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The Bone Clocks and Slade House, David Mitchell

Despite being shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize, David Mitchell’s novels are not like most other literary fiction novels for two reasons: first, characters from one book often appear in other books; and secondly, many of his novels feature genre tropes and situations. In his debut, Ghostwritten (1999), one of the narrators proves to be a disembodied spirit who can move from body. Cloud Atlas (2004), has two of its six sections set in the future: one a near-future dystopian Korea, the other a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. While it’s not unusual for literary fiction authors to visit genre shores, Mitchell has shown a greater appreciation of, and a better facility with, gene tropes than most of his peers. But then he is a fan and has publicly said as much. And in The Bone Clocks, and its pendant novel, Slade House, he has for the first time told an actual genre story, albeit in the language of literary fiction.

The Bone Clocks is structured as six novellas, most of which are told from the point of view of Holly Sykes. The novel opens in 1984, Holly is a teenager, grief-stricken at the recent death of her younger brother. She decides to run away from home, and makes it halfway across Kent before running afoul of the story’s villains. These villains harken back to earlier novels by Mitchell, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). That novel introduced the idea of secret immortals amongst us, and it is a war between two such groups which forms the backbone of The Bone Clocks. (You wait for a novel about secret immortals, and three come along at once: as well as The Bone Clocks, 2014 also saw the publication of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, while Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life appeared in 2013.) The Horologists are body-hopping serial reincarnators. Their enemies, however, the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, “decant” souls in order to extend their lives. The process is fatal to the decanted souls. Over the course of The Bone Clocks Holly has a number of run-ins with the Anchorites, beginning with that trip across Kent as a fifteen-year-old, and finishing in a post-Crash Ireland in 2043.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, the six sections of The Bone Clocks are not nested, but follow on chronologically one from the other. Like that earlier novel, however, they also display an excellent control of voice. The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes’s story and she’s an engaging and convincing character. Having said that, the Anchorites are a bit pantomime, enfant terrible literateur Crispin Hershey initially reads too much like a pastiche of a well-known UK author but soon rounds out, and the immortal Marinus never quite convinces. But these are minor gripes. The Bone Clocks handles its settings with impressive assurance and, more than any other of Mitchell’s novels, this is an insightful book.

Mitchell has said he intended each section of the novel to be a different genre – such as, 1980s social realism, war reportage, fantasy and dystopia, among others. It’s a given most of the really interesting genre fiction is being written in the area where genres meet, and Mitchell makes good use of the interfaces – the sudden irruption of fantasy into Holly’s adventures in Thatcherite Britain creates a shockingly effective introduction of The Bone Clocks’ underlying fantastical plot. In fact, those sections featuring this violent introduction of genre into literary fiction actually work better than those sections which are pure genre. Perhaps it’s a consequence of expectation; perhaps it’s simply the stark contrast between the two modes.

Slade House, on the other hand, makes no secret of its melding of genre and non-genre, although it tries to wrongfoot the reader by presenting its genre elements as “dream-like”. If the novel were a film or television series, it would be called a “spin-off”. Less than half the size of The Bone Clocks, Slade House echoes that novel’s multi-part structure – each set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015 – but takes place entirely in and around the eponymous residence. Each section is told from the point of view of a different person. The eponymous house is home to Norah and Jonah Grayer who, while not associated with The Bone Clocks’ Anchorites, have been using a similar method to extend their lives. Slade House’s narrators are the pairs’ victims.

In each section, the narrator investigates Slade Alley (for a variety of reasons), discovers a small iron door – an interdimensional “Aperture” – which gives entry to Slade House’s grounds, is initially taken in by the illusion woven by the Grayer twins… and is then consumed by them. This act is usually presaged by the sight of a portrait of the narrator at the end of a line of portraits on the main staircase – which is, to be honest, a somewhat cheesy horror film cliché. Slade House presents enough detail to invoke the year in which each section is set, but given that Slade House itself is timeless, this makes for an odd disconnect, often making the detail feel superfluous. Nor is it helped by the last but one section – 2006 – consisting chiefly of a history lesson of Norah and Jonah Grayer, and an explanation of the workings of the house and its grounds. It comes as no surprise to learn that the final section, set in 2015, is about the defeat of the Grayer twins – after the explanation, where else could the narrative go?

Fans of Mitchell’s fiction will have fun spotting characters from other of his novels, a number of which make an appearance in Slade House (as indeed do several in The Bone Clocks). I’ve yet to be convinced this actually adds value, given that the “shared universe” in which all of Mitchell’s novels are set is not a shared universe as the term is understood in genre fiction, but a much less rigorous use of the technique. In other words, they feel more like “Easter eggs” than a structural part of each book’s universe.

Unlike some genre fans, I have no problem with literary fiction authors “dabbling” (not my choice of word) in science fiction and fantasy. On the contrary, the more the merrier – and the lack of knowledge of genre traditions and history can actually prove an advantage to a writer. True, the results often feel a little old-fashioned to veteran readers of genre fiction, and a lack of confidence in deploying genre tropes can lead to unnecessary and clumsy exposition… David Mitchell, however, is a genre fan, he knows what he’s doing. And it shows.

Mitchell also knows what he’s doing when it comes to non-genre fiction. Genre writers make few concessions to their readers – they assume they know how to parse their stories and how genre tropes operate. They also trust their readers to understand the need for exposition. But there’s a limit. Up to this point, the writer needs to explain; and no further. Literary writers usually miscalculate this point and feel a need to explain those things which genre readers either already know about or are happy to take on trust. Likely this is because such writers are not entirely confident with how genre stories and tropes work, and they’re also unsure their readers will understand.

It’s clear Mitchell trusts his readers, both non-genre and genre – evident not only from his oeuvre, but also from his level of success. We need more writers like him. Both inside and outside the genre.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #261, November-December 2015.


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Awards time again

This is not a post listing what 2015 works of mine are eligible for genre awards. I disagree with the practice, I think it badly distorts the award-space, and it’s bending the entire field out of shape thanks to the stupid wrangling over who and what each of the awards actually represent. I’ve refused to post lists of my eligible works in the past, and I see even less of a reason to start doing it now.

However, I do vote in awards – well, one of them: the British Science Fiction Association Award. And I’ve been doing so for over twenty years. This year, there’s been a change to the process. Voters have until 31 December to nominate four works in each of the categories – novel, short fiction, non-fiction and art – in order to make up a long list. During January, voters will get to nominate four works from that long list to generate the short lists. Which will be voted on, and awarded, at the Eastercon in Manchester on the weekend of 25 to 28 March 2016.

Eligible works must have been published during 2015. Novels must have been published in the UK – unless they’re ebook only, in which case country of publication is irrelevant. There are no geographical restrictions on short fiction, non-fiction or art.

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According to my records, I have read only nine genre novels published during 2015. One of them I would like to nominate – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit – but it has yet to be published in the UK and so is ineligible. Of course, there’s no reason why I can’t nominate a book I’ve not read – I have until the end of January to read it, after all.

One novel I suspect will appear on a lot of ballots is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. It’s certainly been one of 2015’s high-profile releases. And Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the genre’s best authors. The book has received a great deal of praise. But. It didn’t work for me. For all the work he put into designing the ecology of his generation starship, the characters were completely flat and, despite the interesting commentary on narratology in the AI narrative, it all read to me like Californians in Spaaace. However, there was another generation starship novel published during 2015, by an author better known for writing epic fantasy: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While the narrative set aboard the spaceship was a little too trad to me, the spider-based civilisation which forms the core of the novel’s story was fascinating and brilliantly done. Children of Time will be taking one of my slots.

Then there’s Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I found this disappointing. I liked the first book, Ancillary Justice, very much – but it seems that was pretty much a prologue to the actual plot. Which, as resolved in Ancillary Mercy, was unsatisfyingly small-scale. There was also far too much talking about each character’s emotional state, to the extent it often overwhelmed the narrative. I won’t be nominating it.

David Mitchell’s Slade House was Mitchell being clever, which he does well, but was pretty slight – not to mention deploying a few too many horror clichés, or indeed being structured such that one entire section was pure exposition. Ilka Tampke’s Skin had much to recommend it, particularly its depiction of Roman Britain, but although not marketed as YA it read like it had been put together following YA story patterns – to its detriment. The less said about Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men, the better. Claire North’s Touch was based on an appealing premise – so appealing, in fact, it seems to have spontaneously appeared half a dozen times in the past couple of years; something in the water? – but its weak plot scuppered it. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was much, much better.

Among the 2015 books on my TBR are Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, the final book in Alastair Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Poseidon’s Wake, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, and Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden. I also plan to keep an eye on the recommendations of several other people, and if anything they mention takes my fancy then I’ll read it. For this first round of the BSFA Award at least, it’s worth putting in a speculative vote – ie, for a book you’ve not read but think might be award-worthy – rather than letting the vote go to waste.

As for short fiction… Every year, it gets to this time of year and I realise I’ve not been reading the short fiction published in various places, so I go and skim-read all the various magazines until I find something which takes my fancy. This year, however, I have at least one dead cert: A Day in Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter, a novella published by Aqueduct Press. That will be getting one of my slots. There’s also a David Herter story on tor.com, ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978‘, and I’m a big fan of Herter’s fiction. But we’ll see what comes of my high-speed trawl through 2015’s genre fiction over the next week or so…

I have two candidates for non-fiction – My Fair Ladies by Julie Wosk, a study of “female androids, robots and other artificial Eves”; and Adam Roberts’s Rave and Let Die, if only because I don’t want him to give up his genre criticism. Jonathan McClamont has written some excellent ‘Future Interrupted’ columns in Interzone during the year. Likewise Nina Allan and her ‘Time Pieces’ column. And there was an extended conversation back in July across the blogosphere, about science fiction and criticism and the history of science fiction, prompted by an article by Renay published by Strange Horizons, ‘Communities: Weight of History‘… which then led to ‘The Weight of History‘ by Nina Allan… which then intersected with Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘What Price Your Critical Agency?‘ and resulted in Maureen Kincaid Speller’s ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews‘. In a genre space in which corporate marketing and support network advocacy is bending fandom out of shape, this is an important sequence of articles, and some, if not all, deserve nominations.

Finally, there’s art… another category I tend to look for suitable nominees at the last minute. One of my nominations will go to Kay Sales for the cover art to All That Outer Space Allows, not only because it’s a lovely piece of design but because I think the cover designs for all four books (the second editions of the first two, plus three and four) are striking and worthy of an award. Interzone has continued to publish some excellent interior illustrations for its stories. I particularly liked Richard Wagner’s illustration for ‘The Worshipful Company of Milliners’ by Tendai Huchu and Vincent Sammy’s illustration for ‘Songbird’ by Fadzlishah Johanabas, both in #257. I’ve had a quick look at my bookshelves, and online, for cover art from genre books published in 2015… and failed to find any which particularly stood out. Except, perhaps, the cover art to Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, which is by Luis Lasahido. But I shall continue to look, in the hope I find enough candidates for my ballot before the end of the year.


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Reading diary, #15

Still not reading as much as I’d like – I’m currently seven books behind on the 150 book challenge, according to goodreads.com – but it’s not a bad spread in this post… Incidentally, I’m still alternative genders in my fiction reading, and it currently stands at 37% women writers, 33% men.

palefirePale Fire*, Vladimir Nabokov (1962). Though I’ve seen Kubrick’s Lolita, and Nabokov is hardly a name unfamiliar to me, I’d never actually read any of his books. So I’m always on the look-out for copies of his novels in charity days. Except he doesn’t seem to be an author whose books are discarded much. But I did find Pale Fire – in Harrogate, no less – so of course I snapped it up. The back-cover copy makes quite a meal of descrbing Pale Fire as “an extraordinary, uncategorizable book”, which might well have been true in 1962 but feels a bit like over-selling in the twenty-first century. The story is told in the form of an introduction to a narrative poem, then the poem itself, and followed by copious (more than copious) notes on the poem. The author of the introduction and notes is not the author of the poem, but claims to have been the poet’s closest friend in the year leading up to his murder. Two things occurred to me as I read the book: a) the poem is actually complete doggerel, and b) the narrative voice reminded me throughout of Adam Roberts’s prose (there’s a particular line, “The crickets cricked”, which felt like it could have come from any random Roberts story). Threaded throughout the notes is the commentator’s own history, which involves some sort of Mittel-Europa principality whose monarchy was violently overthrown. The Appalachian academia and the Ruritanian adventure make for interesting bedfellows, and the prissy prose fitted the story extremely well. I liked it a lot and I plan to read more Nabokov.

spyuzSoyuz: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David Baker (2014). Sadly, this is not an owners’ workshop manual for Soyuz spacecraft in the same form as the owners’ workshop manuals Haynes has been publishing for various cars for decades. It won’t teach you how to change a leaky valve or an oxygen tank. If your Soyuz breaks down in orbit, even if you have a copy of this book with you, you’re still pretty much fucked. It is, however, a pretty comprehensive look at Russian crewed spacecraft, from Vostok through Voskhod and the various iterations of Soyuz, in pretty impressive factual detail. I found it all fascinating, but I suspect the book will also prove to be a useful reference for any future stories I might write involving Soyuz space craft. There are similar Haynes manuals for Gemini, Space Shuttle, Lunar Rover and, er, Millennium Falcon.

silkwormThe Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (2014). I wasn’t that impressed with Rowling’s first pseudonymous crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, nor, as far as I remember, was anyone else. The book sold modestly, and received a handful of good reviews – which is pretty much what you would expect from a debut crime novel. Strange then, that the back cover of her second Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, boasts quotes about The Cuckoo’s Calling such as “One of the most unique and compelling detectives I’ve come across in years” and “One of the best crime novels I have ever read”… Which suggests crime fiction must be in dire straits, or Rowling’s name really does affect how people – even reviewers in newspapers – judge books. I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling somewhat padded, but The Silkworm at least feels like its the right length. It’s also about the publishing industry, something you’d imagine Rowling would know about since she is, after all, a best-selling author. The actual crime investigated by Cormoran Strike, however, seems more like something from an episode of CSI. A woman hires Strike to find her missing novelist husband, Owen Quine. He’s done it before, but his agent usually tracks him down quite quickly. But this time Quine seems to have really vanished. Making matters worse is the fact his new book is libellous (shades of Burgess’s The Worm & the Ring) and more or less unpublishable. It doesn’t Strike long to find Quine – or rather, his body. And his corpse has been mutilated in a manner which links back to his manuscript. There’s nothing startlingly original here – the plot moves on well-oiled wheels, the characters teeter on the brink of caricature but Galbraith manages to rein them in, and the prose is smooth and readable without being too literary for a crime novel or too commercial for those who prefer their crime novels to have some ambition. The novelists at the centre of the plot were all literary enfants terribles, and though mostly well-respected now their novels as described don’t much read like twenty-first century British literary fiction. Oh, and the title is a reference to Quine’s unpublishable novel, Bombyx Mori, which title only seems to exist because it justifies a particularly gruesome murder.

mortal_enginesMortal Engines, Stanisław Lem (1977). I somehow got it into my head I needed to read more Lem, but I suspect I like the idea of Lem more than I like the fiction of Lem. Which is not to say this collection of short stories is bad. But I can’t say I agree with the person who collated the collection, Michael Kandel, who loves Lem’s “robot fables” so much he chose to bring them all together into one book. Because while they’re clever little fairy tales, with one or two clever puns, they do get a bit wearying en masse. Happily, the book is rounded off with an Ijon Tichy story, a Pilot Pirx story, and one which is completely unrelated to the others in the book but is still about robots. This is not the best sf collection in the world, and even Lem’s snide bleakness can’t hide the datedness of some of the stories. I suspect this one might end up as a raffle prize at one of the pub meets some time next year…

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980). That’s a pretty awful title for a book that’s actually not that bad. Not as enjoyable as A Voice Out of Ramah (see here), but certainly not awful. A review to appear soon on SF Mistressworks.

slade_houseSlade House, David Mitchell (2015). I was sent an ARC of this by Interzone to review (they also wanted to send me a copy of The Bone Clocks, but I’d already bought one – using a voucher given to me by my employer as a reward for five years of service). Overall, I don’t think Slade House is as successful as The Bone Clocks, and that’s not just a consequence of its significantly shorter length. Mitchell’s trademark ventriloquism is in fine, er, voice, but the fifth of its six sections is almost pure exposition, some of the tropes are a bit cheesy, and the whole thing doesn’t add anything of note to the mythology of The Bone Clocks. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – Mitchell is a fine writer and always worth reading – but it is a little disappointing after last year’s epic.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 117


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Reading diary, #13

More books read. Not as many as I’d like. Especially when I see the size of the TBR…

bone_clocksThe Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014). According to my records, I read Cloud Atlas back in April 2009, likely as a result of recommendations by friends and acquaintances. I thought the novel good, but it didn’t quite gel for me. I then worked my way through Mitchell’s oeuvre – number9dream, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – over the following three years. Last year, The Bone Clocks was published… Initial noises were good, but then a few dissenting voices appeared… What was clear, however, was that it was structured as a series of linked novellas and that it moved deeper into genre territory as it progressed. I was, I admit, expecting a novel not unlike Cloud Atlas, one that had many impressive pieces but together left me feeling a little disappointed. Happily, this wasn’t the case at all. True, you wait for a book about conspiracies of body-hopping immortals and three come along at once – there are elements of The Bone Clocks that are reminiscent of Claire North’s Touch and of Marcel Theoux’s Strange Bodies – although for secret wars masterminded by hidden groups, you might as well go all the way back to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians. The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes from her teen years in southern England, when she runs away from home, through to a post-apocalyptic Ireland some thirty years from now. Along the way, other voices occasionally take over the narrative, such as egocentric author Crispin Hershey (based on Martin Amis?), a well-handled pastiche although it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer in Betrayals; and even one of the immortals, who is, at that time, occupying the body of a black Canadian psychologist. The two factions at war are the Horologists, who are serial reincarnators and seem to have arisen naturally among humans; and the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, who are able to “decant” souls in order to extend their own lives. Holly becomes inadvertently involved with these two groups, partly because one of the immortals reincarnates in her younger brother, partly because the Horologists prevent her from being groomed to be “decanted”, and partly because she has a brief fling with Hugo Lamb, who is recruited by the Anchorites. Holly is a great character and Mitchell handles her brilliantly. Some of the other elements I found less successful – the Anchorites reminded me a little of the baddies in the bande dessinée L’Histoire secrète by Jean-Pierre Pécau (both have chief villains with no eyes); and the post-apocalypse scenario hewed somewhat too closely to the common template. Much has also been made of those characters which have appeared in other Mitchell novels and stories, but this is hardly unique nor does it add much to this novel. Nonetheless, a very good book, and I’m looking forward to reading Slade House.

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960). This is another book I bought at Archipelacon in Finland. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here. To be honest, the cover art is probably the best thing about it.

the_echoThe Echo, James Smythe (2014). Twenty years after the disastrous mission to interstellar space described in The Explorer, a pair of Swedish twins organise a second mission. This flight’s purpose is to investigate the “anomaly”, a “blackness of space” thought to be the cause of the loss of the previous mission. This new spacecraft, Lära, however, is not as “Hollywood” as the previous one, it’s smaller and much more compactly designed (although it still has room between the outer hull and the walls of the inner chambers for a member of the crew to hide). One of the twins, Mira, is leader of the expedition aboard the spacecraft, the other twin, Tomas, remains on Earth at mission control. The Echo is told entirely from Mira’s point of view, and this is stuff Smythe does really well. I’m still not convinced by his spacecraft (it’s unlikely, for example the twins would have had to invent a thruster system as all present-day spacecraft have used reaction control systems for close manoeuvring for decades) – or indeed some of the science in the book – but there’s an increasing level of creepiness as the novel progresses and that’s where the novel shines. It’s not just the anomaly itself – the title of the book pretty much signals what the crew of the Lära find when they arrive at it – but Mira himself and his thoughts and relationship with his twin brother, and the way he deals with the deaths of Lära’s crew. I think I could have done with a little more verisimilitude, something that nailed down the tech and science, but that’s a personal preference (and, to be fair, no one is selling The Echo on its scientific credentials, unlike the not-as-scientifically-correct-as-advertised The Martian (and that’s a completely unfair comparison anyway, because Smythe is a very good writer and Weir is a shit writer)). The Explorer and The Echo form the first half of the Anomaly Quartet, and I’m very much intrigued to see what the next two books will do.

orbital6Orbital 6: Resistance, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2015). Cinebook have been publishing bandes dessinée in English-language editions now for a decade, and while a number of their titles have in the past appeared intermittently in English – Valérian et Laureline, Lucky Luke, the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, Yoko Tsuno – there are now extended runs of these comics in English published by Cinebook. The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, for example, currently stands at twenty of twenty-three volumes, Valerian and Laureline at nine of twenty-two… Orbital, however, is one of the several series published by Cinebook which had previously never seen publication in English. It’s a space opera, in which Earth has joined a federation of planets but xenophobic feeling runs high, and Earth is likely to either secede, revolt or just harbour terrorists. There are, of course, a number of alien factions, all with their own agenda. Orbital follows the careers of a diplomatic troubleshooting team comprising a human and a sandjarr (the alien race which defeated Earth). By this sixth volume in the series, everything’s got a bit pear-shaped, and the human member of the pair has developed weird powers and… The artwork is good, the story works, and the background interesting. As a novel this wouldn’t be bad, as a bande dessinée it’s pretty good.

1001nightsOne Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Everybody knows about the Alf Layla wa Layla, how a king would marry a young woman each day and then have her executed the following morning, until Scheherazade asks to marry him and then spends the night telling stories but ending on a cliff-hanger – so he keeps her alive to find out how the story ends. Most people probably also know some of the 1001 Nights’ more popular stories, such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I actually have a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, although I’ve yet to read it. I am, however, a fan of Al-Shaykh’s novels, ever since reading Only in London back in 2002. I believe Al-Shaykh’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights – and it’s only the first few stories of the first volume – started life as a play, but happily it doesn’t read like a play. One thing I hadn’t known until I read this book was how… bawdy the stories are. And how inter-nested. While Scheherazade opens the book, the story she tells contains characters who tell stories which contain characters who tell stories… I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. There are that many levels of framing narratives it can get a little confusing, but the individual tales are amusing and well-told. Recommended.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts (2014). Roberts is a very clever man, and a thoroughly nice chap. But for some reason I’ve never quite connected with his novels. The closest I’ve managed to date was Jack Glass, although I did really like the first half of Yellow Blue Tibia – but, I hasten to add, I’ve not read every novel he’s written, and I still have a few on the TBR. However, I do admire and enjoy his short fiction. Unfortunately, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a novel. A very nicely illustrated novel, too. In 1958, France’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Le Plongeur, is on its sea trials when something goes wrong during a dive, and the submarine continues to descend… to an impossible depth, tens of thousands of kilometres. The meagre crew aboard speculate on their predicament, there are small mutinies, and many mysteries. I very much liked this story – I have in fact written something similar myself in short story form – but felt Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was marred by too many things that were just plain wrong. Not only does the novel claim nine thousand metres is “nearly a full kilometre”, or that titanium is stronger than steel, or that no part of the sea-bed is deeper than 10,000 metres (Challenger Deep is nearly 11,000 metres, as recorded by a 1951 survey), but a French naval officer would have known of the Trieste, given that the French Navy bought August Piccard’s earlier bathyscaphe FNRS-2 in 1950 (and operated it under the name FNRS-3, even setting a new depth record of 4,050 metres in 1954)… Besides all that, the novel repeatedly confuses metres and kilometres. Le Plongeur sinks at one metre a second, so attaining a depth of 90,000 km in three days is impossible. Ninety thousand metres, yes. But not ninety thousand kilometres. But not only does the prose repeatedly refer to this figure, it also compares it to the diameter of the Earth. There are other small details, like a hatch that open inwards, and so the pressure of the water would be continually acting to force it open; or an airlock on the keel of the submarine; or even a nuclear reactor directly driving the propeller (that’s not how nuclear-powered submarines work – the reactor generates heat, which powers a turbine, which turns the propellor shaft). These slips (also, a character briefly possessing two left hands), which should have been picked up by an editor, aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a typical Roberts piece. There’s a reason Le Plongeur is where it is, and even a sort of scientific explanation for the presence of so much water. There are some odd bits, like carnivorous fish which don’t appear to have an ecosystem to support them, before the submarine and its remaining crew reach their (unbeknownst to most of them) planned destination and the, er, whole point of the book. Given the novel’s title, the identity of the person they meet there should come as no surprise. The reason for the journey relies on a somewhat stretched scientific analogy, but it’s easy enough to swallow. In fact, for a tall tale, and it is very much a tall tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is very easy to swallow. Perhaps it feels a bit over-long in places, but the cast of (mostly) grotesques are amusing and well-written, and the final pay-off is worth the long descent. Oh, and the illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very good.

in_conquest_bornIn Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986). I bought this recently to review as it was on the SF Mistressworks list but we had yet to write about it. Mid-eighties space opera, I thought, should be okay. Seems to be well-regarded. But I do wonder how many of its unchallenged assumptions are still acceptable in the twenty-first century. A review will appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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Books do furnish a room

I may be putting up these book haul posts less frequently, but the book collection seems to grow at its usual pace. I take care to purchase fewer books each month than I read, so the TBR is being slowly whittled down. But the book-shelves are still double-stacked, and the spare room has books piled all over the floor. I’ve dumped lots of books I knew I’d never get around to reading at the charity shop; and I’ve foisted off quite a few genre books at the York and Sheffield socials, but I still need to have a big clear-out… Anyway, here are the latest additions.

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Some new science fiction. Children of Time and The Last War I bought at Edge-Lit 4, where, of course, A Prospect of War made its first appearance in hardback. Aurora was purchased from a certain online retailer. I’ve already read Children of Time and Aurora, and they’ll both appear in my next Reading diary post.

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Some mainstream(-ish) paperbacks. The War of the End of the World was a book I’d planned to read for a fiction-in-translation reading challenge back in 2012. The challenge foundered about halfway through the year, but some of the books I’d picked I still fancied trying. It’s taken me until now to buy a copy of this one. The Bone Clocks and Kolymsky Heights I bought in Harrogate, using a book voucher given to me by my employer, while in the town to hear Val McDermid interview Sara Paretsky at the Crime Festival. The Davidson was recommended by a number of people a couple of months ago, and though I kept an eye open no copies had appeared in my local charity shops. Collected Stories I bought after reading Jonathan McCalmont’s reviews of Salter’s short fiction on his blog, Ruthless Culture.

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This was my prize from the Edge-Lit 4 raffle: six HP Lovecraft books in flash new hardback editions from PS Publishing. Given some of the other prizes, I think I did exceedingly well.

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A pair of deep sea books. Ocean Outpost, a study of undersea habitats, was cheap on eBay. Discovering the Deep, a glossy coffee-table book thick with science, is a new publication.

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Some genre paperbacks: Skin is an ARC, I’m reviewing it for Interzone; Wolves was on a couple of award shortlists last year; I’ve been a fan of Hanan al-Shaykh’s writing for several years, so I’m looking forward to reading her spin on One Thousand and One Nights; and The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is the second book in NewCastle Forgotten Fantasy series, which I bought because of course I really need to start collecting another series of books… Actually, it was cheap on eBay, so it’s not like I went out of my way for it.

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A new Lawrence Durrell book. From the Elephant’s Back is a collection of previously-unpublished essays and letters was published by the University of Alberta. The Silkworm is the second pseudonymous crime novel by JK Rowling. I thought the first a bit meh, but my mother found this copy in a charity shop and after she’d read it she passed it on to me.


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Books to look forward to in 2014

I did something similar to this back in early 2013, though looking at that earlier post – see here – I note that I only managed to purchase 5 of the 15 books I mentioned, and only actually read one of them. And one of the books was postponed until 2014… This year I’ve managed to track down a few more titles that I’m looking forward to, though we’ll seen this time next year how many I’ve bought and/or read…

January
Ings, Simon: Wolves (Gollancz)
Roberts, Adam & Mahendra Singh: Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (Gollancz)
Smythe, James: The Echo (Harper Voyager) – the sequel to The Explorer, and the second book of what I see is now called the Anomaly Quartet.

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February
Hutchinson, Dave: Europe in Autumn (Solaris)

March
MacLeod, Ken: Descent (Orbit)

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April
Beckett, Chris: Mother of Eden (Corvus) – the sequel to the Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden.
Watson, Ian: The Uncollected Ian Watson (PS Publishing) – must admit I’m slightly puzzled by the title of this: “uncollected” – can there really be such a thing for a man who’s had thirteen collections published…

June
Roberts, Adam: Bête (Gollancz)
Shepard, Lucius: Beautiful Blood (Subterranean Press)

July
Baxter, Stephen: Ultima (Gollancz)- the sequel to Proxima.
Park, Paul: All Those Vanished Engines  (Tor US) – a new novel from Park, is it possible to describe how much this excites me?

August

Park, Paul: Other Stories (PS Publishing)
Varley, John: Dark Lightning (Ace) – the final book of the quartet comprising Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder.

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September
Cobley, Michael: Ancestral Machines (Orbit) – a new set in the universe of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy.
Gibson, Gary: Extinction Game (Tor UK)
Mitchell, David: The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)

October
Leckie, Ann: Ancillary Sword (Orbit) – the second book of the trilogy, following on from Ancillary Justice.
Robson, Justina: The Glorious Angels (Gollancz)

Late in the year, date to be revealed
McFarlane, Alex Dally, ed.: The Mammoth Book of SF Stories By Women (Constable & Robinson)

Yes, there are no debuts there. Though there are several due out this year, I don’t know enough about them as yet to decide if they’re worth reading. Perhaps nearer their publication dates, some buzz will start to form among my online friends and acquaintances, and that may persuade be they’re worth a punt. That was, after all, how I came to read Ancillary Justice in 2013. Also, as the year progresses I will no doubt discover other new books I really want, much as I did in 2013. While new titles from major genre imprints are relatively easy to find, those from small presses aren’t; and I’ve no doubt missed out quite a few literary fiction novels by authors I really like, too.

ETA: I meant to add this before the post went live but forgot – the new Paul Park novel, All Those Vanished Engines, shares its title with an installation by sound artist Stephen Vitello, which includes “a commissioned text by local novelist Paul Park”. I don’t know what the link is between the novel and Vitello’s installation.


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Lessons in bestsellerification

I forget my reason for visiting amazon.co.uk, but while I was on the site I had a look at the various beseller charts. The science fiction one proved especially interesting. Here are the top ten “Bestsellers in Science Fiction” on Amazon for 8 March 2013:

1 Wool, Hugh Howey (Kindle edition)
2 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (Kindle edition)
3 The Mongoliad Book Two, Neal Stephenson (Kindle edition)
4 The Martian, Andy Weir (Kindle edition)
5 Three Feet of Sky 2: Outside Eternity, Stephen Ayres (Kindle edition)
6 The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams (paperback)
7 In Her Name: Redemption, Michael R Hicks (Kindle edition)
8 The Phoenix Rising, Richard Sanders (Kindle edition)
9 Wool, Hugh Howey (hardback)
10 Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (Kindle edition)

And no, I’ve no idea why Les Misérables has been classified as science fiction.

Eight of the ten books are Kindle editions. As far as I can determine, six of them were self-published (I’m including Wool, although the edition which appears twice on this list is from a major imprint). Two of the books started life as serials on their authors’ websites – Wool and The Martian. Three are sequels, and one is an omnibus edition of a trilogy.

So what does this tell us? That most sf sold on Amazon these days is sold via Kindle. That self-published sf is out-selling sf from major imprints on Amazon. That the best way to build a platform for a self-publish sf novel is to serialise it on your website. And that I’m not the only person to have written a realistic treatment of a mission to Mars (and we both called our Mars programmes Ares, too).

Aside from the last point, all of the above seem to run counter to what is actually the case. Paper books still outsell ebooks, as far as I’m aware. And fiction from established imprints still far outsells self-published novels. And where are the big sf names? George RR Martin appears at #11 (and it’s fantasy not sf, but never mind), followed by Stephenie Meyer at #13. John Scalzi sneaks in at #19. But where’s Peter F Hamilton, Iain M Banks, Neal Asher, China Miéville?

It’s probably worth pointing out that all 20 books in the “Bestsellers in Fiction” list are all Kindle editions. I checked the Amazon list against the one given in the Guardian Reviews section for 23 February 2013. Only two titles are in both lists – Life Of Pi (#2 on Amazon, #5 in Guardian) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry (#19 on Amazon, #2 in Guardian).

So if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from all this, I’m not entirely sure what it is. It seems self-evident that Amazon has “massaged” its figures… But to what end?


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Recent notable reading

In other words, we’ll not bother mentioning the crap ones, or the ones that are meh – though I did include one that was so bad, people should be warned off it. I’ve also excluded those I’ve read for review elsewhere – on SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus (for which I have a backlog of reviews to finish and post).

JACK-GLASS-by-adam-robertsJack Glass, Adam Roberts (2012)
Which I read too late in the year to consider for my best of the year post. Adam Roberts’ novels in précis always sound interesting and appealing, and yet I still need to find the right way to read them. This one I think I’ve come closest. It is, as Adam himself describes it, an attempt to “collide together some of the conventions of Golden Age science fiction and Golden Age detective fiction”. It opens with an impossible escape, told from the point of view of the escapee. Next is a murder-mystery. Finally, there is a locked-room mystery. All three involve the mysterious figure Jack Glass. This is a gruesome and quite Dickensian novel. The Solar System is filled with disenfranchised poor, living in fragile space habitats, while a hierarchy of the ultra-rich and privileged live a life of luxury. But the possibility of FTL – even though against the laws of physics – threatens this situation by providing an escape to the stars. And that’s the maguffin driving the three sections of the novel. The characters are a bit annoying, especially their speech patterns, and perhaps there’s a little too much authorial sleight of hand used in places to delay the solution, but it all hangs together very entertainingly and readably. Though I’ve only read about four or five of Adam’s novels, this one was the most enjoyable – perhaps because it felt the most authorial, despite managing to capture the tone and verve of Golden Age sf.

asonoftherockA Son of the Rock, Jack Deighton (1997)
A somewhat old-fashioned sf novel – it wouldn’t have looked out of place among British sf of the 1970s; and I hold British sf of the 1970s in high regard – and well-written, but with a mostly unlikable narrator. It’s set in a sort of future galactic human co-prosperity sphere, in which primitive worlds are exploited for raw resources. The population also undergoes an anti-ageing treatment, which is so endemic that signs of ageing, and old people themselves, are viewed with fear and hatred. The narrator works for a mining company, but before taking up his post he goes on a Grand Galactic Tour. On the world of Copper, he meets the titular character, an old man, who both repels and fascinates him. It also seems the old man sees a kindred spirit in the narrator. Later, after he joins the mining company, the narrator chooses not to take the anti-ageing drug – his grandmother reacted badly to it, and the condition is genetic so he could also suffer from it – and over time becomes a freak in society. There’s some very nice description in the book, and the premise is handled well, but it feels a little old-fashioned in places, and the supporting cast are nicer than the narrator is. Definitely worth reading, however.

David-Mitchell-The-Thousand-Autumns-of-Jacob-de-ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell (2010)
I took this with me to Denmark to read over Christmas, as it had been sitting on my TBR since November 2010. And I’m glad I did. It is the late 1790s and the title character has arrived at the Dutch East-Indies Company’s trading post in Japan, Dejima in Nagasaki’s harbour, to assist a new manager root out corruption. But the novel is only sort of about de Zoet. It’s also about the Japanese midwife he falls in love with, and the bizarre shrine where she becomes a prisoner when her father dies, and how de Zoet beats the British attempt to muscle in on the Japanese market. It reads like straight historical fiction – although that shrine holds a horrible secret, which seems to have given its monks immortality. The period detail rings true and it’s clear Mitchell did plenty of research. They were a horrible venal, nasty, brutal and racist lot in those days, and Mitchell pulls no punches. It doesn’t make for sympathetic characters, so it’s impressive Mitchell manages to carry the story with such an ugly cast. I think this is the best of Mitchell’s novels – yes, even better than Cloud Atlas.

the-godless-boys-978033051336401The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood (2011)
This one got a lot of positive word of mouth last year, so I thought it would be worth a go. In 1951, a Secular Movement opposed the increasing hold the churches had on British society. This prompted a government backlash. The secularists were rounded up and exiled to an island off the north-east coast of England. In 1977, there was another wave of church burnings, and yet more people were sent to the Island. And on the Island, a decade or so later, a group of youths, led by Nathaniel, see themselves as guardians of the inhabitants’ godlessness. That is until a young woman arrives, looking for her mother, who disappeared in 1977 and was implicated in the burning of a church. I wanted to like this book, but it was trying so hard to be A Clockwork Orange, and failing, that it annoyed me. The Island came across as some parody of “grim Up North”, the neologisms felt horribly forced, and I never really got a good handle on the age of the protagonists. It comes as no surprise to discover that Wood has a MA in Creative Writing.

ultramarineUltramarine, Malcolm Lowry (1933)
So I read ‘Through the Panama’ in Lowry’s only collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, and was blown away. Perhaps the rest of the collection wasn’t as impressive, but I wanted to read more. Happily, I’d grabbed the aforementioned collection, Ultramarine, Lowry’s first novel, and Under the Volcano from my father’s Penguin paperback collection. But I also went further and picked up some first editions of his other books. And, er, Ultramarine, his first novel. Again. The edition I have, in both paperback and hardback, is the 1962 revised edition of the 1993 original – revised, obviously, not by Lowry, who died in 1957, but very much based on his part-written revisions for the novel (which he had done in order to bring it in line with a planned seven-novel sequence titled The Voyage That Never Ends (actually used for a collection of Lowry’s “fictions, poems, fragments, letters”)). The narrator of Ultramarine – who is loosely based on Lowry himself, as indeed are most of his protagonists – joins the crew of a tramp freighter as a mess-boy, but is not liked by the rest of the crew. The book takes place in the Far East, while the ship is moored at Tsjang-Tsjang. This is a book you should read for the writing, which is excellent. There’s not much in the way of plot. The characters are superbly drawn, often just through dialogue. It’s easy to see why Lowry was such an important writer.

ninthlifeThe Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen (2004)
Whenever I see a Liz Jensen book I’ve not read in a charity shop, I buy it. But I think I shall start buying them new because I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of her books I’ve read. And that’s not something I can say for many of the authors I read regularly. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is set in France in the present day, and the eponymous character is an accident-prone ten-year-old boy currently lying in a coma after falling down a cliff at a family picnic. His father is also missing and, according to the mother, responsible for pushing the boy off the cliff. Louis has just been moved to a new hospital for coma patients in Provence, and the doctor in charge – who alternates the narrative with Louis himself (apparently speaking from within his coma) – finds himself unprofessionally drawn to the boy’s mother. Essentially, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a murder-mystery, but one eyewitness is lying and the other is comatose – but is speaking to the reader via a worldview which obfuscates their meaning. It’s all very cleverly-done, and if the ending comes as no great real surprise, the journey to that point was not wasted. Definitely must read more of Jensen’s books.

OsamaOsama, Lavie Tidhar (2011)
Originally published by PS Publishing – the edition I have – then brought out in massmarket paperback by Solaris. Winner of the World Fantasy Award last year, and a surprising omission from several other shortlists (though it made the BSFA Award shortlist). It would be unfair to say I did not come to this book with high expectations. Happily, they were met. A private detective based in Ventiane is tasked with tracking down Mike Longshott, the mysterious author of a series of pulp novels which feature Osama bin Laden as a vigilante hero. This is not, of course, the world we know. Though there are echoes of it there, and as the PI draws closer to Longshott so those echoes begin to ring louder and louder. Interspersed between the chapters are short pieces of reportage on terrorist attacks from our world. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on, and the prose sometimes stumble – trying to pastiche pulp prose at one point, then not at another. There’s also an odd substitution of “dawdle” for “doddle”, and Lavie reveals his secret love for the music of Eva Cassidy. But it’s certainly a worthy award winner and fully lives up to its audacious title.

farnorthFar North, Marcel Theroux (2009)
This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2010, but lost out to Miéville’s The City & The City. It is yet another US post-apocalypse novel. The writer is British, but the son of US author Paul Theroux; and the novel is actually set in Siberia. The central premise is that Siberia was opened to American settlers, but then some sort of catastrophe did for the rest of the world, and those remaining in the “Far North” gradually succumbed to the usual violence, rape and warlordism. Theroux can’t decide if his settlers adopted Russian culture, or simply transplanted their own – he makes reference to both situations. The narrator of the story is a young woman who acts as constable for a town in which she is the only survivor. She encounters a group of slavers, and later witnesses a plane crash. That crash persuades her that somewhere there is a settlement with technology – albeit primitive technology. She sets off to find it, and is captured by those slavers… I’m a little puzzled how this made the Clarke shortlist. True, it’s literary fiction that’s science fiction in all but name, which means the quality of writing is generally much better than genre fiction displays. It also means the genre tropes are presented as if they’ve never been used before. Except post-apocalypse has been done before – in literary fiction. The first third of Far North, in fact, was trying hard to be The Road. And failing. The fact it later abandoned that template – and introduced some magic glowing substance, for no good reason – couldn’t prevent it from being as banal as most post-apocalypse novels are.

before-the-incalBefore The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012)
It’s not that The Incal required a prequel, but Jodorowsky has done a clever job here of explaining stuff you were perfectly happy to swallow unexplained in that book, as well as set things up beautifully for the later story. Janjetov’s art nicely emulates Moebius’ style – in fact, according to the introduction it was Jodorowsky’s observation that Janjetov’s style was similar to early Moebius that prompted him to write Before The Incal in the first place. All the characters from The Incal are here, and the story cleverly sets them up for the roles they will later play. The whole thing is not quite as bonkers as The Incal (though it is still quite insane), but it’s beautifully drawn, and this is a handsomely-produced volume on a par with Self Made Hero’s lovely edition of The Incal.

regimentRegiment of Women, Thomas Berger (1973)
A 1970s sexual satire. Oh dear. I haven’t read a book as bad as this for quite a while, and I’ve seen more biting satire on gender roles in a Two Ronnies sketch. A century or so from now, in what amounts to the ruins of the twentieth century, the women are in charge. But they dress and behave just like men – in fact, “effeminate” means behaviour currently associated with dumb macho males. Men, of course, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose, and behave like the sort of women a dumb 1970s sexist imagines women behave. Men also have breast implants. Yes, that’s right: the women are in charge, but the men conform to male gaze. Georgie is a secretary at a publishing house, but after getting unintentionally drunk at a friend’s, he is caught in public dressed as a woman – ie, in trousers, shirt and tie. He is arrested. Transvestism is illegal, but the police are convinced he is some sort of dangerous subversive. Georgie manages to break out of prison, and meets the Male Underground. They persuade him to infiltrate a Sperm Camp, where men are milked for their sperm for ex-utero procreation. (Women’s sex with men consists solely of anal penetration with a dildo, usually without the women undressing; and, most often, it’s rape.) In prison and in the Sperm Camp, Georgie encounters Harriet. She’s a woman but she just wants to dress and behave like a man – ie, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose… It’s a monumentally stupid set-up. Berger has to go through so many contortions to overcome the obvious flaws in his world, and none of his “explanations” are even remotely plausible. And that’s not to mention the deeply offensive views on gender roles on which the entire plot is based. Mystifyingly, this book has a 3.46 average on Goodreads, with quite a few 5-star reviews. Incidentally, I don’t recall any POC characters in it.


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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

I like stories that play around with the structure of their narrative. I like reading them, I like writing them. I particularly like the way they allow you to hide things, so you can drop them all on the reader at the end and blow their mind. I call that the B-52 Effect – not after the bomber but after the drink, which you knock back and it sort of goes whoommppfff when it hits your stomach. If I can do that in my fiction, then job done.

While I was thinking about interesting narrative structures, it occurred to me it’s not something genre fiction does often, but when it does it generally does it quite well. And I tried to think of ten excellent novels that boasted interesting narrative structures. But I could only think of five:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), has perhaps the most common form of non-linear structure used in genre fiction, comprising two separate narratives – one of Byron’s fictional novel, which is also glossed with historical notes; and the second narrative is an email exchange set in the present about Byron’s life and his novel. One narrative informs the other and is in turn informed by it. I like that.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000), shares a similar structure to Crowley’s novel, in that the main narrative is – perhaps – a fictional work about the title character, and this is wrapped within another narrative which comments on Ash’s narrative and is in turn changed by her narrative.

Use Of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1991), famously has two narratives intertwined and chronologically opposed – one moves forward in time, like your average normal linear plot; but the other alternates with it and moves backwards in time. It makes for a mind-blowing climax, but sadly it’s a single shot: once you know the ending, you’re not going to get that B-52 Effect again.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974), equally famously has a non-linear structure narrative, with alternating chapters set on each of the story’s two worlds, Anarres and Uras, but not in chronological order. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, the chapters if re-ordered chronologically would go: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968) is, given that I’ve only read eight of Compton’s seventeen sf novels, the only one I’ve read so far that isn’t a two-hander. Most have a pair of protagonists, typically one male and one female, and the viewpoint alternates between them. Interestingly, in The Steel Crocodile the sections overlap so the reader sees events from both viewpoints. Synthajoy, however, has a single POV. At the start of the book, the protagonist is in an institution being “cured” after committing a crime. The narrative then starts to seamlessly slide into the past and describes the events that led up to the crime, and throughout the novel drifts back and forth between the two narratives. It is very cleverly done.

There are surely other genre novels with narrative structures other than the bog-standard linear beginning-to-end plot, but I’m having trouble thinking of good ones. There are fix-up novels, of course, though there’s nothing especially interesting in that as a structure. And both The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Icehenge comprise three loosely-linked novellas, and are both very good and cleverly done. Literary fiction is much more adventurous in this regard and two examples leap immediately to mind: Cloud Atlas and Girl Reading. Anyone else have any examples worth mentioning?