It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Best of the half-year

It’s halfway through 2013, and it’s proven quite a year so far in ways both good and bad. This post is to celebrate some of the good stuff – namely the best of the books I’ve read, the films I’ve seen, and the albums I first heard during the previous six months.

Books
wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I read this after seeing and liking the film and I was much surprised to discover it was not some piece of cheap commercial fiction with an unusual setting, but instead a beautifully-written literary novel which happened to use a genre plot. The film is pretty damn good too. I plan to read more by Woodrell. I wrote about this book here.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012) is the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy and I really must reread Light and Nova Swing one of these days. If at first I thought Empty Space felt a little undisciplined in its spraying of tropes across its narrative threads, the more of it I read the more I realised how very carefully engineered it was. I wrote about this book here.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) is the most recently-read book to appear in this list. I had no real idea what to expect when I picked it up, but its lyrical and oblique descriptions of the cities (allegedly) visited by Marco Polo immediately captivated me. I wrote about this book here.

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989) is one of those books I read and enjoyed, but only realised how well-crafted it was when I came to write a review of it for SF Mistressworks. It reads like a masterclass in science fiction. This book really needs to be back in print. See my review here.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) Some books just leave you speechless at the quality of the prose, and while I’d already fallen in love with Lowry’s writing when I read his novella ‘Through the Panama’, there was always a chance this, his most famous and most lauded novel, would not appeal as much. Happily, it did. Even more so, perhaps. A bona fide classic of English-language literature. I wrote about it here.

Honourable mentions go to Osama, Lavie Tidhar (2011), whose grasp may not quite match its reach but it comes damn close; Before The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012), which matches The Incal for bonkersness and sheer bande dessinée goodness; Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997), which is a bit of a bloated monstrosity, and contains too much baseball, but also features moments of genius; The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003), which is actually a cheat as its an omnibus of The Steerswoman (1992) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1993) and I only read the latter this year, but it’s an excellent series and deserves praise; Jamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), which proved to be a lovely little novella set in the author’s native Kyrgyzstan; and Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913), which shows with beautiful prose how psychology should be used in fiction.

Um, not that much science fiction there. I seem to be failing at this science fiction fan business…

Films
Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I am not a huge fan of Godard, so I was somewhat surprised how much I liked this film. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little like Fellini’s (both are about film-making), which is also a favourite film, and looks a bit like something by Antonioni.

mabuseThe Dr Mabuse trilogy, Fritz Lang: Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) A bit of a cheat as I watched Dr Mabuse The Gambler in 2012, but never mind. If the first film is a commentary on corruption in the Weimar Republic, the second extends the metaphor to comment on Nazism, and the third further completes it with an off-kilter noir film commenting on the legacy of the Nazis. Classic cinema.

Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) I’ve been working my way through Studio Ghibli’s output, though I find most of it either twee, cloyingly sentimental or a little juvenile. But not this one. I wrote about it here.

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) For much of its length, this film feels like an art house mystery, but then it takes a turn into something completely different and wholly Iranian. I wrote about it here.

she-should-have-gone-to-the-moon-film-posterShe Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008) I bought this as research for the Apollo Quartet, and was surprised to discover it was a beautifully-shot documentary and meditation on the thirteen women who successfully passed the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts.

Honourable mentions go to Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish and beautifully subtle; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), an astonishing and meta-cinematic document of 1920s Russia; Black Cat, White Cat, Emir Kusturica (1998), broad comedy but also very funny; Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki (2011), typically deadpan but somewhat cheerier than usual; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a human portrait of Emperor Hirohito at the end of WWII.

Well, will you look at that, not a single Hollywood film in the entire lot. Instead, we have films from France, Germany, Japan, Iran, Denmark, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Finland and a documentary from the UK.

Music
Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) A new album from one of my favourite bands, and with each new album they just get better and better. Can’t wait to see them live.

Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album from Finnish melodic death metal masters after far too long a wait. Trumpet!

threnodyThe Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) They call it English heritage black metal, though I’m not entirely sure what that means – a wall of guitars, with howling vocals layered over the top, some lovely acoustic interludes, and they’re bloody good live too.

Dustwalker, Fen (2013) More English heritage black metal but also very atmospheric, perhaps even a bit shoegazer-y in places; a formula that works extremely well.

Forlorn+Chambers+++Unborn+and+HUnborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013) A demo EP from a new Finnish band, which mixes and matches a couple of extreme metal genres to excellent effect. Very heavy, very doomy, with a lot of death in it too. I’m looking forward to seeing an album from them.

Honourable mentions: Conflict, Sparagmos (1999), classic Polish death metal; Of Breath and Bone, Bel’akor (2012), Australian melodic death metal; Deathlike, Ancient VVisdom (2013), strange acoustic doom from Texas; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), accomplished demo from a Polish death metal band.

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Notable recent reads

I have been a bit rubbish at posting here over the past month or so, and I’m not entirely sure why. I could claim it’s because I’ve been busy writing short stories, novellas and novels, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I have been busy – but it’s been other stuff: writing reviews, family stuff. And I’ve only managed to squeeze in a bit of fiction writing in here and there. I have been reading, however. Though not as many books as I’d have liked. Here are some of them – chiefly the ones I’ve not already reviewed, or plan to review, for SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus

wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006)
I was interested in reading this after seeing, and being much impressed by, the film adaptation. I was expecting a genre crime novel with a plot much like that of the movie. What I wasn’t expecting was a well-written literary novel, which actually has less plot than the film. Sixteen-year-old Ree’s father has gone missing, and he put up the house and land as collateral for bail. Which means if he doesn’t turn up in court, they lose the house. So Ree goes looking for him. The story is set in the Ozarks, where everyone is related to everyone else and most of the men are involved in brewing up or distributing drugs. Ree’s questions are not welcome – and it takes much of this short novel before she discovers why. If the film is brutal and the people in it scary, then the book is more so. The film adds a scene set at a cattle auction, but loses one where Ree and her best friend help to catch a pig loose on a bridge. There’s some lovely writing in this, Ree is extremely well-drawn, and the setting is, well, just plain frightening. I’m going to read more Woodrell. Recommended.

tyranopolisTyranopolis, AE van Vogt (1973)
AE van Vogt really was a shit writer. He built his career on advice taken from a how-to-write book. And it shows. I still have a soft spot for his fiction because, every now and again, purely by accident, he manages to create something that’s almost mythic. But vast swathes of his oeuvre are unreadable meretricious tosh. He makes stuff up out of whole cloth, and it possesses neither plausibility nor rigour. Tyranopolis is a case in point. At some point in the future, a mysterious dictator rules the entire Earth with an iron fist. But an inventor, er, invents some sort of ray that allows him to see everywhere and be seen everywhere. Knowing the tyrant’s forces are closing in, he gifts the secret to his unborn son moments after the act of conception, by, er, putting it in his DNA or something. I don’t know. It makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever drugs van Vogt was on when he wrote, they were clearly more powerful than those used by Philip K Dick. The writing in Tyranopolis hovers on the cusp of sense, the plotting reads like he made it up as he went along, the central premise is complete nonsense, and yet… and yet… No, there is no “and yet”. Not for this one. It’s a rubbish book. Avoid it.

the-spy-who-loved-me-novelThe Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming (1960)
Fleming was a real pioneer, you know. The Spy Who Loved Me is ground-breaking, you know. Because it’s a Bond novel, but Bond isn’t the protagonist! He doesn’t even appear until about a third of the way in! And, get this, the entire novel is narrated by a woman! I know, shocking. So the title doesn’t refer to some KGB temptress who falls for 007’s manly charms, as it does in the film. Bond is actually the spy of the title. But he doesn’t really fall in love with the narrator. And she knows it – indeed, she says as much. She’s making her way through the US from Canada on a moped and stops off at a remote motel. She stays on to work there, and is made responsible for closing the place down for the winter. Two employees of the owner turn up and it transpires they’re there to torch the place for insurance purposes. Fortunately, Bond suffers a flat tyre nearby, so he’s around to foil their plot and save the girl… You know when an author falls in love with their own creation, and this persuades them that writing a story about said creation from the point of view of a lovestruck young woman is a good idea? That. And they say this is the best of the Bond novels… Pfft.

citiesofsaltCities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1984, trans. 1987)
The lives of the Bedouin of Wadi al-Uyoun are disrupted by the discovery of oil. Eventually, they are moved and rehoused, but some instead move to the coastal village of Harran. Which then becomes the point of entry into the country for American oilworkers, and so the site of their camp and offices. The novel then charts the growth of Harran through the lives of some of its more notable inhabitants. The nation is meant to be an invented Gulf state, but Harran is clearly modelled on Dhahran. Munif is especially critical of the Americans and their interference and ignorance of Bedouin life, but he’s also critical of those Arabs who accepted US largesse and grew fat on the proceeds. I suspect Munif was not especially well served by his translator as some of the prose in Cities of Salt is clunky in places, but Munif certainly shows a sharp eye for characterisation. As far as I can determine, this book, and its two sequels, were never published in the UK – my copy is a US paperback – which is a shame as it’s definitely worth reading. I’ll have to get hold of the rest of the– Um, it’s apparently a quintet, but only the first three books were published in English. I guess I’ll have to start practicing my Arabic again, then…

theexplorer-e1356978432870The Explorer, James Smythe (2013)
A handful of days into the first mission to send human beings as far from Earth as possible, and all of the crew have died except for the journalist, Cormac Easton. The first third of The Explorer explains how these deaths came about – and they’re senseless, mostly preventable deaths – and you start to wonder what the remaining two-thirds will be about… And then the second part starts, and the story kicks into a higher gear. James sent me a copy of this novel (a swap for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains), and he did warn me I’d have to accept a certain lack of… scientific rigour in the set-up. And that’s certainly the case. In truth, the spacecraft seems more like something from a Hollywood film than genuine space fiction, with its mysterious engines, store rooms, and even room inside the walls in which Cormac hides like a rat. When the engines are running, there is no gravity. But when they stop, then there is gravity. Which is not something I can quite get my head round. Though I only saw a couple of episodes of it (but I was given the complete series on DVD for my birthday recently), I was reminded more of Defying Gravity than the Apollo programme, International Space Station or even one of my favourite fictional space television series, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Happily, despite its creative use of space engineering, The Explorer very much worth reading. Cormac is well-drawn, and his descent in to madness is skilfully handled. Perhaps the rest of the crew tread a little close to stereotype, but that’s the nature of space fiction – astronauts are by definition stereotypes. Apparently, there will be a sequel, though I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work…

The_Warlord_of_the_Air-Michael_MoorcockThe Warlord of the Air, Michael Moorcock (1971)
If you’re a fan of all things steampunk, if you write steampunk, and you’ve not read this book, then you are doing it wrong. Though it starts inauspiciously, with a dirigible dropping ballast to descend, Moorcock’s airship opera is a clever commentary on imperialism framed in the language of pulp fiction. In 1902, Oswald Bastable visits the Shangri-la-like lair of an evil Indian high priest. An earthquake strikes, destroying the lair, and somehow throwing Bastable forward in time to 1973. He is rescued by an airship, and discovers that the Balance of Powers still holds good across the world, with most nations part of one or the other empire, all of which are ruled by means of vast fleets of airships. Bastable ends up inadvertently assisting Socialist terrorist Count Guevera escape the authorities, before being captured by Chinese warlord OT Shaw, who plans a future free of imperialism. This results in Shaw dropping a nuclear bomb, invented and built by his refugee scientists, on the airship yards of Hiroshima. Which throws Bastable back to 1903. The whole story is framed twice – once by Moorcock’s grandfather, who met Bastable and recorded his story, and by Moorcock himself, who found the manuscript in the attic. Bastable appears in another two novels – The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. I’ll have to get hold of copies. Seems the trilogy is being reprinted this year, with nice new cover art.

underworldUnderworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
Many many people had told me this is an excellent novel, so I was quite chuffed to find a copy in a charity shop last year. But its daunting size – 827 pages! – made me somewhat reluctant to give it a go. But at the beginning of this month, I found myself reaching for it and… Well, no one told me it opened at a baseball game. I hate baseball. And I hate fiction about baseball even more. Actually, I hate sport, and I hate fiction about sport. But. Underworld opens at the 1951 game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and describes the winning home-run apparently known as “the shot heard round the world”, which is a bit rich as only Americans actually give a shit about baseball. Underworld then introduces a number of characters, each of whom shares some link with the baseball from that winning home-run. The chronology bounces all over the place, describing events in various decades in no particular order. Some real world people make appearances – Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, among others. The writing throughout is mostly lovely and sharp, and the dialogue is especially good – though its particular rhythm does have a tendency to blur some of the characters together. The Lenny Bruce sections I thought the least successful – they didn’t seem a sharp enough commentary on the zeitgeist to warrant inclusion. And it’s long novel, a very long novel. It’s a novel which will merit rereading. But it’s also a novel that’s too big and a bit too flabby to leap into my top ten novels of all time. Oh, and the premiere of the lost Eisenstein movie which gives the novel its title reminded me too much of Burroughs’ Casablanca Film Club and I found it hard to take that section seriously…


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The laden mantlepiece

I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I tell myself this every day, but it doesn’t seem to work.

See:

Some mainstream fiction. Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow, the second book of the series of the same name (although the first written). I read the first, Time of Hope, a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. Fielding Gray, Simon Raven, the first book of his Alms for Oblivion series, which I was told is similar to Snow’s. The Boat of Fate, an historical novel by Keith Roberts, an excellent sf writer best-known for SF Masterwork Pavane. The Rings Of Saturn, WG Sebald, a writer I admire much. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen – a charity shop find, which I picked up because I enjoyed her The Rapture (my review here). And Underworld, also a charity shop find, because I’ve been meaning to read some Don DeLillo for ages.

Some science fiction: Stained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer, a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s. A bit of a hack, by all accounts, but we’ll see. JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, Engineering Infinity, Arslan, and More What If? I’m looking forward to reading. The last one was a charity shop find, the other three were birthday presents.

Some first editions. The Universe of Things is for the Gwyneth Jones collection. Down to the Bone is the last of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. Back of Town Blues is for the DG Compton collection. Heat of Fusion and Other Stories, John M Ford, because he is apparently a writer of excellent sf short fiction.

A bit of a mix. Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle, which is sort of not the companion volume to Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, because the actual real companion volume to that is Fantasy: The 100 Best Books by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn (which I also own). Red Plenty, BSFA Award-shortlisted non-fiction/fiction, which many folk have told me I will like (I was going to wait for the paperback, but what the hell). And Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook of Michael Swanwick short stories.

Three space books. Seven into Space, kindly donated to the Space Books collection by Adam Roberts. The Space Station and Island in the Sky were both bargains from eBay.

Finally, a pair of coffee-table books. Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers, is the book of his photographic exhibition. The title refers to WWII monuments in the former Yugoslavia. Many have been destroyed, or left to fall into ruin, but Kempenaers’ book contains photos of twenty-two of the best-preserved ones. Strange, but quite beautiful, stuff. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin, is a ginormous book of photographs of many gloriously modernist buildings from the former USSR. Also strange, but quite beautiful, stuff.