After a run of male authors in my last Reading diary, it’s a run of female writers… including one novel I had never planned to read. These days, “Hugo Award winner” is more likely to make me put a book down than actually pick it up. Um, looking back over the history of the award, I can’t say I’ve ever really used it as a guide to my genre reading and have always felt it has picked far more duds than actual classics.
The Milkman, Michael Martineck (2014, USA). Michael is a friend of many years, around two decades in fact, although we only met for the first time in person at the Worldcon in Helsinki this August. And it’s just as well I know Michael as The Milkman posits a horrible corporatised world and does so with a completely straight face. But I know Michael does not believe the politics the book presents… because they really are quite nasty. The story is told from several viewpoints. A young woman is murdered outside a bar, but there are no clues to the crime. The corporate police officer tasked with solving the crime – assuming it can be done economically – finds himself hitting a brick wall. A film-maker is paid to make a documentary about the Milkman, a mysterious figure who analyses milk from corporate dairy farms and posts his results on an anonymous website. And then there’s the Milkman himself, who’s a low-level bureaucrat who, with his network of co-conspirators, tests milk as a hobby. The Milkman does a good job of presenting a world in which everything is owned by one of three corporations, and manages to use it effectively in a mystery/thriller plot. Personally, I’d have liked more commentary on the world – I mean, it’s a horrible place to be, and presenting arguments from the characters that it’s preferable to the “old world” made the novel sound approving. It’s a political novel, and when it comes to political novels the author needs to wear their politics on their sleeve. You can’t let the reader draw their own conclusions, because they might well draw the wrong ones. There’s enough right-wing sf out there – the entire genre is essentially right-wing – and commentary against it is sorely needed in science fiction. Much as I enjoyed The Milkman, it felt too ambivalent toward its world – despite the final scenes set among those who had opted out – and I’d liked it to have been a little more overt in its politics.
Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1989, Austria). I’m a big fan of Michael Haneke’s films, and after seeing his The Piano Teacher, and learning that it was an adaptation of a novel by a Nobel laureate, I bought the book and read it and thought it very good. And then recently I thought it about time I read more Jelinek, so I picked up a copy of Lust, as it was quite short. It was perhaps not the wisest book to read on my daily commute, given the title. But never mind. The story is a brutal depiction of a marriage in wich the wife is treated as chattel by her husband. And when she eventually breaks free and finds herself a lover, he proves just as bad. What I had not remembered from The Piano Teacher, and perhaps that was down to the translator, but Lust was one long string of wordgames and puns and plays on words. It was relentless. Given its subject, it should come as no surprise the wordplay mostly focuses on sex, and especially on the male sex organ. I have no idea how this worked in German, or in the Austrian dialect in which Jelinek writes, but in English it felt to me like a dilution of the novel’s central point. The wife is entirely subject to the husband, she exists to satisfy his sexual desires, just as much as she is there to look after him and their spoilt son. Some of the expressions used, “shot his bolt”, for example, feel too… childish, schoolboyish, and while I get that the breadth and variety are what’s important, it does seem to detract from the brutality. This is an ugly book, about an ugly subject, so perhaps the wordplay is intended to add to that ugliness and it works much better in German. But this is definitely a book that provokes a reaction, and I’ll be reading more Jelinek.
Valerian & Laureline 19: At the Edge of the Great Void (2004, France). Cinebook are churning these out at a much faster rate after the Besson film, which is all to the good. At the Edge of the Great Void kicks off a new story-arc, which I think is the last for the duo. Valerian and Laureline are posing as itinerant traders on the edge of the Great Void because they feel the key to restoring Earth lies within it. But their plans are scuppered when Valerian is arrested. Fortunately, Laureline has made some friends, and with their help, she arranges an escape for Valerian, and the two of them join the crew of a ship heading into the Great Void. The story is mostly set-up – it introduces a new alien race, the Limboz, and drops hints about a plot by the Triumvirate, villains from an earlier story, and some sentient stones, the Woloch, who are clearly intended to provide the plot for the next few episodes. I’ve yet to see to Besson’s film, although I expect to be disappointed. The Valerian and Laureline series is massively inventive – there’s a good argument, although likely wrong, that it influenced Star Wars – and there’s a very dry wit in the interaction between the two main characters. But the stories are also very cut-down, so much so it often feels like bits of the plot have been left on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the opposite of decompression. Which, er, would be compression. I suspect it’s an artefact of the series’ original magazine appearances and limited page-count.
The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin (2015, USA). I had no plans to read this, for all that it won a raft of awards, and was shortlisted for many more (including, according to the back cover, the James Tiptree Jr Award, which, er, doesn’t have a shortlist – it has an honour list, and I should know as I’ve been on it). Anyway, there was no real buzz around The Fifth Season, as there had been for God’s War and Ancillary Justice, probably because The Fifth Season was Jemisin’s sixth novel – and, on top of that, it was fantasy, which is of zero interest to me. But some people said it was actually science fiction, not fantasy, and I heard some good things about it and, I admit it, the clincher was the fact it was going for £2 from a near-monopolitistic online retailer… So I bought it. And… It certainly smells like science fiction rather than fantasy; and if its sessapinae and orogeny is hand-wavy bullshit, it’s no more so than FTL, or indeed most of sf’s common tropes. It’s not worth summarising the plot, as much of it is linked to the world-building. The Fifth Season is set late in Earth’s history, when the planet is unstable, and “fifth seasons”, periods of intense seismic and/or volcanic activity, often bringing on nuclear winters, occur every few centuries. A new one has just kicked off as the book opens. There are three narratives, each following a female character – an orogene (ie, a person who can, among other things, control siesmic events) who has been in hiding for many years; a young girl with ability who is sold to an imperial order of trained orogenes; and a “four-ring” orogene of that order who is tasked with accompanying a “ten-ring” orogene to clear a town’s harbour of coral. The first narrative is written in the second person; the other two are more traditional. Initially, I thought the novel better than average – the prose was doing the job, but the world-building was interesting, if a little overdone (but we’ve all been there, nothing brings in the nerds like an excess of world-building detail). It was brutal in places – ho hum, it’s all that genre fiction does these days. So… enjoying it, but, on balance, unlikely to bother with the rest of the trilogy. And then I realised the book was using time-stacked narratives. Those three main characters were the same woman during different periods of her life. And things started to slot together like a piece of IKEA furniture. Now it was a much more interesting novel. Now, I might actually read the sequels. Did it deserve to win the Hugo? Given the shortlist… probably. I’ve read the Leckie, but the trilogy pretty much nose-dived after the first book. The other three shortlisted works do not appeal at all. If it hadn’t been for the £2 price point, I’d probably never have bothered reading The Fifth Season. Maybe if I’d stumbled across a copy in a charity shop, I might have given it a go. But I am glad I read it.
The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986, USA). I’m no stranger to Brackett’s fiction, having been a fan for a number of years – ever since reading the collection, Sea-Kings of Mars, in the Fantasy Masterworks series, in fact. The stories in that collection are not fantasy, of course. But Sea-Kings of Mars was not the only book in the Fantasy Masterworks series that was actually science fiction. There are ten stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett, and they’re all, well, typical Brackett. Some I had read before. They’re set on planets and moons of the Solar System which share names with the planets and moons we know but otherwise bear no resemblance – Mars is a desert world, inhabited by ancient dying races; Venus is a jungle world, also, er, inhabited by dying ancient races; the moons of Jupiter are inhabited; as is Mercury… In fact, Brackett pretty much turned every planet and moon on the Solar System into the sort of exotic location used in a Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s always the same – a dying race, a dead culture, a degraded society, and a jaded hero from Earth – pretty much always the US – who overcomes local taboos and superstitions to win the prize. It’s pure Hollywood, so it’s no surprise Brackett worked extensively in movies, her best-known scripts being Rio Bravo (my favourite western) and The Empire Strikes Back. Leigh Brackett and CL Moore were female pioneers in sf – not the only ones, by any means, and it could be argued Gertrude Barrows Bennett was more of a pioneer – but Moore and Brackette were big names in the genre fiction back in the 1940s, and while their style of science fiction is no longer popular, there’s no doubt they were very good at what they did. Perhaps too good, in some respects – some of stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett are dismayingly misogynist. It’s nothing unusual when you compare it to, say, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (it continues to amuse me that ‘Doc’ is always presented in quotes), but I’d expected better of Bracket – and she has indeed done better in other stories. Despite the title, The Best of Leigh Brackett does not contain any of her more celebrated stories, except perhaps ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – but since those stories appear in plenty of other Brackett collections, that’s to its advantage. I’d also dispute the stories here were her best – I thought the aforementioned Sea-Kings of Mars a better selection. Nonetheless, Brackett is always worth reading.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131