It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #1

I think I’ll continue with this format, documenting the books I’ve read half a dozen at a time. But this year, I’m going to write up each book shortly after finishing it. At least, that’s the plan…

The Man in the Darksuit, Dennis R Caro (1980, USA). I picked this up from Fantastikbokhandeln, a secondhand genre bookshop that opened recently here in Uppsala. I’m not sure what prompted me to purchase it. The cover boasts an approving quote from Philip K Dick, but I’ve never really a fan of Dick’s writing. So it can’t have been that. The title sounded intriguing, but the backcover blurb reads more like the book is a piss-take… undercover reporter saves heiress from kidnapper and so uncovers galactic conspiracy, in the sort of language that implies it’s all very funny and witty and tongue-in-cheek. And it’s not, it’s really not. It reads a bit like Ian Wallace and a bit like Ron Goulart, and neither of those are really writers to admire. The titular character is the villain of the piece and his suit bends light around him so he’s effectively invisible. But the novel is more concerned with failed reporter Bos Coggins, who seems to have had a surprisingly successful career for a “failed” reporter, and Muffie Bernstein, the heiress he “rescues” in the opening chapters and who takes a shine to him and pretty much drives the plot thereafter. I have to wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when they chose to buy and publish this book. I mentioned Ian Wallace earlier, who had a career through the 1960s and 1970s, but whose novels at least made an effort at discussing science-fictional ideas and in fact used the genre as a springboard for a discussion on all manner of subjects. The Man in the Darksuit is a an attempt at farce, and while it shows a familiarity with sf tropes, it chooses to pastiche more general tropes, which renders its presentation as sf pretty moot. It is also clearly so popular, not a single secondhand copy is for sale through Amazon. A book to avoid.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005, USA). Scalzi is something of a lightning rod for science fiction and, while I find very little to disagree with in his public persona and what he chooses to champion, he’s no poster-boy for the best of what the genre can produce, and has, in fact, built a career on resolutely commercial science fiction of a type that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with 21st century sensibilities. Of course, science fiction is global, but Scalzi’s version of it is entirely parochial. And that’s woefully evident here. Old Man’s War is about a middle-class old man in Middle America who chooses to throw it all away – a comfortable retirement, that is, and eventual death; not that everyone, even in the US, gets the first – in order to fight for the Earth Federation in some sort of undefined war. And “undefined war” is the key to this novel. The protagonist, John Perry, knows nothing about the universe beyond Earth, or indeed what he’s signing up for by joining the Colonial Defense Force. His ignorance about the universe – imposed on Earth, incidentally, by the authorities – is the average American’s ignorance about planet Earth writ large. It turns out humanity is one of many races settling the galaxy – the science and background of which are hand-waved away quickly – but that has led to competition for habitable planets and Earth is in a war to maintain its own colonies. All of which are apparently only populated by emigrants from “developing” countries such as… Norway. Er, what? I mean, even imagining a programme in which India and Bangladesh only are allowed to send settlers offworld because, by implication, they’re failing as Earth-bound nation-states, but the US is not allowed to because… Present history, and orange buffoon in the White House, aside… even in 2005 this was a bad take. Old Man’s War is US exceptionalism writ large. And it doesn’t get any better. Characters lecture one another – the lecture on orbital elevators is dull and irrelevant – and then a love interest is – literally – manufactured, and this is used to drive the second half of the plot, despite somewhat dubious ethics. However… Old Man’s War has an engaging voice, and its story must have felt so comfortable to US sf readers of 2005 they probably wondered why they hadn’t read it a dozen times before in previous decades… Sadly, the book’s charm does not cross the Atlantic. It’s a bit like a Big Mac, a triumph of marketing over content, something that non-Americans see as an exemplar of US culture – or US sf culture, in this case – but Americans see as emblematic of culture as a whole, but of course there’s more to culture than just the US… Scalzi strikes me as a nice guy, I probably agree with 75% of his sensibilities, but that doesn’t make Old Man’s War a good book or worth recommending. It is, in fact, pretty awful. I won’t be bothering with the sequels.

Crimson Darkness, William Barton (2014, USA). I’ve been a fan of Barton’s fiction for many years – he’s American, by the way – ever since reading the collaborations he wrote with Michael Capobianco back in the 1990s. At one point, we were even corresponding. His last traditionally-published novel was 1999’s When We Were Real, and he has self-published ever since. On the one hand, this is almost a crime as he’s one of the best sf novelists the US has produced; on the other, Crimson Darkness is pretty much unpublishable in its current form… I’m describing it badly. Crimson Darkness is an excellent sf novel. It’s also a much harder read than most sf readers will accept. It’s a bravura piece of world-building, it takes no prisoners, and so creates a narrative that bounces from obtuse to obscure. No traditional publisher would touch it in its current form, but by self-publishing Barton allows us to decide for ourselves. This is complicated by a number of issues: one, it’s a big novel, 200,000 words; two, it’s the first in a series of, to date, three novels, with possibly more to come; and three, it’s supposed to be backed up by an online reference, particularly for the conlangs used in the novel, but that online reference is still “under construction”. I can’t fault Barton for his ambition, or indeed for failing to meet those ambitions. Been there done that, myself. Crimson Darkness is part Bildungsroman and part Secret-of-the-World story. A prince of a defunct kingdom bounces around various nations, gets embroiled in revolutions, witnesses great social and industrial change, but is also puzzled by the nature of his world. There’s a lot of discussion of the conlangs Barton has invented for the series, a lot of descriptive prose, which Barton does well (despite a tendency to use “it’s” when he means “its”), and an astonishing amount of detail in the worldbuilding. This is what Neal Stephenson should be like. As I said earlier, a bravura piece of worldbuilding. But also an engaging narrative. I’ve been aware of Barton’s self-published novels for a number of years, but they were only available on Kindle and until last year I didn’t have one. I now have access to a whole bunch of stuff he’s published since When We Were Real (since re-published by Barton himself in a preferred form), including preferred versions of earlier traditionally-published novels. His works are not easy reads, not the simplistic deathless prose and well-worn tropes of the more successful self-published sf authors. Obviously. I wouldn’t be reading them if they were. But for those who like intelligent sf, this is the real stuff.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (2018, USA). I received a copy of this as part of the Hugo Voters Pack as it was shortlisted for the award in 2019. (I didn’t read it in time to vote, but I don’t vote anyway – why should I vote for the least worst of half a dozen books I don’t think are any good?). I’ve not read anything by Novik before – she was the GoH at IceCon 2 in 2018 in Reykjavik, which I attended, but her best-known series, the Napoleonic wars and dragons one, is not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Spinning Silver, and the earlier Uprooted, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016, were, I understood, retellings of fairytales, and while that does appeal to me a great deal more, it’s a genre that’s very much in the shadow of Angela Carter, a writer I greatly admire. Having said that, it’s a genre open to many different approaches, and one that’s good at reflecting the concerns of the time, and place, it was written. And so it proves with Spinning Silver, which actually bears little resemblance to the Rumpelstiltskin story on which it is supposedly based. The story is told – chiefly – from the viewpoints of three young women – and, to be fair, on the occasions when it uses other viewpoints, it weakens the story, if they’re necessary it’s because plot. Anyway, one is the daughter of a moneylender, who takes over her ineffectual father’s business, and proves very effective at it, and is only identified as Jewish a quarter of the way into the novel. Another is the plain daughter of a local earl who is unlikely to marry well. And the third is the abused daughter of a farmer who becomes the servant of the moneylender’s daughter… And the moneylender’s daughter – although she’s pretty much the moneylender by this point – attracts the interest of the Staryk , who are sort of winter elves, and Novik builds her story, which isn’t much of a retelling out of these three young women, and it works really well. If there’s a flaw to the novel, it’s that it feels like its story should be an allegory – but the Jewish experience, although it takes a while to be revealed, is explicit in the narrative – and so you have to wonder what point Novik is trying to make if it’s not about the treatment of Jews in Slavic Europe (which the book’s world is a thinly-veiled version of), or indeed Europe entire. Which is not to say the book has to be about that, or that there’s an expectation it is… it’s just that retellings of fairytales generally carry a different payload to the original fairytale, and in Spinning Silver that’s not actually apparent. Nonetheless, worth reading.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019, USA). I will not be surprised if this appears on a few shortlists later this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book, merely that’s it’s being pushed a lot… and being talked about a lot. However. Plot first. The Teixcalaani Empire asks Lsel Station, a small space-based polity on the edges of the empire, for a new ambassador. It seems the old one has died – murdered, the new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, discovers shortly after arrival on the Teixcalaani capital world (which is one giant city). It turns out there’s a bit politicking going on, both on the capital world and on Lsel Station, none of which Dzmare is aware of, even though she should be carrying an “imago” of her predecessor, ie his memories and a copy of his personality, in her own head. First, a popular general is trying to seize the throne. Second, Lsel Station is trying to prevent impending annexation. Third, the Teixcalaani emperor is trying to safeguard his succession, using Lsel imago technology. And, on top of all that, it turns out there are powerful aliens lurking out past Lsel Station and Lsel wants the empire to keep it safe from them. With all that going on, it comes as something of a surprise to find that A Memory Called Empire spends more time on interiority than it does on plot or action. Or on worldbuilding – and there is a lot of worldbuilding. And it is, in the main, done quite well – except all the Teixcalaani words in the prose are italicised. Who still does that? Italicising non-English words in an English text is so twentieth-century. The end result reads a lot like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, albeit without the advantage of being first or using Leckie’s default gender trick – but fans of that trilogy will no doubt love this novel. The publisher seems to think fans of Le Carré and Banks will love it too, but comparisons to their oeuvres is one hell of a stretch (Dzmare could be a character name from a Culture novel, but that’s about it). In A Memory Called Empire‘s favour, it has a remarkably low bodycount for a space opera, in the high three figures. Space opera as a subgenre relies heavily on well-used tropes and worldbuilding-blocks (to coin a phrase), but there is also one type of space opera that makes a feature of its worldbuilding. A Memory Called Empire falls into the latter category. That makes it interesting, and a better read, than the majority of space operas, but it’s also plain most of the book’s energy has been invested in the worldbuilding… and the romance which forms the emotional core of the novel. As a result the science-fictional elements feel paper-thin – the infrastructure of the capital city, for example, is supposedly controlled by an AI, but the book presents this as little more a big computer, and the controlling “algorithm” for the AI even forms a minor unconvincing subplot. The central murder-mystery isn’t actually much of a mystery – the murderer confesses freely to Dzmare, knowing he won’t be prosecuted – and the offstage threat is so far offstage it only seems to impinge on the plot when the writer remembers it. This is a novel that is essentially all about the worldbuilding. The writer clearly revelled in it, and hopes the reader will too. And, in general, they’ve done an excellent job. A Memory Called Empire is not a great novel, or arguably a good novel, but it is the first novel – long overdue – in a form of space opera which needs to be more prevalent. It is an example of a model of space opera which could have appeared in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and would have made space opera a better subgenre, but which was pretty much squashed at the time. Instead of The Risen Empire or Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, we’ve ended up with the Expanse and assorted clones. Sigh. A Memory Called Empire won’t make any of my award shortlists, but I’d sooner it was a typical example of 21st century space opera rather than something worth remarking on…

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). I had wanted to buy a copy of this at the Worldcon in Dublin last August, but the handful of copies available in the dealers’ room had gone by the time I went to buy one. Fortunately, I recently found a copy in The English Bookshop here in Uppsala (albeit for somewhat more money). I’ve read most of Tidhar’s fiction – perhaps not all of the short stories, but there are so many of them, but certainly the longer works, especially the novels. So the self-referential elements of Unholy Land came as no real surprise, although the extent of them does feel greater than usual. So much so, in fact, that one important plot point, I think, is based on the first Tidhar story I ever read, some fifteen years ago, and whose title escapes me, but it was about a person browsing Hebrew pulp novels and stumbling across a novel which should not exist, or something. Which is, sort of, a fair description of Unholy Land itself. The starting premise is that Europe’s Jews accepted the British government’s offer of a homeland in east Africa (an actual historical suggestion, but the Zionist Congress rejected it in favour of historical Israel, although the first Aliyah to Palestine took place forty years prior to the Balfour Declaration). The novel is set in the 1980s, and the Jewish homeland, Palestina, is under constant attack by the African tribes who once lived in the territory it now occupies. The irony is thick here. A Jewish writer of pulp detective novels, resident in Berlin, returns to his home in Palestina on a visit. Except he has not been living in the Berlin of the same history as Palestina, and there is in fact a multiverse of alternate realities which can be accessed by certain people – in the writer’s case, unconsciously – and something is happening which jeopardises Palestina’s alternate reality… Not only does Unholy Land offer some seriously good worldbuilding and alternate history, but it also goes all meta and begins to deconstruct its own story from within its narrative. That’s so cool I’ve even done it myself. Tidhar has said he considers Unholy Land one of the best piece of work he has produced – so far – and though I take everything he says with a pinch of salt, having known him for several years, he may well be right in this case. It’s surprising how few awards picked up on Unholy Land. Well, no, it’s not really surprising – popular vote genre awards these days are entirely tribal and no longer fit for purpose, and Unholy Land is a genuinely good book.