It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.