It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #11

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. Not sure why. I’ve enjoyed the last few books I’ve read by North, so she’s a safe read. Herron had been recommended to me several times by various people, and the first six books were a daily deal at 99p each, so I bought them. The Roanhorse was part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Pack, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK). To me, the phrase “high concept” feels like it should apply to some profound and intellectually challenging premise around which a novel or film is based, when in fact it just means you can reduce a work’s plot to a simple easily-understood sound-bite. North writes “high concept” sf novels, and yet she manages to put together complex stories based around her “sound-bite” premises. And her plots are buttressed by well-used and extensive research. Her prose has an authority few of her contemporaries can match – and that includes hard sf writers who at least have the laws of physics and known cosmology to underpin their stories. The Pursuit of William Abbey is, ostensibly, framed as a story told by a doctor to a nurse in a casualty clearance station during World War I. She had noticed his suspicious behaviour regarding a particular patient – a young officer who has lost both his legs – and after she quizzes the doctor, he tells her his story. Abbey, the doctor, was cursed during the Boer War when he failed to prevent the murder of a young black man. The murdered man’s shadow now follows him and, when the shadow is close, Abbey can read “truth” directly from a person’s mind. But should the shadow catch up with him, then someone he loves will die. The British Empire has realised the usefulness of people who can read truth from others, and Abbey is press-ganged as a spy. But the British Empire wants to control this ability, and has been experimenting – deliberately “cursing” people with shadows, then lobotomising them and turning them into “truth machines”. The young officer is the son of the man driving the programme. This is the fate they have planned for Abbey. North has taken a fantasy premise and treated it as rigorously as science fiction, but based around a plot inspired by the Great Game (as in Kim). This is good stuff. North is definitely on my list of authors whose latest books I buy.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948, USA). There are writers whose works you admire and enjoy, there are writers whose works you enjoy, and there are writers whose works you admire. Faulkner definitely falls into the last category. His novels – and I base this only on a sample of three – are far from easy reads but the writing is absolutely amazing. They’re modernist, and I do like me some modernism, and written in long run-on sentences in great blocks of text in something close to dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also rewarding, although they’re mostly set in the American South, with all its overt racism, and poverty… The subjects don’t interest me, but the writing is so dazzling, so precise, it overcomes that. Like many people, when I wasn’t reading genre I read contemporary fiction, including exploring back-catalogues – Anthony Burgess, for example, was still being published when I first started reading him. But I’d never really tried reading authors who were active in the first half of the twentieth-century. Perhaps I’d been exposed to some of them at school and so reading them felt like “school work”. Which is not exactly true, as I read The Cruel Sea (1951) at prep school in 1978 or 1979, but in the 1990s sort of rediscovered Nicholas Montsarrat and became a fan of his novels. DH Lawrence’s fiction I’d previously avoided partly because my father was a huge fan (I didn’t feel a need to find something, such as an author we both liked, to connect with my father; we already had a good relationship). But I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as part of a reading challenge ten years ago, loved it, and decided to explore Lawrence’s oeuvre further… As a result, partly inspired by my father’s collection of 1960s paperbacks, which included some Lawrence, but also also Malcolm Lowry, another writer I became a big fan of, and The Sound and the Fury and Intruder in the Dust, I discovered Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury blew me away. And if the novles by him I’ve read since have not been impressive, I have still found them amazingly written. I will certainly read more Faulkner – he has consistently proven an impressive, although difficult, read. Once, I’d have spent time – and money – tracking down good condition copies of the nice 1960s Penguin editions that match the two I inherited from my father. But these days, I think I’ll just go for the ebook editions. Faulkner is definitely an historical author worth reading.

Slow Horses & Dead Lions, Mick Herron (2010/2013, UK). These have come highly recommended, and I do like me some spy-fi – I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s Audley/Butler novels, and I also highly recommend them – but Herron is no Price, and, even worse, his schtick does not really survive prolonged exposure. A “slow horse” is a resident of Slough House, which is an off-site office of MI5 where the failures and screw-ups are sent. The idea being that MI5 cannot actually fire them for their transgressions, so instead assigns them to Slough House in the hope that the shit work and drudgery performed there will persuade them to resign. All under the leadership of Jackson Lamb, a fat slob (described repeatedly in the first book as resembling “Timothy Spall gone to seed”, but apparently played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV adaptation), who has enough dirt on the current MI5 leadership to do what he wants. Which, fortunately, is not much. In Slow Horses, Lamb’s team inadvertently becomes involved in a plot by right-wing nutjobs to fake an online beheading of an Asian, but it all goes horribly wrong because too many people in the intelligence community have had a hand in creating the situation and their agendas are confusing everything. In Dead Lions, the same crew become involved when it looks like an old KGB sleeper network in the UK known to Lamb has been reactivated and it might have something to do with assassinating a Russian oligarch in London for secret talks with MI5… Herron nails the topical talking-points, but he peoples his novels with a cast of the most unlikable shits this side of the Conservative Party front benches, and it’s hard to care about them. Even Jackson Lamb is such a fucking throwback, you have to wonder why Herron thought he might be considered sympathetic. I don’t want to read stories peopled by arseholes. Especially people who are actually worse than those I meet in real life or on social media or who are running the UK government. Plus, the computing in these novels is complete bollocks. The hacker character is apparently so amazing he can hack “air-gapped” networks and if he were indeed as good as advertised, MI5 would keep him even if he were a completely self-deluded incel troll… which he is. But… unlikable characters, implausible plots… not a deal breaker, especially for a science fiction reader… But when the second book follows exactly the same pattern as the first book. And the third book does too… I’m sorry. I’ve got six of the fucking things to read, I’ve read three to date, and I’ll read the other three, but I can’t in all honesty recommend any but the first.

Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974, UK). I’ve no idea why I bought this, and even less why I read it. Call it a whim. I’ve read perhaps half a dozen novels by Brunner over the years, and while he wrote some notable sf during his time I’ve never really felt a need to read him. He is, I suppose, a sort of British Silverberg. And, like Silverberg, he produced a handful of  highly-regarded works, a great many potboilers, and a number of solid science fiction novels. Total Eclipse falls into the last category. It’s a straightforward sf mystery, its plot almost a staple of the genre: humans colonise a long-dead world but, despite all their research, cannot figure out what killed off the world’s original inhabitants. Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is deteriorating and it’s no longer certain Earth’s one and only starship will return to Draco Pavonis on its next supply run. Cue a fevered attempt to understand what killed the planet’s indigenes, driven partly by desperation and partly by the arrival of a neuro-atypical archaeologist. Eventually, of course, they find out what happened, but it’s too late to save them. This is not a cheerful book. I liked it. I thought it made a good fist of its premise. The science seemed mostly convincing to me, although actual experts – remember those? people who have actually studied shit and know what it means – might be less forgiving of some aspects of the novel. Overall, it struck me as a solid piece of seventies UK sf.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (2018, USA). Roanhorse’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first short story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and won the former. She has written two short stories since, both for themed anthologies. Her first novel, this one, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It was followed by a sequel, Storm of Locusts, a year later, then a Star Wars novel, and a middle-grade fantasy from a Disney imprint. With a career path like that, you’d expect something amazing. So it’s a surprise to discover Trail of Lightning is, well, nothing special. It’s a bog standard urban fantasy but with Navajo mythology. Yes, the latter is interesting, and it’s good to see something other than the usual suspects used for world-building. But there’s little else in the book that isn’t entirely cliché. The narrator, Maggie, kills monsters, is emotionally damaged after her relationship with her mentor, a Navajo immortal, imploded, drives a 1970s pickup truck, fetishises over her weapons, and basically gets the entire plot wrong by jumping to conclusions. The book tries to turn the tables by casting a male as the pretty sidekick, but we’ve all seen enough manga and anime to find that one familiar. The prose is a cut above average for urban fantasy, but Laurell K Hamilton was doing the damaged kick-ass female urban fantasy heroine three decades ago – and her prose wasn’t bad either. There’s not enough here to justify the heights Trail of Lightning has achieved. It’s true that Native American mythology has not appeared much in genre, but it has appeared. And there have been Native American genre writers. Less than you can count on the fingers of one hand, true. But there are other modes of fiction, and fiction that privileges Native American culture exists in those. It’s good that genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror – wants to be more diverse and more inclusive, but many cultures have their own literary traditions, and while they may not be positioned as genre, they may be close enough to genre to be of interest to genre readers should they make the effort to look for them. When it comes to Navajo culture, I will freely admit I’ve not made that effort. I suppose in that regard it makes Roanhorse’s novel a gateway book. But had I been interested, I would have made the effort. I’ve done so for other cultures whose literary tradition has interested me. Rather than agitate for people to write sf based in and around those cultures, I’ve sought out the fiction the culture has already produced (where translations exist, of course). The point I’m trying to make is that genre fiction doesn’t have to include all other modes of fiction or cultures. It needs to be relevant to its readers, yes, and so it needs to be inclusive and diverse. But it should never take the place of the literary traditions that already exist in those cultures. It should complement them.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, Dave Hutchinson (2019, UK). There is a short story, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’, which I don’t believe I’ve read, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this novel is an expansion of that short story, or at the very least is set in the same world and features some of the same characters. It’s a novel set in the US but could have only been written by a Brit, and not just because the narrator is British. Alex Dolan is a Scottish journalist, currently unemployed in the US. He is approached by a billionaire, who wants him to write a book about the his pet project, a supercollider built under a town in Iowa. It’s all a bit shifty, and various personalities seem to both hinder Dolan and make his new life more bearable. It feels a little like a pastiche of US life, albeit from a UK perspective, and it takes a good three-quarters of the novel before the plot even gets going. But it’s a fun read, the dialogue is snappy, and even if the central premise is somewhat familiar, the book is still entertaining. Basically, it’s Doctor Manhattan. They turn on the supercollider, something goes wrong, and Dolan turns into Doctor Manhattan. But there’s been a sort of plot leading up to that point, and the novel after the event is pretty much Dolan repeatedly resolving the after-effects of switching on the supercollider – or, at least, one particular after-effect. The end, however, is surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works – The Comeback of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Reappearance of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Return of the Return of the Incredible Exploding Man? Anyway, worth reading.


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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Must. Stop. Buying. Books…

Maybe I should make it a New Year’s Resolution or something. I did recently go chasing down my teen years by buying role-playing magazines and supplements from the 1980s that I remembered fondly, which at least are not books… But that’s no solution. And actually a little bit depressing, when you think about it. Anyway, the following book-shaped objects containing many thousands of words landed chez moi during the past month or so.

I’m so shallow I’ll buy anything if you make it look like a set. And get unreasonably enraged when you stop making it a set – like publishers who completely change the cover design of a trilogy when they publish the last book. Argh. I shall be forever grateful to Gollancz for not numbering their relaunched SF Masterworks series. Because if they were numbered, I would have to buy them, even the ones I already have in the old series. OTOH, Gollancz: Alastair Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Argh. This is perfectly normal behaviour, of course. Anyway, NewCon Press, an excellent small press, have over the last couple of years been publishing quartets of novellas which share a single piece of cover art split across the four books. This is the fourth such quartet, subtitled “Strange Tales” – The Land of Somewhere Safe, Matryoshka, The Lake Boy and Ghost Frequencies – and I’ve enjoyed those I’ve read so far.

Some recent, and not so recent, genre fiction. Europe at Dawn is the fourth book of the excellent Fractured Europe series. I don’t know if this is the last book. I hope not. Kim Stanley Robinson is an author whose books I buy in hardback; hence, Red Moon. A desire to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books came over me when I saw The Books of Earthsea advertised, so I got myself a copy. It’s a humongous book, and not a comfortable size to read, but the contents are definitely worth it. Yaszek’s name I already know from Galactic Suburbia, which I read as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Recently, she’s been involved in a couple of projects to signal-boost early sf by women writers, much as SF Mistressworks has done, and Sisters of Tomorrow, an anthology, is one of them. Ignore the copy of Without A Summer, which sneaked its way into the photo. I thought I’d bought it recently, but I actually purchased it about three months ago. The Quantum Magician I have to review for Interzone.

Here we have a couple of bandes dessinées. Distant Worlds Episode 1 is another, er, episode in Léo’s long-running science fiction story which began with Aldebaran (see here). I admit I’m not entirely sure on the chronology of Léo’s series, given there are half a dozen or so separate stories, and no real indication of which follows which. But this one appears to have been written by someone else, Icar, although I still think it’s set in the same universe. Inside Moebius, Part 3 is, er, the third volume of Inside Moebius, containing books 5 and 6 of the original French edition. It’s one for fans of Moebius – and who isn’t one? – and not much use without the two earlier volumes.

I’ve been a fan of Shariann Lewitt’s fiction since finding a copy of her debut novel, Angel at Apogee, in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I subsequently hunted down copies of her other novels. Initially, she was SN Lewitt (see what I did there?), but with Memento Mori, her fifth novel, she became Shariann Lewitt. I bought a paperback copy back when it was published in 1995, but always fancied upgrading it to a hardback. Sadly, her seventh novel, Rebel Sutra, published in 2000, appears to have been her last. Cherryh is another author I’ve upgraded to hardback– Actually, no, that’s not strictly true. I read a lot of Cherryh during the 1980s, back when she was pretty much ubiquitous on the sf shelves of UK high street book shops. And then in the 1990s, when I was living in the UAE, I started buying her books in hardback as soon as they appeared. But when I returned to the UK, I stopped doing that… And then I discovered eBay, and started picked up hardback copies of her back-catalogue. Some of which were published in signed limited editions by Phantasia Press, like this one: Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

A copy of The History of American Deep Submersible Operations popped up on eBay for kof kof £95. And even though I fancied it, that was too much. But then I discovered that all the other copies I could find were £400+ and, well, then it suddenly turned into a bargain. So I, er, bought it. Owner’s Workshop Manual: NASA Mercury is one of a range of excellent books on spacecraft by Haynes, who have branched out from cars to covering everything from the Death Star to Pies. Yes, honestly. I admire Delany a great deal. He’s probably one of the cleverest writers and critics the genre has produced, and while I probably like the idea of his fiction more than I actually like his fiction – although Dhalgren remains a favourite novel – I suspect I also like the idea of Delany more than I do reading his non-fiction. But I’m determined to give it a go. Hence, In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany Volume 1 1957 – 1969. Which had sat on my wishlist for over a year before finally shaming me into putting it into my basket. I’ve no idea when volume 2 will appear, or if indeed it ever will (Delany is not very good at producing sequels). And yes, I’ve read The Motion of Light in Water. And I have a copy Times Square Red, Times Square Blue on its way to me…

Some secondhand books. The Lung is not an easy book to find – or, at least, those few copies that can be found are not cheap, especially not for a 1970s paperback. But this one was more reasonably-priced than other copies I’ve seen. And in really good condition. A Trick of the Light, which is Faulks’s first novel, on the other hand… I’ve seen copies on eBay priced between £300 and £400, which is way more than I’d pay for a book I’m not desperate to own. So I was pretty chuffed when I found this copy for £35 from a US-based seller on abebooks.co.uk. Bargain. How to be Both and A Handful of Dust were charity shop finds. (The part of the city where I live, by the way, has around a dozen charity shops. In fact, my local high street is charity shops, discount food shops and cash converters. Welcome to Tory Britain.)

I asked my mother, who is a regular browser in charity shops, to keep an eye open for books by William Golding or Evelyn Waugh. The only Golding she could find was Lord of the Flies, which I already have. But she did find a bunch of Waugh: The Loved One, Vile Bodies, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, Work Suspended and Black Mischief. I should ask her to look for some female writers for me, like Manning, Taylor, Lehman, West, Bowen, Ertz, Frankau and so on.

On my way back from Leeds last week, I caught a black cab home from the station. The route goes along Shalesmoor, a road I’ve travelled along hundreds of times – and walked it many times too on my way from the tram stop to the Shakespeare pub. This time I noticed a new shop, the Kelham Island Bookshop. So the next day I went and checked it out. And found Decline and Fall and When the Going was Good, and The Pyramid and Pincher Martin. The shop has an excellent selection of secondhand books. And they sell vinyl too. I asked how long they’d been open. Since last July I was told. I’ve been along that road I don’t know how many times in the past five months, and never spotted the shop. Shows how observant I am. Sigh.

I nearly forgot. Three more of the Heinmann Phoenix Edition DH Lawrence Books: The Complete Short Stories Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3. I already had two of them, but these came as a set and the two I already owned aren’t in as good condition as these. That means I now have twenty-one of, I think, twenty-six books. Why collect these when I have a full set of the white Penguin paperbacks? Well, aside from the fact it’s a set, the Phoenix Edition does include some books not in the white Penguiun editions, and vice versa.


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Reading diary 2018, #2

Okay, we’re just about a month into 2018 and it’s already proving a better reading year than 2017. Of course, the real test is keeping it going for 12 months… One of the other things I’d like to do, reading-wise, in 2018, beside read fiction from other countries, is to try and increase that 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count at the bottom of each of these posts. I’m not good on the classics, I need to read more of them. Would you believe I’ve only ever read one book by Charles Dickens? And while I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novel (except Emma), I’ve never read anything by a Brontë.

Meanwhile, some recently-published and recently-read fiction…

Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). I’m not entirely convinced by tor.com’s line of novellas if only because they like to suggest they either saved the novella or created the current market for them. Small presses have been publishing novellas for decades. Which is not to say tor.com are doing a bad thing. I like novellas so I can’t fault tor.com’s mission. True, many of the novellas they’ve published have not been to my taste – and one or two have, I feel, been lauded far more than they deserve – but … one or two of them have been entirely to my taste. Like this one. Dave Hutchinson is a friend but I also think his soon-to-be-more-than-a-trilogy of Europe books is excellent. Acadie, however, is much closer to heartland sf. The narrator is the president of the Writers, a group outlawed because of their experimentation on the human genome. He was a famous whistleblower and was recruited by them. When the Writers learn their hideout may have been discovered, they kick into action a plan to abandon the star system and settle elsewhere. The narrator is one of several people left behind to oversee the withdrawal and ensure the Writers are not tracked to their new home. But what he learns calls into question everything he knows. Okay, so the big twist isn’t that hard to spot, and while I’m no fan of first-person narratives, it’s hard to see how this story would work in third-person. If I have one complaint, it’s the depictions of the Writers’ society are both a little extreme, which undermines the point they’re trying to make. But otherwise, this is good stuff. It may well make the BSFA Award shortlist.

Orbital 7: Implosion, Pellé & Runberg (2017, France). Cinebook have been doing an excellent job introducing well-known bandes dessinées to the UK market, but my interest lies pretty much exclusively in the sf titles, such as Valerian and Laureline and this one, Orbital. The series follows the adventures of a human and Sandjarr, both mavericks, who were once members of their respective races’ diplomatic corps. Humanity lost a war to the Sandjarrs and hate them, so the first couple of volumes were chiefly concerned with normalising relations between the pair. But now they’re pretty much partners, and it’s a wider conspiracy seeking to undermine the human-Sandjarr alliance which provides the stories. Neuronomes, giant sentient ships which were instrumental in saving the galaxy in the previous two-volume story, have been mysteriously blowing themselves up, killing millions of people. Caleb and Mezoke are on the alien space station of Tetsuam, trying to track down a clue to what is affecting the Neuronomes. This may be the start of a new story, but it makes little or no sense without knowledge of the earlier six volumes. Which are worth reading anyway. Good stuff.

The Rift, Nina Allan (2016, UK). There’s no doubt that Allan is one of the more interesting genre writers the UK has produced in the past few years. She came out of slipstream and dark fantasy and has moved into science fiction, and her beginnings very much flavour her stories. The Rift is only her second try at novel-length, and even then her first, The Race, felt more like three novellas badly welded together than it did a novel… which sort of makes The Rift Allan’s first successful attempt at novel-length fiction. Because the one thing The Rift is… is a much more coherent narrative than The Race. (To be fair, the lack of coherence was a feature of The Race‘s narrative, it just didn’t quite work for me.) The problem I have with The Rift, and it’s fairly minor, is that I can’t decide if it’s stunningly clever, or just very clever with accidental elements of stunning cleverness. Obviously, I’d like to believe the former, but I’m also all too aware of how writers can unwittingly include more in their fiction than they realise. The plot in a nutshell: Selena’s sister, Julie, disappeared twenty years ago, assumed to have been a victim of a serial killer caught at that time, but now she has re-appeared and claims to have spent much of the two decades on an alien world she accidentally reached through a “rift”. The alien world feels like something which might have been invented for a 1970s science fiction novel, internally rigorous but also strangely familiar. It didn’t help, for me, that some of the invented names sounded like places in Denmark (Nooraspoor = Nørreport?). The big question is: did Julie really spend her time there, or has she made it up? And The Rift refuses to commit to one or the other. Is Julie perhaps an imposter? The final section of the novel seems to suggest as much, but Serena refuses to believe it, on more than sufficient evidence. The beauty of The Rift is that refusal to commit. It’s a lovely piece of writing – but that’s not unexpected for Allan – but it’s also a coherent straight-through narrative, enlivened with a few tricks such as changes of tense or person or POV, and it’s because the story is a neat contained whole, so to speak, that the narrative’s refusal to commit to a truth is so striking. It’s a novel that stays with you, not just because of the story it tells but because of the way it tells its story. It is, without a doubt, Allan’s best work yet.

My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015, USA). I nominated this for a BSFA Award in 2016 based on a read of the first few chapters… but I never got around to finishing the book off. Which I have now done. And it deserved that nomination. Which, sadly, came to nothing anyway. Inspired by the sight of a mannequin’s head in a basket of tat at a flea market, Wosk began researching female automatons, both historical and fictional. But not just mechanical ones, or indeed magical ones from mythology. She discusses Eliza Doolittle, for example, as well as several early genre stories about mechanical women. The book then goes on to cover mechanical women in films of the 1920s and 1930s, then films and television of the decades following, before moving onto actual female robots. If you consider the robot trope in science fiction as a signifier for slavery, or for at the very least for “invisible” domestics, then it’s no great stretch to see artificial women as little more than a signifier for deep misogyny. Artificial women are, after all, above all biddable. They are the ultimate in male gaze, mirrors of the male gaze in fact; so it’s little wonder they’ve proven popular in genre. Of course, there are those examples which subvert the trope – at the end of Pygmalion, Eliza is her own woman and no longer Higgins’s toy; in Metropolis, the robot Maria is used to foment revolt among the workers; in Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, Ossi Oswalda’s impersonation of a doll sees her take control of the story… If there’s a weakness to My Fair Ladies, although it is a fascinating read, it’s that it doesn’t cover much written science fiction, covering only early genre stories and then films and television. When you consider the use of artificial women in written sf since WWII, and especially in the past couple of decades… the trope is even more pernicious, such as the title character of the awful The Windup Girl. There are no female Pinocchios. At least, there are none written by men. Madeline Ashby’s vN features a female robot as a protagonist, but she’s on the run after breaking free of her safety protocols. Jennifer Pelland’s Machine is a much more interesting work, although it is about a woman who has been decanted into a robot body while her human body is treated for a fatal condition. The treatment of artificial women in science fiction is, of course, a consequence of the treatment of women in science fiction – both in narratives and in the real world. And while women have always been writing science fiction, it’s a trope they’ve not typically made use of, and so it’s been developed almost exclusively by male writers. I would like to see that change.

Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I bought this when it was first published, so it’s taken me nearly eight years to get around to reading it. And I’m a big fan of Crowley’s writing. Oops. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Endless Things, which I bought in 2007, chiefly because I want to reread Ægypt (AKA The Solitudes), Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania first… But: Four Freedoms, which is entirely unrelated and not even genre. The title refers to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: 1 freedom of speech, 2 freedom of worship, 3 freedom from want, and 4 freedom from fear. It is is set during WWII and chiefly concerns people who work at an aircraft factory in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The bomber these people are building is the B-30 Pax, but it’s clearly an analogue of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which did not see service during WWII (but from 1949 to 1959, to be precise) and was one of the great Cold War bombers of the US. Only 384 were built, but the novel claims 500 of its “B-30″s were built. Crowley mentions in an afterword that he didn’t intentionally model the B-30 on the B-36 and only later discovered the Pax / Peacemaker synchronicity and that the B-36 had been damaged by a cyclone at Fort Worth echoing events in his novel. I believe him – you don’t put “wow synchronicity!” notes in your afterword unless that’s what they were. The actual story of Four Freedoms is that of female and disabled members of the US workforce during WWII. The novel focuses on the factory which builds the B-30, but tells the story of several characters, introducing them and then telling their back-story through flashback. It’s a beautiful piece of writing – effortlessly readable, effortlessly convincing. I had forgotten how good Crowley is. I really ought to get started on my read of Endless Things

Autumn, Ali Smith (2016, UK). This was my first Ali Smith. I know her name, of course, although she has appeared on my radar more often recently as her fiction of the last few years seems to be borderline genre. Or rather, is genre but not published as such. And Autumn seems to be a case in point. Although to be fair, had it been published as genre, it would have generated no end of complaints and killed Smith’s career as a genre writer. Happily, it was published as lit fic, and those of us not so tied to space opera, mil sf, grimdark, etc. we can read nothing else, can enjoy it as genre. The novel opens with a man on a beach who appears to be in some sort of afterlife, and then abruptly shifts to the life of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer. As a child she had made friends with her neighbour, an OAP called Daniel, who had been a songwriter. Years later, she discovers he is terminally ill and begins visiting him in his nursing home. At which point she realises that he is the only man she has ever loved, despite their great difference in ages, and that has affected all her relationships. The narrative bounces back and forth through time, telling each character’s story, and introducing Pauline Boty, a female British Pop artist, whose works and contributions have been criminally forgotten (in real life, that is). She was Daniel’s one great love, although she was married and did not return his feelings – but because of her, Daniel could not love Elisabeth. Much is made in reviews of the book’s post-Brexit setting, but to anyone who has lived in the North after a decade of the Tories’ criminal Austerity it seems pretty much what life in the UK is like now. I’m not sure about Smith’s prose. It seemed at first a little OTT, and some of the stream of consciousness sections seemed to serve little purpose. I’ll read more by Smith, I think, but I’m not about to dash out and read everything she has written.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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New Year spend

Christmas comes but once a year, but you can click on the “buy” button or wander into a bookstore on any day of the year…

To start, some Christmas presents. Having been impressed by Charnock’s other novels, especially Dreams Before the Start of Time (see here), I’m looking forward to reading her debut, A Calculated Life. I “discovered” Henry Green only a year or two, but I’m steadily working my way through his oeuvre; Pack My Bag is an autobiography, written because Green didn’t think he’d survive WWII (he did). I bought the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, because it was on offer for £2.00, and thought it quite good; so I bunged The Obelisk Gate on my wish list.

Further additions to some bandes dessinées series I’ve been reading for several years. Volume 20 The Order of the Stones and Volume 21 The Time Opener are actually the end of the Valerian and Laureline series; there’s a volume 22, but it looks more like a B-sides sort of collection. Orbital 7: Implosion is the start of a new two-part story, although it does follow on from Orbital 6: Resistance.

Some recent science fiction. I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first one, An Exchange of Hostages, so I was pleased when they started again recently; Fleet Insurgent is a collection of short stories and novelettes set in the universe. Not every novella tor.com has published has been to my taste – in fact, most of them haven’t been – but Acadie is good solid contemporary sf, with a neat twist; also, the author is a friend and I like his writing. The Smoke is Simon Ings’s last novel, and I’m reviewing it for Interzone.

A selection of first editions. A few years ago I started reading some examples of post-war fiction by British women writers, and I’ve been a fan of the writing of both Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor for several years, but I’ve always wanted to try something beyond the handful of writers I read back then – hence, Devices & Desires by E Arnot Robertson, not to be confused with, er, Devices & Desires by Susan Ertz (see here). Many years ago I read a handful of novels by Philip Boast – they were all very similar, with plots based around secret histories of the UK, chiefly secret religious histories, but I really liked them and fancied reading more by him; The Assassinators is his debut novel and was a lucky, and cheap, find on eBay. Eye Among the Blind was Rob Holdstock’s first novel, and I’ve been intending to pick up a first edition copy for ages… so I was especially happy to find a signed one. The Two of Them I found cheap on eBay from a UK-based seller.

Some charity shop finds. I’ve never read any Ali Smith, although I’ve heard many people speak approvingly of her work; Autumn even looks like it might be genre. I keep an eye open for McCarthy’s novels when I find them, so Suttree was a happy find. And while I can take or leave Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is about underwater exporation, so it’ll be interesting seeing what Sir Arthur made of it.

I’m not sure how to describe this one. I found it on eBay, from a German seller, and since I’m a fan of James Benning’s films I couldn’t resist it. Although titled (FC) Two Cabins by JB, it seems to include essays on other works by Benning and not just that one. I didn’t pay anywhere near the price currently being asked on Amazon…


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2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

books
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.


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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Reading diary, #48

I’m still struggling with my reading, and slipping further behind on my Goodreads challenge. It’s not the books I’ve been choosing to read, because most of them I’ve enjoyed and thought good, and none were hard work to get through. I love books, I love reading, and I want to read as many books as I possibly can. So I’m going to have to get back into it somehow… The books are a bit male-heavy this time around. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a short run on books by male authors. Ah well, it’ll balance out in the end.

The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK). Keiller is a film-maker, best-known for London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, which are excellent lightly fictionalised cinematic meditations on the state of the UK, both economically and politically. He’s a bit like Adam Curtis, but without the found footage and global conspiracies. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet was published to accompany an exhibition of Keiller’s work – which I never saw as I only discovered his work after it had been on – and describes how Keiller went about making Robinson in Ruins, his thought processes as he wrote the script and what inspired him. It’s fascinating stuff. And you should definitely watch the films too.

Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book of the trilogy, but there’s apparently a fourth book in the works. Which is no bad thing, as it’s been an excellent series so far – and I’m not the only person to think so, as Europe in Winter won the BSFA Award only last month (although, bafflingly, it didn’t make the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; should I blog what I think of this year’s Clarke shortlist, or are we not allowed to have dissenting opinions any more?). It’s more of the same like Europe in Autumn, rather than Europe at Midnight, and in part follows on from the plot of the first more than that second. There’s a terrorist attack on the Line, and Rudi discovers his own father was heavily involved with a bunch of rogue topographers from the 1920s who might or might not have been responsible for an entirely separate pocket universe that might or might not be part of the Community. The person who promised so much in the the second book is assassinated from a distance in this one, abruptly cutting off that particular avenue of exploration by the narrative… Where these books are especially good – and it’s not the melding of sf and spy thriller, which has been done before, although no examples spring immediately to mind – but these books’ true strength is in depicting Europe as a coherent federation of cultures. They’re not entirely harmonious cutures, which is hardly unexpected, but the Europe books exhibit a magnificent sense of place. They could not have been written by a US author, that much is obvious; it’s slightly surprising they were written by a Brit… because the best European fiction has always been written by continental Europeans, not Brits. It’s an impressive achievement, which means cavilling over elements of the plots seems, well, cheap. But there are holes – the opening bombing is never satisfactorily explained, there’s always a sense the author is following a different agenda to his characters (and his readers must follow the characters’, of course), and there are one or two set-pieces which hint at a level of technology that’s never quite capitalised upon. But these are are minor quibbles. These are great books, superior near-future sf, and I’d put them in the top five of recent near-fututre sf with, er, Ken McLeod’s Intrusion – and that’s about it. Go read all three books.

Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling (2016, USA). Which a lot of people probably don’t know about as it seems someone fucked up the Nielsen data entry so badly that Amazon lists the book as by John Coulthart, Rick Klaw and Warren Ellis, and doesn’t mention Bruce Sterling anywhere. But now you know about it, and being a fan of Sterling’s work… Apparently, after World War I, the city of Fiume, now Rijeka, was claimed by both Italy and the recently-formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. But a group of anarchists, led by the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, seized power and declared the independent Regency of Carnaro. The city became something of a social experiment, but the fascists seized control after a couple of years and Fiume was annexed by Italy. Sterling’s short novel makes much of the birth of Futurism – indeed, the major character dreams of building “air torpedoes” and such, the sort of technology displayed in Lang’s Metropolis. But Pirate Utopia is also about the birth of fascism in Italy, and how it gained traction among the establishment. Of course, we’re seeing that happen on a daily basis here in the UK and the US. Pirate Utopia is a fascinating piece of history, but… as a piece of writing it felt a little lacking. Sterling was never much of a stylist, but I remember novels such as Distraction and Holy Fire being well-written novels. Pirate Utopia, on the other hand, seems to be written entirely in simple declarative sentences, which makes all feel a bit dumbed-down. I get that there’s a lot going on in the book, but it does feel a little Like Sterling didn’t trust his readers and so kept it simple. I suspect this is one for fans.

Bleed Like Me, Cath Staincliffe (2013, UK). I was a big fan of the Scott & Bailey TV series – and certainly for at least the first two series (or “seasons”, for US readers) it was superior telly. It slipped a bit in the third, and while it’s still very good it has seemed to lose its way a bit. And, to be honest, the 2016 series consisted only of three episodes, none of which were hugely memorable. The books are, sadly, much the same. I like that they’re built around the series, and include details revealed in the programme, but they’re otherwise straightforward police procedurals, heavy on the procedural and personal life of the two title characters (one of the series’ strengths, it must be said). In this book, a pub owner kills his wife, daughter and brother-in-law and then flees with his young son. The rest of the book is a manhunt – this is not a murder-mystery. They know who committed the crime, they just have to find him before he kills the young child he has with him. Meanwhile, Bailey is still trying to get over her relationaship with, and attempted murder by, her ex-boyfriend. Scott is having problems at home, which is not helped by her fling with a colleague, and syndicate leader Murray is worried about her son who has moved in with his estranged father and no longer seems interested in going to university. To be honest, I was expecting more in the way of plot. The manhunt is really dragged out, and reading this several years, and several series, after it was written, and so all the subplots have been resolved, kind of spoiled it a bit. But they’re easy reads, I like the characters, and if I stunble across the next one in a charity shop I’ll probably buy it and read it.

Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, Robin Scott Wilson, ed. (1973, USA). I found this at Eastercon, and while it was quite tatty, and most of the contents wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but the fact it was a mix of short stories followed by essays by the authors on writing those stories, and some of the names involved included Delany, Le Guin and Russ, so I thought it worth a bash. It also included a story by the editor. I don’t get that. If you edit an anthology, you do not include one of our own stories. It’s hugely unethical. I don’t even care if you’re a co-editor. You edit, you do not contribute. It  makes you look bad, it makes everyone involved in the anthology look bad. And Scott Wilson’s story in this particular anthology, which is otherwise quite good, is easily the worst. As it is, the stories are variable – the Russ, ‘The Man Who Could Not See Devils’, is not one of her better ones, but the following essay is quite interesting. The Delany is ‘We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line’, which has always felt to me, in part, like a prototype for Dhalgren, and is one of those Delany stories I like more the more often I read it. His essay on the piece is especially good, and his approach to writing echoes my own in many ways. Le Guin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, the story about a ten-clone, and it’s okay. Damon Knight annotates his own story, ‘Masks’, although annotations overstate the literary quality of the story. And Kate Wilhelm’s dissection of her story ‘The Planners’ gives some useful tips on point of view. As a sf anthology, Those Who Can is middling at best, but the essays on writing greatly improve it. It’s a pity my copy is so tatty.

The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). I read Ouředník’s Europeana back in 2006, after something in the blurb persuaded me I might enjoy it. I loved it. I even picked it as one of my top five books of the year. I was less enamoured of his Case Closed, although it was good enough for me to continue to read him. The Opportune Moment, 1855, despite its unwieldy title, is not as good as Europeana, but it’s still huge fun. The novel opens with a letter from an Italian in 1902 to his beloved, before moving back half a century to the titular year and the journal of an Italian anarchist who travels to Brazil with a group of like-minded souls – well, not entirely like-minded, as they bicker and argue throughout the trip – to join a utopian community called Fraternitas. The book then jumps to six months after their arrival, and gives four slightly different entries on the first few months in the community. In each of them, the community fails because of the failings of its members; and while it makes for good satire to poke fun at idealism, not everyone is venal and corrupt despite all their protestations of high ideals. Ouředník is definitely worth reading, and The Opportune Moment, 1855, is very good, but it does feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and even though the book is very funny in parts, and very good on human nature, I prefer my utopian fiction with a happy ending. Oh, and I’d really like to see more of Ouředník’s fiction translated into English.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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All the awards that’s fit to print

I found myself completely uninterested in genre awards this year, despite being nominated for two last year (and it’s not like I had anything eligible for any of this year’s awards anyway – well, my one published piece was a spoof coda to the Apollo Quartet, but it was probably unreadable unless you’d actually read the quartet). I suppose my indifference is partly a result of the lacklustre shortlists generated by the various awards last year. But there’s also the increasing disconnect between what the awards mean and the works they’re rewarding. Yes, yes, popular choice wins popularity contest, news at ten and all that. And, true, there’s always been a bit of personality cult about the popular vote awards, which is why so few people keep on winning so many awards, and currently it’s a different set of faces to those of ten or even twenty years ago. A more diverse set of faces, which is good, but given the size of the field these days it would not be unreasonable to expect more variety.

And then there’s the way social media has completely fucked up awards, not to mention the cutting back on promotion by publishers which has normalised the sort of grasping self-promotion bullshit, as epitomised by elegibility posts, that is now common. There may have been an element of awards going to people not to works in the past, but now it’s pretty much nakedly out there.

I suspect I’m not alone in my apathy. I saw almost no conversation about the BSFA Award longlist, and last year’s Clarke Award was notable for its lack of commentary…

Which neatly leads into a recent development which plans to address that last: the Clarke Award Shadow Jury, put together by Nina Allan and hosted online by the Anglia Rusking University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Shadow juries are nothing new – hell, we even have a Shadow Cabinet in our government – although I think this is the first time it’s been done for a genre award. And it’s a really strong shadow jury – I actually know more people on it than I do on the actual Clarke Award jury – and I’m looking forward to seeing their thoughts on the books that have been submitted (there’s a list of submissions here).

A quick scan down that submission list, and I can see a number of interesting books… but I can also see a lot of commercial crap that I hope gets nowhere near the shortlist.

And speaking of shortlists… the BSFA Award shortlist has now been announced. And there are some… odd choices. (And they still haven’t sorted out whether it’s named for the year of elegibility or the year the award ceremony takes place. It’s fucked up at least two year’s worth of trophies in the past. It’s not difficult. Fix it.) I understand the BSFA has around 800 members (yes, I’m one of them), and few of them actually bother nominating or voting. I mean, I’m sure Adam Roberts: Critical Essays is an excellent book, but I doubt more than a handful of people have read it – and yet two of the essays in it have made the non-fiction shortlist. And I count six appearances of NewCon Press across the four shortlists.

But the big one is the novel shortlist, and it looks like this:

The Beckett is the third book of a trilogy, the first of which won the Clarke Award in 2013, and both books one and two were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The Chambers is also a sequel, and the first book seemed to make every English-language genre award shortlist in existence… except the BSFA Award. Europe in Winter is the third book of a trilogy, and both books one and two were previously shortlisted for the BSFA Award (and the Clarke Award). Sullivan has made the BSFA Award twice previously, in 2004 and 2011, and Occupy Me is her first sf novel since that 2011 nomination. Azanian Bridges is Wood’s first novel.

Quality of the various books aside, that’s an unadventurous shortlist. Seriously, two book threes from trilogies, of which all the previous installments were also shortlisted? True, some of those earlier volumes have also been picked by Clarke Award juries. Yes, I know, small pool of voters, large field, familiar names – and even faces, as half of the shortlist regularly attend the Eastercon (members of the convention also get to vote on the shortlist). And yes, the nominees are good people (and some of them are friends of mine). But I’m not voting for them, I’m voting for the work.

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The BSFA Award is a popular vote award, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the same old names keep on cropping up. I look to juried awards to give a better indication of what’s good in the genre in a particular year. But I also remember when the BSFA Award actually used to be a pretty good barometer of what was good in the British sf field in a year. Not so much for the short fiction category, that was always a bit of a crapshoot, but certainly the novel category. And now I find myself wondering: when did that stop being true? I don’t doubt the books shortlisted this year are good books – well, except for the Chambers, as I wasn’t at all impressed by A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – since I’ve read and enjoyed those earlier installments by Beckett and Hutchinson, and have heard good things about the Sullivan and Wood. But I can also see several novels on the longlist (see here) that were more than good enough to make the shortlist. Even then, only thirty-five novels were longlisted. Thirty-five! The Clarke Award submission list is eighty-six novels. (And only twenty-seven nominations in the BSFA Award short fiction category!).

I honestly don’t see the point of awards for short fiction anymore – I wrote as much in an editorial for Interzone back in 2015. I get that awards are a celebration, but what exactly are we celebrating? Back in the day, sf was a ghetto, and it was all reverse snobbery elitism. Awards were an affirmation of that. But it’s been open season on sf tropes now for several decades, and science fiction is still playing the same old game. And this during a period when the field has exploded, not only all over the internet, with way more fiction venues out there now than there were twenty or thirty years ago, but also serious efforts to bring non-Anglophone sf to Anglophone audiences. It’s almost becoming axiomatic that the only people reading genre short fiction these days are other writers of genre short fiction. Sf has always been self-fertilising, it’s one of the genre’s strengths, but that’s ridiculous.

They’ve tried revamping the BSFA Award a couple of times over the last few years, but I’m not convinced their changes have had much impact. For what it’s worth, I think they should drop the short fiction and non-fiction categories, institute a new award for non-fiction/criticism separate from the BSFA Awards, and limit the BSFA Award to best sf novel published in print in the UK and best piece of sf artwork to appear in print in the UK. But leave the definitions of genre up to the voters. No longlist or two-stage nomination process. Just keep it simple. December and the following January each year to nominate five novels and five pieces of artwork each. Top five in either category makes it to the shortlist. Then it’s business as usual: voting and an awards ceremony at the Eastercon. Let’s not just celebrate science fiction, let’s celebrate science fiction in the UK. And with the most visible forms of it – novels, which appear in book shops; and art, which can be plastered all over the internet. That sounds horribly Brexit-ish, which is not my intention at all – I voted Remain, and am hugely pissed off by all this Brexit shit – but the fact remains that when you’re addressing a parochial electorate it’s best to keep it parochial. And let’s not forget that authors from many other nations get published in the UK (although perhaps not as many non-Anglophone ones as we’d like).

I started out this post documenting my apathy toward genre awards, and ended up getting a bit excited about what they could be. And I guess it’s that disconnect, that sense of disillusionment, that fuels my annual awards annoyance. But in the world we have today, and all the shit that’s going to go down in 2017, praying for an asteroid strike is too much of a long shot. And, short of causing every Nazi newsaper in the UK to spontaneously combust, or Corbett and May to give the finger to the Nazi cabal pulling all the strings, we can at least do something positive in the world of science fiction and make a proper job of this celebration-type thing we call an award.


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Unwrapped

Christmas is now over and, as he does every year, Santa brought me some books. But I’d also bought some for myself in the weeks leading up to the festivities and since my last book haul post…

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I managed to find a couple more of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy books on eBay – The Haunted Woman, Aladore and The Roots of the Mountain – which are numbers 4, 5 and 19 respectively. Still got a way to go yet, however…

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A trio of secondhand sf novels. I’m currently reading Heart of Stone for SF Mistressworks. I have the sequel, Wayward Moon, somewhere as well. Soldier of Another Fortune finally completes my Destiny Makers quintet. I used to correspond with Shupp back in the 1990s, but we lost touch. And The Princes of the Air is a book I’ve often heard spoken of approvingly, but it’s been hard to find.

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From the Christmas holiday: Santa brought me Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor; the writer, not the actress) and the second book of My Struggle, A Man in Love. I bought Starlight and Saga Volume 1 in Faraos Cigarer, the former because it looked interesting and the latter because lots of people have praised it.

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Three collectibles… The copy of Whipping Star is the first UK hardback edition, but it wasn’t published until 1979, nine years after the US first edition (the first UK edition was a paperback in 1972). Hogg I’d wanted for a while but first editions are hard to find. One eventually popped up on eBay. The Iron Tactician is a new signed and numbered novella from NewCon Press.

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Some new books, just to prove I do read them. Having been impressed by Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight, I was certainly going to get a copy of Europe in Winter. Golden Hill I stumbled across in Waterstone’s while purchasing Sebastian Faulks’s latest, Where My Heart Used to Beat (not pictured, because I read it over Christmas and left it with my sister for her to read).