of signals in Morse code – mostly unintelligible, but occasionally a clear word comes through – is detected coming from the west coast of the US, the USS Scorpion is sent to investigate. Much of the novel describes the Australians coming to terms with their impending doom – nuclear fallout is drifting south across the equator, and no one will survive when it reaches them. The USN captain pretends he still has a family back in New England, the RAN officer aboard the submarine and his wife plan for the future of their young baby, Moira, the young woman who is paired off with the USN captain, drinks and parties a lot and falls in love with the captain, and the scientist who’s tracking the drift of the fallout starts racing fast cars, culminating in a fierce race in which most of the drivers die in crashes. The prose is clunky at best, though Shute draws his characters quite well. It’s easy to see why the book is so well-regarded, though it wasn’t as smooth a read as I’d expected. Happily, it’s better than the film adaption – which starred Gregory Peck as the USN captain, Ava Gardner as Moira (as an Australian with an American accent), and Fred Astaire as the car-racing scientist. You’d think the book would adapt well, but Stanley Kramer managed to make the whole thing extremely dull.

meaulnesLe Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier (1913), was one of my father’s Penguin paperbacks, and I thought it looked interesting enough to be worth a read. It’s framed as the reminiscences of François, who attended a village school in the Sologne run by his father. A new boy appears at the school, Augustin, but he runs away one day and stumbles across a wedding party at a small chateau. He is mistaken for one of the guests, and has a magical time. However, the wedding fails to take place, and Augustin leaves and returns to the school – but he cannot remember the location of the chateau, and desperately wishes to meet the sister of the bridegroom once again as he had fallen in love with her. The “lost domain” drives Augustin – le grand meaulnes of the title – but even when the MC of a travelling circus proves to be the bridegroom from the wedding, he is still no closer to finding the girl of his dreams. Eventually, François stumbles across the location of the chateau, makes friends with the young woman, and informs Augustin of his discovery. But Augustin has been on another quest, and things have changed… There’s a nicely elegiac atmosphere to Le Grand Meaulnes, though that’s hardly surprising in a story which covers both lost childhood and lost love. The writing in the translation I read was very good throughout and while the story was very slow to start, it was worth reading. A classic.

Dark Eden by Chris BeckettDark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012), was shortlisted for the BSFA Award but did not win, and has now been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Set on a rogue planet travelling through, I think, intergalactic space, the novel plays out Cain and Abel among the 500 descendants of a single couple who were marooned there. The story is told by several narrators, in a strangely-random debased English – some words have devolved, but others haven’t. So the various words for local flora and fauna have remained unchanged, but the annual celebration of the landing has become “Any Virsry”. The inhabitants of the planet are also suffering from severe inbreeding, with many of them having deformed feet or severe hairlips. John Redlantern, however, is perfectly normal, although he is a good deal more thoughtful than everyone else. When he realises that the valley in which they live can no longer support further growth, he tries to persuade the elders to sanction a search for more living space. They reject his proposal because they believe they’re to wait for rescuers to appear… as they have been doing for nearly 200 years. Things come to a head, John is exiled and takes with him a small group of teenagers. But then his enemy back in the main colony foments hatred against John and his followers, there’s a clash, and John is forced to take his small colony across the frozen waste which surrounds the valley in search of a new valley in which to live. There’s an almost Biblical inevitability to the story of Dark Eden, and some members of the cast do play their roles with all the thudding predictability of characters from the Old Testament. But where Dark Eden does shine is in its presentation of its old story. The setting is a small work of genius, and beautifully described, and the integration of the characters in the setting is handled with real skill. It’s no surprise Dark Eden has appeared on the shortlists of the UK’s two most-prestigious science fiction awards.

jamiliaJamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), I bought for my 2012 world fiction reading challenge, but I never managed to complete the challenge after getting bogged down in both Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear. But Jamilia is a slim work, more of a novella than a novel, so I picked it up one day earlier this month and read it on my way to and from work. It’s blurbed as “the most beautiful love story in the world” and, well, if it isn’t, it comes very close. It’s set in Aïtmatov’s native Kyrgyzstan sometime during the Second world War. The men have all gone off to fight, leaving the women, old men and boys to run the village and bring in the harvest. When Daniyar returns from the fighting, but his family are no longer alive, he is tasked with assisting the narrator’s family – especially transporting the grain by cart to the nearby town, along with the narrator and the narrator’s sister-in-law, Jamilia (whose husband is away fighting). Over several trips, Jamilia and Daniyar fall in love, but their relationship is forbidden as Jamilia is still married. The writing is simple but effective, although the translator has bizarrely mixed up Islamic oaths and Christian ones, which seems a pretty fundamental mistake to me. A fascinating little novella. Worth reading.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012), is the third and final book of Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the first of which, Light, marked his return to science fiction after many years away. I’m not sure there’s any value in giving a précis of the plot, since in parts it’s wilfully opaque – as it has been throughout the entire the trilogy. Suffice it to say that some of the plot-threads from the preceding two novels do see some sort of resolution in this book. Harrison’s future is dirty and enigmatic, but it is also full of small inventive touches. The prose is like the roiling quantum foam of the strange physics it describes. Though the section set in the very near-future, featuring Anna Waterman, the widow of the physicist Michael Kearney from Light, reads more like the sort of literary fiction in which fantasy is injected sideways into the real world – much like Harrison’s earlier The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life; the narratives set on the worlds bordering the Kefahuchi Tract use the language of science fiction with a facility few genre writers can match. An alien installation, dubbed the Aleph, threads its way through the story, stitching together the various narratives as it manifests the strange physics emanating from the Tract. Strangely, though aliens are frequently mentioned in the book – and the tramp freighter Nova Swing’s cargo consists of mysterious alien “mortsafes” – they are entirely off-stage, or implied to have existed only in the deep past. Not every character is human, but the template of every character certainly is. Having finished Empty Space, but I can see the resolution and how it comes together, but I’m not entirely sure what has been resolved. It’s like the strange physics which informs the story – the effect is visible, the cause is unknowable and the process often seems to follow rules of its own. I think I shall have to reread all three books to get a real handle on it.

warriorThe Mark of the Warrior, Paul Scott (1958), is likely to remind genre readers of at least two books, even though it is set in India in 1942 and is about officer-cadets being trained for combat in the region. Major Craig is a veteran of the war in Burma – while he made it out of the jungle, as did most of his company, he did lose his second in command, John Ramsay. And now Craig has been assigned to an Officer’s Training School near Pune, as has Ramsay’s younger brother, Bob. Craig sees in Bob Ramsay the same thing he saw in John Ramsay – “the mark of the warrior”, a natural soldiering ability coupled with what are probably sociopathic tendencies. Certainly, young Ramsay proves to be the best cadet at the school – so much so that when the design of a final exercise is made into a cadet competition, Ramsay wins it by presenting a scheme both he and Craig know will prove the only useful one to those destined to fight in the region. Instead of previously setting up combat set-pieces on the nearby plains, Ramsay’s scheme involves an attack on a fortified position in the jungle thirty miles to the north of the school. Those who have read Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai trilogy are going to find a lot in The Mark of the Warrior which seems familiar, and given that Scott’s novel beat Dickson’s The Genetic General into print by a year, you have to wonder… On the other hand, it’s not all that likely a US sf author would stumble across a novel by a British mid-list literary writer within a year of its publication. Nevertheless, the Dorsai seem to owe a lot to Ramsay. As does Orson Scott Homophobe’s Ender, though not having read that book, I’m not sure how close any resemblance might be. Genre comparisons aside, Scott’s novel is a minor work. It’s well-written, and the characters of Craig and Ramsay are drawn extremely well. I said of Scott’s The Bender when I read it that it would make a good British film, and the same is true of this one. It’s time for adaptation is long past, however; though perhaps the story could be updated to the present day without too much difficulty.