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Reading diary, #37

I didn’t set out to read mostly women this month, but that’s the way it worked out. Still, if the reading plan is going to fail, it’s best to fail this way than the other.

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981). I’d enjoyed Felice’s Godsfire, which I’d picked up at Archipelacon and was expecting something similar from The Sunbound, which I bought at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. In the event, it proved quite a problematical novel – see my review on SF Mistressworks here – and I really can’t recommend it… although I’ve not given up Felice’s oeuvre by any means. In fact, the novel published after this one, Eclipses, looks quite interesting. I just need to find a copy…

arrival_missivesThe Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whitely (2016). I bought both this novella and the one below at Fantasycon. I’d been keen to read something by Whitely after a tweet had named half a dozen or so under-appreciated genre authors including Nina Allan, myself and Whiteley, among others; and given that’d read a lot of Allan’s fiction and found it good, I wanted to try Whiteley. I read this on the train on the way back from Scarborough – a surprisingly pleasant journey, given the shocking state of our railways. The Arrival of Missives is set immediately after the First World War, in a small village that has suffered its fair share of casualties. Most of those in the novella, however, are children – or at least were too young to fight. Shirley Fearn, a teenager, dreams of a life outside the small village in which she lives, although her father wants her to marry a local lad who can then inherit the farm. Shirley also has a crush on the new village school teacher, Mr Tiller, a veteran of the war. She makes plans to attend teacher training in a nearby town, and insinuates herself into Tiller’s life… only to discover that his torso has a largew piece of rock embedded in it, large enough that he should not be alive as it occupies the space where his organs should be. At this point, The Arrival of Missives takes this piece of weirdness and runs with it. The stone was sent back in time by humans from the distant future, and is one of many such “missives” – this one happened to find Tiller near-death and caught up on some barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It makes for a weird disconnect – a detailed story of post-WWI life in a small village, almost Lawrentian in tone, and this science-fictional idea, which has no rational support or narrative scaffolding. But that, I guess, is what New Weird is. And yet The Arrival of Missives works because the writing is so good. Shirley is a compelling narrator, and her concerns are well-handled. The “missive” adds an odd flavour to the novella, which most will like more than I did… but I suspect this is still a contender for a BSFA or BFS Award next year.

golden_notebookThe Golden Notebook*, Doris Lessing (1962). I admit it, I had thought this would be extremely hard-going. I’d read a couple of Lessing’s other novels and not been taken with them – and even if the first book of her sf quintet, Canopus in Argos Archives, Shikasta, felt to me like being beaten about the head by Ursula K Le Guin. The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s most celebrated novel, I expected to be a bit of a chore – especially given its 576 pages… So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was an engrossing read. I’m only glad I read it after writing All That Outer Space Allows, as some structural elements of my novel might well have changed and in hindsight I’m not convinced they’d have been improvements. The Golden Notebook is a novel titled ‘Free Women’, about Anna Wulf, writer of a single successful novel based on her years in Africa during WWII, who is now living in London. She is also a communist. Between Sections of ‘Free Women’ are Wulf’s notebooks – black, red, yellow and blue. In the black notebook, she describes her time in Africa – on which her one published novel, ‘Frontiers of War’ (and which I kept on mis-thinking as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War) was based – and later, her life in London. The red notebook details Wulf’s politics and her interactions with the Communist Party. The yellow notebook is a fictionalisation of Wulf’s own life, title ‘The Shadow of the Third’, in which Wulf’s part is played by a woman called Ella. And the blue notebook starts out as a diary, but at times is more of a scrapbook, filled with newspaper cuttings. The five narratives, despite covering similar ground, don’t actually confuse The Golden Notebook‘s story, they actually deepen it and successfully show different aspects of Wulf’s character – as a writer, as a communist, her sex life (especially her affairs, none of which last) and her relations with her friends. The more observant among you will have noticed that the title of Lessing’s novel refers to a notebook not yet mentioned. This only appears near the end, opens by describing Anna breaking free of her then-boyfriend, before becoming that boyfriend’s own novel (a précis is given only), since writing is the catalyst the two use to part amicably. I really liked The Golden Notebook, and I honestly hadn’t expected to. I can see how it might have shocked in 1962 – Lessing is very forthright about Wulf’s sex life – and the sharp criticism of the lives women were expected to live can’t have gone down too well. I expect the communism would be more of a turn-off to twenty-first century readers than the sexual politics. But The Golden Notebook does read like a book ahead of its time. Recommended.

nocillaNocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I seem to remember seeing this discussed on David Hebblethwaites’s blog, and the fact it inspired a new generation of writers in Spain – the “Nocilla generation” – only made it me want to read it all the more. It’s actually the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Nocilla Experience. will be published in English next month. Despite my disappointment with some aspects of Nocilla Dream, it’s on my wish list. But Nocilla Dream… The book is structured as 113 sections, which vary in length from several lines to several pages. There also excerpts from other books and scholarly articles, on a wide range of subjects. There is no plot per se. Repeated mention is made of a tree on the desert road between Carson City and Ely, Nevada, over whose branches people have thrown pairs of shoes. Some of the stories involve people who have provided at least one pair of those shoes; some of the others involve people who have interacted with those people. The stories take place all over the world – which results in one of my gripes: a couple of sections are set in Denmark and it’s a very unconvincing depiction of the country. Another gripe is more the publisher’s fault, as on page 87, the section is headed “Relevant physical constants”, and the exponential figures haven’t been printed with the powers as superscript – so you get, for example, “Speed of Light, c = 3.00 x 108 m/s” when it should be 3.00 x 108 m/s. Despite these, Nocilla Dream is fascinating, does some very interesting things with narrative structure, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I will admit to some disappointment, however, when I discovered that Nocilla is a brand-name of a Nutella-like spread in Spain…

the_beautyThe Beauty, Aliya Whiteley (2014). I don’t think this is quite as successful a novella as The Arrival of Missives – partly because the writing is not as good, but also because it seems even more consciously New Weird. Fungi! The narrator is the storyteller of a group of men living in a remote valley in the south-west after a fungal infection killed off all the women (it’s not said but it’s implied it’s global). The Group had been formed before that, a back-to-the-land survivalist sort of commune. But then the women all begin to die from a strange yellow fungus. The Group stumbles on for a while without women. Then the storyteller, Nathan, is taken to see growths of the strange yellow fungus in the nearby wood, whic resemble those growing on the graves of the women in the Group’s cemetery – clearly indicating women are buried there. He is captured by a strange creature which looks like a woman but is made of yellow fungus. It traps him underground, but keeps him alive. He is initially revulsed, but comes to love the creature, which he names Bee. The rest of the Group soon have one each. These are the Beauty. They’re implied to be reincarnations of the lost women, but are unable to communicate except by projecting moods and feelings. Nathan has frequent sex with Bee – this despite there being a maternal element to their relationship (the other members of the Group treat their Beauty as they did their wives and girlfriends). But then one of the group, Thomas, begins to develop a tumour… except it isn’t a tumour, it’s a baby, part-human part-Beauty. And so the roles are swapped, and a new world is ushered in. The novella finishes with Nathan and Bee leaving the Group to find out what is happening in the outside world. There are some types of New Weird I can take – such as The Arrival of Missives, for example – and some I can’t. The Beauty falls squarely in the latter. Whiteley’s writing, while good, has definitely improved by the later novella – which is just as well as I doubt I would have read further had I come across The Beauty in 2014.

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986). Another book from Fantastika 2016. Kurtz, of course, as the cover of this paperback makes plain, is better known for fantasy than science fiction. In fact, The Legacy of Lehr appears to be her only science fiction novel. And this despite having an engaging pair of protagonists in a set-up ripe for further adventures. Perhaps the book didn’t sell well  enough to encourage Kurtz, or the publisher, to continue as a series. I enjoyed the book, although it’s lightweight. My review will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 127

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Easter bounty

Surprisingly, I only bought three books at this year’s Eastercon. Admittedly, the dealers’ room was was a bit lightweight compared to previous years. I also picked up four free books… Even so, that still makes it a considerably smaller book haul than I usually manage at cons. I blame online retailers… several of which I have visited in the past few weeks and made purchases…

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First, the Mancunicon haul: I was at the NewCon Press launch in the Presidential Suite on the twenty-second floor of the Hilton Deansgate, but I didn’t buy a copy of The 1000 Year Reich until the following day. Both The Sunbound and Heritage of Flight I bought to read for SF Mistressworks – I’ve been after a copy of the latter for a while, as I very much like the only other book by Shwartz I’ve read, The Grail of Hearts. There was also a table of giveaways from various major imprints, which is where I picked up copies of Creation Machine, The Tabit Genesis, Crashing Heaven and Wolfhound Century.

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Speaking of SF Mistressworks, both Bibblings and Murphy’s Gambit were bought on eBay to review there – in fact, I’ve already Bibblings, see here. Eric sent me a copy of Starship Coda (although it was launched at Mancunicon), after I gave him a copy of Dreams of the Space Age. Professor Satō’s Three Formulae, Part 1 is the twenty-second volume in Cinebook’s English-language reprints of the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, purchased from a large online retailer…

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… which is also where I bought The Other Side of Silence, the eleventh book of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. Sandmouth People and Pieces Of Light were both charity shop finds. The Long Journey I bought from a seller on ABEbooks after reading about it, I seem to recall, in Malcolm Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea, and deciding it sounded really interesting. Jensen, incidentally was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944.

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Breathing Underwater by Joe MacInnis I also bought on ABEbooks. MacInnis has been at the forefront of underwater research for several decades, ever since being taken on as doctor on Ed Link’s Sea Diver back in the 1960s. More Than Earthlings, Jim Irwin’s second book about his Moon flight, I found on eBay; it is signed. And Abandoned in Place is a photo essay on the support hardware used by the space programme, much of which has been left to rot as it’s no longer in use.


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Reading diary, #11

There are a couple of books in this post which likely deserve full-on reviews, but I don’t do that any more (not unless they’re associated with a “reading project” or something, or for a venue such as Interzone or SF Mistressworks), so you’ll have to make do with this. I’ve also decided to institute a new feature and, as I do in my Moving pictures posts, asterisk those books which can be found on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (I’m using the 2013 list, as that was the first one I found). To date, I’ve read 115 books on the list, including the one asterisked below, and to be honest there are a number I don’t think I’ll ever bother reading… But others look they might be worth a go – as indeed was Henry Green…

children_of_timeChildren of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). I sort of read this by accident. I bought it at Edge-Lit 4, and on the train ride home I finished the book I’d taken to read during the journey there and back, so I started Children of Time. And since I’d started it, I decided to continue reading it. Which I think makes it one of the very few books I’ve actually bought and then started on the same day. The elevator pitch for this novel didn’t sound all that appealing, and the author is better known for a ten-book fantasy series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a polished sf novel with several neat twists on the generation starship story (it seems to be the generation starship’s year, with this and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). The world the ship plans to colonise, and the only possible candidate its crew have found, unfortunately turns out to have been terraformed and colonised millennia earlier. By spiders (the result of a human seeding programme that went wrong). The novel alternates between events on the ship and the development of the spider civilisation – and the latter narrative is absolutely fascinating. Tchaikovsky puts a few spins on his generation ship tropes, although it soon devolves into a well-visited territory. Which was a little disappointing – but on balance the spiders more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on the BSFA Awards shortlist next year.

Skin, Ilka Tampke (2015). I reviewed this for Interzone. I picked the book as one of my choices based on the one-line description in the email sent out to reviewers. It turned out to completely different to what I had expected. It’s a Celtic historical fantasy that sort of hovers on the border of YA and adult fantasy. Bits of it worked really well, but the narrator was such a special snowflake it sort of spoiled things for me.

lovingLoving*, Henry Green (1945). According to the back cover of the Picador omnibus paperback I own which contains Loving, Green is “the most neglected writer of our century”. The book was first published in 1978, and that may well have been true then, but he has apparently seen something of a revival in recent years – there’s a 2005 edition of the same book, but with an introduction by Sebastian Faulks rather than John Updike; and Green has a number of other novels in print. Which is all, I suppose, beside the point; suffice it to say I knew only Green’s name and nothing about his oeuvre when I started Loving. Perhaps I’d expected something not unlike Olivia Manning’s novels, she was after all a contemporary, and I do like Manning’s fiction. Loving, however, proved to be entirely different; and excellent for reasons that make it nothing like Manning’s books. It’s set belowstairs in a large house in rural Ireland during World War II. Not only are the staff worried about the war, but also about their own situation in an neutral country should the Germans invade. And, of course, there’s the house to manage, and their employers to wait upon. The novel opens with the death of the butler, and chiefly follows Raunce’s efforts to get himself promoted into the vacant position. Green makes no concessions to his readers, the characters and their relationships have to be inferred from the narrative, much of which is dialogue. Science fiction may over-rely on dialogue to carry its stories, but it never does it with the skill and control of voice Green manages. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978). This is one of several paperbacks I bought from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon, with the intention of reviewing them on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. I liked it.

auroraAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). I’ve been a fan of Robinson’s work for many years, and, so I was told, this was one of his best, even better than 2312. So, of course, being completely contrary, I enjoyed it, thought it quite good, but… not as successful as 2312. The story follows the arrival of a generation starship at Tau Ceti after 170 years in flight, and is told by the vessel’s AI as a study in narratology and a sort of experiment in making the AI more human. The narrative focuses on Freya and first follows her as she goes on a wanderjahr through the twelve biomes which make up the ship. Then there’s the attempt to colonise a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s exoplanets. But that goes horribly wrong, and leads to a civil war on board between those who want to terraform another moon and those who think they should return to Earth. Freya is the de facto leader of the latter faction, and the final section of the book details the ship’s return to Earth and Freya’s experiences once there (those who flew back hibernated for the trip, using a technique in the feed beamed to them from Earth). As a thought experiment on how some elements of a generation starship might operate, Aurora makes for a fascinating read. There’s some handwavey stuff – not least the narrating AI – and many of the mechanical issues are glossed over. However, where the book fails for me is in its human side. Although a number of different cultures are present on the ship, everyone acts like twenty-first century Californians, displaying the sort of liberal individualistic sensibilities more likely to be found on the western seaboard of the US than in the seventh generation of a generation starship’s passengers. For example, there are complaints people are not free to have children as and when they want, but you’d think something like that would have long been accepted. And then there’s the violence between the “stayers” and the “backers”, which for a group of 1200 people who have known only the biomes, didn’t ring true. I was, however, amused that Freya and the others clearly returned to the Earth of 2015 – there were a few backhanded digs at social media and an indirect mention of hipsters. I’m still in two minds about Aurora. The setting is very clever, but the characters are thin and unconvincing; and like 2312, it’s all about making the Earth a fit place to live – because there’s nowhere else in the universe we can do so.

her-smoke-rose-up-foreverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990). When I first started reading Tiptree back in the late 1970s – it was Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, originally published in 1973 but my edition was the 1978 paperback – I knew “he” was a woman, but from what I’d read somewhere I thought the pseudonym was in order to protect the author’s career with the CIA. It never occurred to me Ali Sheldon used it because she was a woman. Now I know better, of course. In the early 1980s I bounced out of Tiptree’s Brightness Falls From the Air, and never quite got back into reading her. Well, at least not with the same fervour as before. I’ve reread Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home over the years several times, not to mention the odd story in various anthologies, but it wasn’t until Her Smoke Rose Up Forever appeared in the SF Masterworks series – deservedly so, I might add – that I really decided to give her a reread in earnest. I would normally review this book for SF Mistressworks, but I’ve already got a review lined up by someone else; and besides, I’ve probably reviewed half of the contents in reviews of other anthologies anyway. For the record, not every story in here shines, but a number of them so do very brightly – ‘The Screwfly Solution’, personal favourite ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, even ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ (a story which has haunted me since I first read it decades ago). There are stronger collections in science fiction out there, but not many.

the_danger_gameThe Danger Game, DHF Webster (1978). The author joined the Royal Navy in the nineteen-fifties as a diver, then ran a salvage operation for a while, but that eventually folded due to a lack of contracts. He was employed as a manager for a booze merchant in his home town of Bradford, when an old Navy buddy contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in working in the North Sea, as the industry was desperate for qualified divers. The Danger Game is about Webster’s years as a commercial diver, and given some of the things he describes the title seems apt. During the early sixties, things were very different, and a lot of deep dives were done on air – 200 feet deep, that’s about seven atmospheres, on air. Nitrogen narcosis, “rapture of the deep”, was not only common, it was expected, and divers frequently surfaced with little or no memory of the final tasks they’d performed. The same was true of the bends, pretty much everyone suffered from it several times, usually because of mistakes with the air supply requiring a quick trip to the surface, or because the wrong tables were used. But they had decompression chambers on deck, so a few hours sealed in one of them and they were right as rain. Although lots of divers perished, it seems a miracle the entire industry wasn’t shut down it was so dangerous. But, of course, because oil. Anyway, a short and reasonably informative read, although likely of worth only to those interested in the subject.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 115