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Reading diary, #9

My reading seems to have slowed a little over the summer, possibly because I’m trying to schedule my reading choices. Instead of just picking whatever appeals at that moment, I’ve put together a list which includes books I’ve owned for years and never got around to reading. And some of them, well, I’m not entirely sure why I bought them – probably because they appeared on a Clarke Award shortlist or something…

entanglementEntanglement, Douglas Thompson (2012) In the near-future, a form of matter transmission to exoplanets using quantum-entangled matter is discovered. A number of space probes are sent out, and a century or so later, once they’ve arrived, Earth starts beaming out astronauts to each world. The process, however, is neither as safe nor as certain as has been claimed. Its inventor is haunted by the subject of an early experiment – literally. Meanwhile, the various astronauts discover that the exoplanets are inhabited… Despite this description, Entanglement is far from hard sf – which is not to say it glibly makes up its various science-fictional elements out of nothing: the exoplanets named are all real exoplanets, and the teleportation process is given a creditable scientific gloss… But the various missions – each sort of presented as a short story in a linked collection – are more explorations of philosophical questions than they are surveys of exoplanetary landscapes or xenological biospheres. It’s an interesting approach, but sadly I found the book a little disappointing. I liked Thompson’s earlier Sylvow very much – and said as much in my Interzone review – but something about Entanglement just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, Thompson is doing some good work and I intend to continue reading him.

w_wastedW is for Wasted, Sue Grafton (2013), is the latest in Kinsey Milhone’s alphabetical adventures. Only three more and they’re done. Or perhaps then Grafton will move onto AA for, er, Arsonists Anonymous. Or something. While the books in the series have chiefly been good solid private detective novels, there are three quite interesting things about them. First, the debut, A is for Alibi, was originally published in 1982, and Grafton has been careful to keep the internal chronology of the novels consistent. As a result, W is for Wasted is set in 1988. Kinsey Milhone has become an historical character. Secondly, the novels are all set in the invented Californian town of Santa Teresa, and with twenty-three books now set there it’s probably better-documented than many real towns in the state. Finally, the novels are framed as Milhone’s report of the case to her client, and usually end with “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Milhone”. But in many of the cases – particularly the later books – she doesn’t have a client, but is drawn into an investigation often by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grafton also frequently breaks out of her framing narrative – and again this is something I’ve noticed becoming more prevalent as the series progresses – and she includes chapters in third person from the point of view of another character. Although the main narrative remains first-person from Kinsey’s POV, Grafton’s plotting obviously can’t remain limited to Milhone and still make sense to the reader. That strikes me as a weakness. I do enjoy the books, and I’ve no intention of giving up on them… but I wish Grafton would put more rigour into her novels.

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent, Ken MacLeod (2014) The cover art and strapline on this novel is somewhat misleading. It certainly misled me – I was expecting a novel on the psychology of alien abductions, especially since the novel opens with an incident which could be described as a close encounter (although the two teenagers involved are too sceptical to fully subscribe to it). However, as the story progresses it turns into a commentary on the machinations of government and corporations in a near-future Scotland suffering from an economic meltdown. And as a work of sustained near-future extrapolation, Descent is very good indeed. There’s also an idea the book plays with during its first half which MacLeod seems to throw away so he can focus his story on Scotland’s economic recovery, some random muscle-flexing by “securocrats” (secret apparatchiks), and the eventual redemption, emotional and career-wise, of bloke-ish narrator, Ryan. Which is a shame. I quite liked the idea of a genetic basis to the capacity to believe (or perhaps it’s just gullibility) – after all, as an atheist, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes other people believe in god (no, it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s that as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as god). Still, at least MacLeod’s idea is better than the one Sebastian Faulks advanced in his novel Human Traces (see here). Anyway, much as I enjoyed Descent, I didn’t feel it had the science-fictional crunchiness Intrusion possessed, although in many respects it read like a more accomplished work.

antares1Antares Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4 and Episode 5, Léo (2007 – 2013) – well, that was annoying. I saw on Léo’s Wikipedia page that there were five books in the Antares series, so I waited until five had been published in English by Cinebook and then bought them… only to discover that the final episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Argh. The story continues on from Betelgeuse and features the same group of characters. Kim is having trouble settling on Earth – she doesn’t like that there’s so many people, and she doesn’t like her celebrity status. But when a multinational corporation sets up a colonisation mission to Antares and asks her to join it, she initially refuses. Eventually, she agrees, but en route she discovers that the mission was put together by a religious cult, and it’s one of those that treats women like chattel (the women must shave their heads and wear inflated coveralls to hide their figures so they don’t tempt the men, ffs). Once they land on Antares, things start to go wrong. The flora and fauna is lethal, the cultists have seized power, and the mysterious aliens from the earlier books are somehow involved. I do like this series of bandes dessinées but Léo portrays all his religious characters as complete misogynists and it feels a little one-note – especially when set against all the strong female characters in the series.

Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978), I read for review for SF Mistressworks. I was not impressed – see here. I have another four of these books on the TBR, and another two to track down if I want to complete the series.

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerThe Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012), I picked up in a charity shop because it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat puzzled it was shortlisted. A flu pandemic in the US kills off 99% of the population, and the remainder inevitably turn to survivalism, rape, murder and so on. As they do in post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrator, however, has it quite good – he lives at a small airfield, and has a small Cessna plane which he often flies, scouting out the area he shares with his gun-nut neighbour (they’re the only two people who live there). The narrator also suffered in the past from meningitis, and as a result the prose is written in a sort of lightly-fractured English, with many fragmentary declarative sentences. This serves no purpose in the story, it’s just an excuse for the prose style. And the gun-nut is basically a rip-off of Sobchak, John Goodman’s character, in The Big Lebowski. The first half of The Dog Stars comprises a series of incidents showing how nasty everyone is – and how few women remain. Then the narrator hears a radio message from some distance away, and decides to fly there to learn who broadcast it. En route, he stumbles across a blind box canyon, in which lives a man and his daughter. The narrator falls for the daughter. It takes something special to make a post-apocalypse novel notable and there’s nothing special in The Dog Stars.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach (2013). I’d seen a number of positive mentions of this space opera, so when I saw a copy going cheap at Edge-Lit, I bought it. But, well… the narrator is sort of fun, an ambitious mercenary who is very, very good at what she does – but her arrogance started to wear thin after a while. The power armour is handled well, and I quite liked the gentle references to the suits of armour of knights of old. The protagonist’s home world featured some nice touches, even if it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny – a technological feudalistic society with a king worshipped as a god? The rest of the worldbuilding is even worse. There’s the nasty lizard aliens, the comedy bird aliens and the enigmatic glow-in-the-dark squid aliens. Oh, and the love interest is some sort of technological part-alien superhero. Narrator Deviana is so ambitious, she leaves the mercenary brigade and takes a job as on board security for a free trader who seems to attract trouble. Yes, it’s all a bit like a role-playing game. Annoyingly, Bach only reveals what is blindingly obvious in this book, and I’m assuming the more interesting questions will be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy. Which is annoying, as I won’t be reading them.

cthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, HP Lovecraft (1999). I’m pretty sure I’ve read Lovecraft in the past – in fact, I have a quite vivid memory of the cover art of a Lovecraft collection which, I think, I borrowed from Coventry City Library back in the early 1990s. It’s hard to be sure, given there’s so many different ways to pick up knowledge of his oeuvre and the Cthulhu mythos – I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG when I was at school, for example. Having said that, none of the stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories seemed especially familiar. I’d always thought Lovecraft’s prose of poor quality, and despite a recent discussion on that subject, I suspect I may be revising my opinion. The early stuff is pretty bad – Q: when is a door not a door? A: when it’s a “panelled portal”; and Lovecraft had a bad habit of saying something is indescribable… and then going on to describe it. But by the late 1920s, his writing had improved hugely, and in stories like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928) and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ (1931), he’d toned down his love of adjectives to great effect; and while he might still recycle his favourite words a few times too often, the less-is-more approach was certainly better at evoking eldritch horror. I have to admit, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I’d expected. Happily, I bought all three of the Penguin Modern Classic Lovecraft books, so I have The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, all in nice matching paperback editions.

WizardHuntersThe Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003). I bought this a few years ago for a planned reading challenge in which each month for a year I’d read the first book of a popular fantasy series and then write about it. I lasted six months before giving up. The Wizard Hunters, the first book of The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I’d heard positive noises about, so I picked it as one of my twelve books. And it’s sat on my TBR ever since. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read as part of reading challenge – it probably stacks up better against the other books I’d chosen back then, when I was a little more receptive to epic fantasy. Now, reading The Wizard Hunters I found myself mostly bored, and annoyed at how bad a lot of the writing was. Often I’d have to go back and reread something because Wells’ prose wasn’t clear enough – there was a line, which I now can’t find, of course, in which the main protagonist Tremaine shakes her head and then puts it to one side. Tremaine was, I admit, fun; as was her companion, Florian (a woman in the book, even though the name is masculine; but never mind); and I did like the mix of magic and early twentieth-century technology…  But it took too long for the story get moving, the writing bounced from serviceable to bad, and there was far too much back-story the reader was expected to know. I won’t be, er, hunting down the sequels.

Nine months in and I’m still alternating genders in my fiction reading. I fully expect it to be 50:50 come 31 December. Admittedly, I still have a way to go before I have gender-parity on my book-shelves, but I’m always on the look-out for sf novels by women writers for SF Mistressworks and books by female literary fiction writers – especially post-war British literary fiction, such as that by Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, so if anyone has any suggestions for similar authors I’d be very grateful.

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readings & watchings 2011 #1

A month into the year, more or less, and so time for some more filler in lieu of proper content. Here are the books I’ve read and the films I’ve seen…

Books
The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010). Dear me, how much did they spend on this? Nearly $4 million for the trilogy? No wonder it’s been hyped to buggery. Was it worth the money? Sadly, no. The first third is very good indeed, but then the book bogs down badly, and never quite recovers. Further, everything in it is just far too familiar, there’s almost nothing that’s new. And those borrowings are entirely from films – in no way does The Passage build on earlier vampire or post-apocalyptic written works. It’s like watching a “That’s Showbusiness” compilation, one that’s been extended to last most of the day. I can understand the book selling well – it would be strange if it hadn’t, given all the money spent on marketing it – but I’m puzzled by its inclusion on so many best of the year lists. Did I miss the memo? Was I not concentrating when we all decided as a genre that recycling tired old clichés from movies was preferable to new, innovative ideas? I wrote a bit about The Passage here.

Genesis, Bernard Beckett (2006), I recall hearing good things about a couple of years ago. But at the time the book proved somewhat elusive. Recently, it re-appeared in a very cheap edition, so I bought a copy. It’s a not a novella, it’s a YA novel. And a thin one at that. I hated it. It’s framed as the oral examination of a candidate for the Academy, the ruling elite of an island nation which is all that remains after a plague has devastated the Earth. The first few questions of this exam are effectively, “explain the world of this story to the reader so they can follow what little plot the book possesses”. We then get pages of badly-disguised info-dumps, in which the character speaks not in dialogue but in descriptive prose. There’s an interesting twist at the end, the writing is mostly very good, the book presents complex ideas in an easily-digestible fashion, but it’s all been done before and it’s so clumsily-structured it’s almost embarrassing to read.

0.4, Mike Lancaster (2011), I actually read for review for Interzone, but it proved unsuitable as it’s aimed at eleven-year-olds. It’s another sf novel which references film and television, but not the written form. So nothing in it seems especially original. Still, I wasn’t the target audience, so it’s no surprise I found it unsatisfactory.

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Music for Another World, Mark Harding (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles. My review is here.

Spreading My Wings, Diana Barnato Walker (2003), I read for research for a story I was writing. Barnato Walker was an early British aviatrix – she learnt to fly between the wars, and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when it was formed during World War II. Later, she flew a BAC Lightning and became the first British woman to pilot an aircraft through the Sound Barrier. Spreading My Wings, despite the somewhat naff title, is a fascinating read. Barnato Walker’s voice is engaging, she has a remarkable memory for details, and she led an interesting life.

The Sodom and Gomorrah Business, Barry N Mazlberg (1974), in which Malzberg attempts to channel JG Ballard and fails. I know Malzberg was a mainstay of the US New Wave (take note: not the New Wave, which was British, but the US movement of the same name it inspired; the US New Wave needs that qualifying “US” to distinguish it from the original (British) New Wave). The Sodom and Gomorrah Business would happily have fitted into either movement on each side of the Atlantic, although I suspect it’s closer to the UK side in tone and implementation. At some indefinite point in the near-ish future, two young men from an institute which produces mercenaries play hooky and visit the nearby post-apocalyptic city. They’re captured by “savages”, who prove to be not quite as uncivilised as advertised, and one is forced into leading them in an attack on the institution. Which is run entirely by robots, who are themselves running down. It’s all very hip and nihilistic, but the prose can’t quite carry it.

Spacesuits, Amanda Young (2009), is about, well, spacesuits – specifically the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Sylvow, Douglas Thompson (2010), I reviewed for Interzone instead of 0.4. Thompson could be a name to watch, if this is any indication. Weirdly, the name of the publisher of Sylvow, Eibonvale Press, appears nowhere on this book, not even on the spine.

First on the Moon, Jeff Sutton (1958), is Sutton’s debut novel and its title pretty much tells you the plot. It’s all manly men of America and dastardly Russkies, pure pulp from start to finish, and not especially scientifically accurate, despite the author being an aviation journalist. I plan to review it on my Space Books blog.

Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005), is the short, copiously-illustrated autobiography of an astronaut who flew on two Shuttle missions. A review of it will appear on my Space Books blog soon.

Films
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Series 6 (1997). So only one season left and I’ll have seen the lot. I’ve heard it said by many, and I was starting to believe it myself, that Deep Space Nine is the best of the Trek franchises. But, oh dear, they plumbed the depths in this season. The war with the Dominion was getting interesting, although the Vorta Weyoun is really irritating. But they resolved the war – at least as it pertains to Deep Space Nine itself – by retaking the station in one of the crappiest-looking and unconvincing space battles in Trek history. Other episodes tried hard for interesting themes, but only proved embarrassingly bad. The student crew of a battleship behind enemy lines, for example. The writers aimed for pathos, missed, and hit bathos. The episode where Quark changes sex in order to help Grand Nagus Zek back into power was cringe-inducing. The Ferengi are cringe-inducing, anyway. Who thought comedy Shylocks was a good idea? Even the better episodes in this season can’t compare with earlier seasons – O’Brian makes an unconvincing undercover cop, and the reason why he was recruited is never satisfactorily explained; the super-secret Section 31 seems completely antithetical to the philosophy of Trek; and the episodes set in the Vegas show-lounge on the holodeck just seemed really cheap. Let’s hope the final season is better.

State Of The Union, dir. Frank Capra (1948). I don’t know why Capra gets so much stick. I really enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life, and Lost Horizon is a pretty good film. I suppose Capra was one of your original “Hollywood liberals”, and so it’s become the fashion to sneer at his output. And it’s true that State Of The Union doesn’t map onto modern US politics – and probably didn’t map onto US politics of 1948, either. Spencer Tracy plays a self-made millionaire – an aircraft manufacturer, of course – who is persuaded to run for high office. He’s estranged from his wife, played by Katherine Hepburn, but in order to secure the Republican nomination, they need to pretend to be happily wed. Cue much rapid-fire screwball rom com banter, and an eventual happy ending. By all accounts, Capra’s film stripped out much of the wit in the original play, written by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay. Perhaps it’s true that Capra’s films can be a little anodyne – even the politics espoused in State Of The Union is a combination of common-sense and light Hollywood liberalism. As a satire on American politics, the film has little bite. But then, I suspect it was never intended to. The title may reference the president’s annual speech, but it’s the union between Tracy and Hepburn which has precedence in the film. Capra’s reputation may have tarnished somewhat over the years, but he still made entertaining, enjoyable films… which was not always true of his contemporaries.

A Winter’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1992), is the second of Rohmer’s Contes quatre saison. Félicie fell in love with Charles while on holiday, but stupidly gave him the wrong address by mistake when the holiday ended. As he was heading off to the US, she had no way of contacting him… or of telling him that he was now the father of a daughter. Five years pass. Félicie is a hairdresser in Paris, sleeping with both Maxence, owner of the salon where she works, and librarian Loïc. But she still loves  Charles. Maxence persuades her to move with him Nevers, to live with him and work in the salon he is opening there. She agrees. But she’s unable to settle down with Maxence – she can’t love him the way she loves Charles – so she returns to Paris… and entirely coincidentally bumps into Charles on a bus. So they get back together. Like the first film of the quartet, A Tale Of Springtime (see here), this is a quiet, slow but deep study of its characters – especially Félicie. She’s not especially likable – Loïc loves her, but she’s clearly not his intellectual equal and it’s hard to determine what she gets from her relationship with him. Maxence, at least, makes for a more understandable partner for her, but even then she fails to understand his expectations. Félicie comes across as a spoilt dreamer… but then Rohmer allows her dream to come true. As a result, the film lacks any real resolution.

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, dir. Chris Columbus (2010), is based on a popular YA fantasy series, just like the Harry Potter films. And just like the Harry Potter films, it’s about a teenager who discovers he is not an ordinary person, but has special powers. Even more so, just like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson’s powers are more special than those of the other kids with special powers. This because he is a son of Poseidon. When someone steals Zeus’ lightning bolt, everyone suspects Percy Jackson, although he has been happily living the life of a mundane, unaware of his special Harry-Potter-like powers. This abrupt eruption of Greek godly adventure into his life, he takes with aplomb, a readiness to learn how to use his special powers, and a beady eye for a feisty young woman. The Greek pantheon is cleverly integrated into this Harry Potter clone – it is, at least, a bit more original than Jennings Goes to Wizard School – but it still feels like by-the-numbers for a target audience. Good special effects, though.

From Here To Eternity, dir. Fred Zinnemann (1953), is one of those classic 1950s films everyone knows of. Well, there’s that iconic scene with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling about and snogging in the surf. In fact, that was pretty much all I knew about the film. That, and Frank Sinatra was in it and won an Oscar for best supporting actor. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that it’s not really about Lancaster’s character, but about the one played by Montgomery Clift. And it’s about boxing – or rather, not boxing – in the US Army. It’s also set in Hawaii, in the year leading up to Pearl Harbour. Clift plays a bugler who has transferred to a rifle company on Oahu. He used to be a boxer, and was very good at it, but gave up when he blinded a friend during a sparring bout. The rifle company’s CO, however, won’t take no for an answer, and instructs his NCOs to begin a campaign of harassment and bullying until Clift agrees to box. Lancaster, the first sergeant, a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier, disagrees with his CO, and does his best to make sure Clift comes to no real harm. Meanwhile, Lancaster has also fallen in love with his CO’s wife, Kerr, which is a definite no-no in the armed forces. Sinatra plays Clift’s buddy in the barracks, who’s a bit of a chancer and introduces Clift to the Oahu night-life. To be honest, Lancaster should have got the Oscar – he’s the best thing in the entire film. It’s also bizarre that the film never mentions the war taking place elsewhere on the planet… until it abruptly intrudes in the final quarter of the film. I suspect there was a better film to be made of From Here To Eternity‘s script, because this one feels too ordinary for much of its length to justify the eight Oscars it won. A classic, then, but not a great classic.

George And The Dragon, dir. Tom Reeve (2004), I reviewed for the Zone here.

The Secret In Their Eyes, dir. Juan José Campanella (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Seventh Continent, dir. Michael Haneke (1989), was Haneke’s debut film, and is apparently inspired by a true story. A young Austrian couple, solidly middle-class, with a young daughter; she works and co-owns an opthalmic practice, he’s an engineer at a chemical plant. Haneke shows us a day in their life – troubles at work, dull routine, a voice-over reading out a letter from the wife to her mother-in-law. We then see another similar day a year later. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. But their life together is still mostly comfortable. In the final part of the film, the couple tell all their friends and relatives they are emigrating to Australia. They empty their bank accounts, sell their half of the opthalmic practice, and spend all their money on a massive feast. They then smash everything in their house. Finally, they commit suicide. No reason is given for them taking their lives, and nothing is presented in the first two parts of the film which might explain it. So, right from the start Haneke was making films which defied easy explanation, which did not adhere to the usual rules of film narrative. Last year, I bought the Michael Haneke Collection DVD set, which contains Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and Hidden. Annoyingly, Artificial Eye have now brought out the Michael Haneke Anthology DVD set, which contains ten of his films – all but The White Ribbon, in fact. And including the four I already own. Bah.

Laputa – Castle In The Sky, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1986), is the second of Studio Ghibli’s film, which I am slowly working my way through (though I’ve seen several of the later ones). There’s lots in here that’s common to Miyazaki’s films – the feisty young girl, the bizarre steampunk-ish aesthetic, the teenage boy sidekick, a world recovering from a past unexplained catastrophe, a focus on a simple life-style, and a villain with a moustache… In the world of Laputa – Castle In The Sky, there used to be flying cities, but most have gone – all except Laputa, which is now considered near-mythical. Sheeta escapes from Colonel Muska when pirates, led by their mother Dola, attack the airship carrying her. She is found by Puza, who agrees to help her. The chase is on – both Muska and Dola after Sheeta and Puza. But it turns out Dola and her piratical sons are actually the good guys, and with their help Sheeta and Puza find the lost flying city of Laputa. Which is what Muska was after – or rather, its fabulous technology. But only Sheeta and Puza hold the secret to the city. Entertaining, with some lovely visuals, but the plot is a little too familiar and doesn’t quite hang together in a couple of places.

Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista here.