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Reading diary 2018, #18

I really need to get SF Mistressworks back up and running. I posted some reviews earlier this year, after a twelve month hiatus, and I’ve read plenty of eligible books – including two below – since I last posted a review there. It would be a shame to let it all lapse. Especially since I keep on seeing articles by people which more or less claim women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon. Sigh.

And entirely coincidentally to the above, the half-dozen books here are all by women writers. I decided to knock off the Scott trilogy in quick succession, instead of one per month as originally planned; and, well, I’d been meaning to read the Gentle for years – I bought it when it was published… fifteen years ago! I have books I bought decades ago and have yet to read. I really ought to get that sorted.

Silence in Solitude, Melissa Scott (1986, USA). This is the second book of the trilogy following Silence Leigh, a pilot, and now mage, in a universe in which magic is used to travel FTL between worlds. Silence has been accepted as a candidate for training by the mages, despite the fact no woman has ever displayed, or been seen or acknowledged to display, any ability as a mage previously. But the hegemon is still after her because she broke his geas, and the Rose Worlders, guardians of the road to Earth, are also after her because she nearly broke past the siege engines they use to blockade the route to Earth. While researching routes to Earth – entirely ex-curricula and without permission – at the mages’ college, Silence discovers a reference to an ancient book of interstellar navigation, the portolan. And the only person likely to have a copy of this ancient text is the satrap of Inarime, who is fortunately a friend of Silence’s teacher, the mage Isambard. And, happily, the satrap does prove to own a portolan. Unhappily, there is a price for it. The hegemon has the satrap’s daughter in the Palace of Women, a strongly-guarded seraglio on the Hegemony’s capital planet. Silence must free the daughter in order to win the portolan. And that’s what this novel is about. Silence infiltrating the Palace of Women. Silence discovering what life is like in the Palace of Women. Silence plotting to escape the Palace of Women with the satrap’s daughter. It’s all good stuff. It goes without saying that Silence succeeds, with help from the daughter, although it’s a close-run thing. But then… Silence in Solitude jumps the shark. As part of the escape plan, the satrap’s fleet attacks the capital world as a diversion. But they run into the hegemon’s fleet and battle is joined. And the satrap’s side is losing. Until Silence does some magic stuff and re-tunes her ship’s keel so it sends out a note that destroys all the hegemon’s ships. And so the satrap becomes the new hegemon, and Silence is a heroine. The sections set in the Women’s Palace are good, as is the bit where Silence is taught magery… but her two husbands, Chase Mago and Balthasar, are still only sketched in, and even Isambard seems more like a stereotype than an actual character. But the satrap’s daughter, Aili, is quite good, the plot mostly romps along, and the background is pretty interesting. So far, this is proving to be a fun trilogy.

Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada). I bought this because it was inspired by Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (see here), which is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Toews plays a wife whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman. Toews used the experience of working on the film as a plot for a novel about a young woman who is hired to translate Mennonite Plattdeutsch for a critically-acclaimed Mexican director who is making a film in the Mennonite community. The title character and narrator of Irma Voth has been thrown out of her home after marrying a young Mexican man, and is living in a neighbouring house owned by her father. The film crew live in a third house owned by the father. Irma has a younger sister who still lives with their father, but wants to leave. The movie gets made, although it’s a somewhat chaotic production, and Irma and her sister end up running away to a nearby city. They live rough for a while, but then Irma gets a job as housemaid at a B&B, and the two settle down to a life free from their family and community. However, the real draw of Irma Voth is the prose, which is written in first person, without speech marks. This is the proper way to do a first-person narrative. It’s all about the world-view, it’s about filtering events through the narrator’s personality; and not the cheap and easy story-telling far too many first-person narratives prove to be. The movie described in Irma Voth doesn’t actually map onto Stellet Licht – and I would hope Toews’s director is not a true depiction of Reygadas. I will be watching more films by Reygadas, and I will be reading more books by Toews.

The Empress of Earth, Melissa Scott (1987 USA).  And so we come to the third and final book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, and, well, the journey here was at least a lot of fun, but this is a disappointing end to the trilogy. Silence and her friends finally reach Earth, and Scott decides to riff off UFO mythology and treat their arrival like some sort of close encounter. But they, er, crash-land without discovery, and then must discover what is going on and why Earth has been blockaded by the Rose Worlds – which is never actually really explained. When Silence does a bit of magic, she’s hailed as “the empress of Earth”, although where the legend came from or what it means is all a bit of a mystery. It all feels somewhat over-familiar, which the previous two books did not, and the resolution is massively rushed. The plan to free Earth is discussed on page 315, and it’s all over, as is the book, by page 346. It’s as if there were a fourth book waiting, but Scott chose not, or was not contracted, to write it. Of course, it’s not the first time something like this has happened in science fiction. It’s a commercial genre, after all. And there have been plenty of sf writers happy to churn out yet another episode as long as an editor was willing to buy it. EC Tubb managed 31 books of the Dumarest saga before Donald A Wollheim died and his daughter chose not to continue the series. An unsatisfactory conclusion to the series was published by a small press in 1992 (in French; in 1997 in English). I don’t know that something like this happened with the Silence Leigh – or Roads to Heaven – series, although I understand this book has been extensively rewritten for its present Kindle publication. Which is annoying. Although I can understand why Scott took the opportunity to rewrite it. A disappointing end to what had been an interesting trilogy.

1610: Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK). As mentioned above, I bought this book fifteen years ago. And it has sat unread on my bookshelves ever since. Despite the fact I’m a big fan of Gentle’s fiction. But. She writes such big novels. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is 594pp! And my copy is the hardback edition. It must weigh about ten kilos. (Slight exaggeration.) I am a big fan of brevity (see the Apollo Quartet…), but I also recognise the appeal of longer works. And with Gentle you know you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. Her research is incredible. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is, like Ash: A Secret History, a series of nested narratives, with the innermost one providing the bulk of the contents. An “introduction” describes how the author (unnamed, but surely Gentle herself) was as a child a big fan of a particular (invented) Dumas-esque book, and was surprised to learn it was based on real historical figures. There then follows a fragment of a document by Robert Fludd, a Jacobean occult philosopher and mathematician (like the earlier Dr John Dee), which is described as one of several documents found with the memoirs of Rochefort. And it is Rochefort’s memoirs which form the main narrative of 1610: Sundial in a Grave. The disgraced son of the retired Marshal of France, Rochefort is responsible for the assassination of Henri IV, at the instigation of Henri’s wife Marie de Medici, although he had been blackmailed into it and had planned for it to fail as his master, the Duc de Sully, wanted… But Rochefort ends up fleeing France, knowing there are plenty of people who want his head. Including hothead duellist Dariole, who had been challenging Rochefort for months. All of which leads to Rochefort on a Normandy beach fighting Dariole, rescuing Saburo, the sole survivor of a Japanese mission to King James I, taking ship to England with both, becoming embroiled in the plot by Robert Fludd to assassinate James I, foiling that plot, and… It’s all about the mathematics invented by Bruno Giordano – a real historical figure who appears in, and inspired, Gentle’s White Crow novels – which is capable of predicting the future, especially a comet due to obliterate life on Earth in the twenty-first century (yes, please). As well as numerous events before that cataclysm. Rochefort and Dariole are great characters, not that much different from White Crow and Casaubon (and yes, Dariole’s secret was pretty obvious right from the start) inasmuch as they’re both almost too good to be true. There’s a unexpected strain of BDSM throughout the novel – the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole is predicated on it – but if anything it adds depth to their interactions. The historical detail is, unsurprisingly, hugely convincing. Gentle does historical filth and smells extremely well. At 594pp, 1610: Sundial in a Grave is not a short book, but it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. Surprisingly, the book ends on a happy note, although there’s a cunning slingshot inasmuch as it suggests an origin, and a purpose, for the Rosicrucians, which ties into the whole occult mathematics mythos. I thought the book excellent, and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. And I really do need to read two other books by Gentle I own which I’ve yet to read.

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand (2012, USA). This is the second of a trilogy, preceded by Generation Loss and followed by Hard Light. I’ve not read the first – the paperback is already out of print in the UK. Available Dark does refer to the events of Generation Loss, but it’s not necessary to have read it. Briefly, in the first book cult photographer Cassie Neary was involved in the murder of another photographer, close enough that she’d be behind bars if her true role were known. At least, that’s how Available Dark presents the events of Generation Loss. Neary has been in an artistic slump for years and is best known for a single book published years earlier. Neary specialises in photographs of dead people – the story throws around names like Joel-Peter Witkin and WeeGee – and it’s because of that she’s offered a job by a shady Norwegian character. He wants her to go to Helsinki to view a series of six photos by a famous Finnish fashion photographer. The Finnish photographer was once also into death photography, and the series depicts victims in bizarre murders. Coincidentally, Neary has received a mysterious message from a past lover she had thought long dead. And he’s in Reykjavík. After telling the Norwegian the photos are worth buying, Neary heads to Iceland to track down her old boyfriend. Then the Finnish photographer and his assistant are brutally murdered, and it’s all to do with the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, grim Icelandic troll-like figures who were used to scare children, Nordic black metal in the 1990s, the member of one of those bands called Galdur who now lives out in the Icelandic wilderness, his band’s only, and incredibly rare,  album, and events in Oslo back in the 1990s at the aforementioned Norwegian’s metal club. And, of course, the series of six photographs. An ignorant puff on the back of the book confuses black metal and death metal – they’re different genres – but Hand has a good, er, handle on the music. Neary, however, is a little too good to be true, a little too much of the sort of unkillable drug addict hard case you’d find in an urban fantasy rather than a realistic crime novel. The Reykjavík of 2012 also apparently bears little resemblance to the Reykjavík I visited in 2016, or even in 2018 (though, to be fair, I saw a number of changes between my two visits). Available Dark started out well enough, a slightly off-kilter thriller about death photography and Norwegian black metal, but the character of Neary sort of ruined it. She was too good to be true, too tough to be realistic. And it all hung on a series of murders from the 1990s that seemed unlikely to have gone undetected. I’ve always preferred novels about female detectives to those about male ones, but Available Dark, while structured like a crime novel, felt more like an urban fantasy.

Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1990, USA). I know Hoffman’s name, but I don’t think I’d read anything by her before reading this, except perhaps a story in an anthology – although none spring to mind. Which is a shame, as the contents of this short collection are actually pretty damned good. Hoffman’s approach to fiction is probably epitomised by ‘Savage Breasts’, in which a woman sends off for an exerciser after seeing an ad for “Charlotte Atlas”, but her new-found bustiness proves her undoing when her breasts demonstrate they have a life of their own. This is one of the most, er, savagely feminist stories I’ve ever read, and I’m surprised it didn’t appear in Sisters of the Revolution (although, weirdly, it was reprinted in an anthology of comic fantasy, Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves, edited by Alan Dean Foster and Martin H Greenberg, which looks best avoided). The other stories in Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire don’t match ‘Savage Breasts’, but they’re well-written, with a slightly-sideways approach so they sit somewhere between mainstream and genre. The title story, for example, has a stranger visit a very small town in middle America, and offer an enigmatic choice to the narrator, who happens to be a person of short stature. That’s the only story that isn’t about women, although the a woman joins the narrator is accepting the stranger’s challenge. I think perhaps I should try some more Hoffman.

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Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

books
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.


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Reading diary, #21

The first batch of 2016’s reading, which, er, seems to be entirely works from last year. I don’t normally read a great deal of recent fiction, and especially books that are less than twelve months old – although, to be fair, I need to get my choices in for the BSFA Award before the end of the month… And some of them feature below. It’ll be interesting to see if the longlist approach has made much of a difference to the shortlist. (I note that ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of the PM Press collection, see below, was actually eligible but no one appears to have nominated it for the long list. Which is a shame.)

fleshandwiresFlesh & Wires, Jackie Hatton (2015). So I went on the Aqueduct Press website with the intention of buying both Elysium and Necessary Ill, both books I’d been planning to pick up for a while… and I saw mention of Flesh & Wires, as well as a pair of novellas, A Day in the Deep Freeze (which I’ve nominated for the BSFA Award) and The XY Conspiracy, bunged them into my basket and bought them… And the first of the three novels I read was Flesh & Wires. To be honest, the blurb made the novel sound more interesting than it proved to be. Which is not to say it wasn’t good. The set-up worked, the plot worked, the characters were well-drawn, there were just some elements of the background which read as confused and a little, well, clichéd. The Earth was invaded by aliens, who killed off most of the population, but kept some women, and turned them into sort of cyborgs by means of “wires”. But then the aliens died of an Earthly disease, and a new set of aliens, Orbiters, turned up, and sort of helped the surviving women – and handful of men – to rebuild. The novel is set in a small town just south of New York, and told chiefly from the point-of-view of a powerful “wired” woman who is the de facto leader of the town. When her brother, long thought dead, turns up and proves to be representing the Orbiters – and is not not at all honest about his intentions; and then a group of Orbiters exiled to Earth also appear, casting doubt on what the protagonist had believed of the current state of affairs… The end result is a solidly feminist sf novel that perhaps relies over much on somewhat dodgy tropes but manages to put a fresh spin on its plot. I’d also like to go on record as stating that Aqueduct Press publish some bloody good sf, and it’s always a pleasure to place orders with them.

my_fair_ladiesMy Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015). Subtitled “Female robots, androids and other artifical eves”, which pretty much describes its topic to a tee. The author was inspired by the discovery of a mannequin’s head in a street fair, and from that starting point goes on to cover historical representations of artificial women in Greek mythology, by Shaw and other late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century writers, before moving into films, television, robots occupying the uncanny valley, and finally artists, such as Cindy Sherman (although no mention of Gillian Wearing or Lenae Day), who explore the concept of “perfect manmade” women through their art. While the book goes into detail on early literary artificial women, later literature – particularly science fiction – is mentioned only in relation to film or television adaptations. So, no Susan Calvin, Asimov’s robot psychologist who behaved like a robot herself; nor the women of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space, who are all too eager to be uploaded into replacement robot bodies because it means “their tits won’t sag”; nor even Helen O’Loy. The list of fictional female robots and cyborgs on Wikipedia gives remarkably few examples from sf stories or novels, so perhaps it’s a topic written sf hasn’t tackled that much… although it feels like it has done; too prudish, perhaps, or maybe it required more self-examination than male writers of two-fisted space adventures were capable of; and female writers had more than enough material writing about real women. Anyway, fascinating stuff. One for the non-fiction BSFA Award.

large_737_gypsyGypsy, Carter Scholz (2015). I’d never heard of Scholz, although apparently he is held in high regard. Looking at some of the comments on this book, it’s clear he has plenty of genre friends in San Francisco/Oakland, where he lives – including Kim Stanley Robinson – and where PM Press is based. None of which is a reflection on Scholz’s ability, more on the requirement of connections and patronage in genre in order for good fiction to get noticed. And ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of this collection, is very good indeed. It’s 2015’s third generation starship story, and probably the best of the three as a generation starship story. Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time scores well because of its spider civilisation, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora has some good bits about narratology… but Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ goes for real science and engineering and paints a bleak picture – one not helped by the driving force behind the flight being the immanent collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Not that the flight itself provides any answers. The remainder of the collection comprises a somewhat tired epistolary short story, an essay about US economic shenanigans, a story presented as house committee testimony, and an interview with Scholz. I have a lot of time for Scholz’s approach to genre, as given in his interview, but only the title novella seems a good expression of it.

europeEurope at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). I thought Europe in Autumn a very good, if a little confused, novel – a superior near-future spy novel, it took an unexpected swerve around two-thirds in, which unsettled the plot but managed not to upset it. And now the sequel, Europe at Midnight, follows that swerve further around the curve and results in a very different novel of a type of science fiction that likely occupies a small place all its own in the genre’s corpus. In the nineteenth century, a wealthy family invented a new English county, which somehow came into being in a reality sideways from ours, and then subsequently expanded into Europe to form a Little England writ large: the Community. Which, it seems, has teeth. The novel opens in the Campus, a pocket universe 200 miles across which comprises one huge university, now having difficulty recovering after a bloody coup. The new Professor of Intelligence is suspicious of the Faculty of Science, but his investigations result in the termination of his position and a take-over by the Science people, who have suspiciously modern weapons. Fortunately, he escapes to our Europe… where he comes under the control of the UK intelligence services. Despite that disconcerting start, we’re now back in future spy novel territory… but even then, Europe at Midnight seems to slip across hidden borders into parallel fictions – much as some of its cast do – as it tells a story about Europe, the Campus and the Community which is only actually revealed in the final chapter. This is good stuff – a novel that cleverly runs our future alongside our memories of our past, and sets the scene for a war between the two. I’ll be nominating this for the BSFA Award.

wylding_hallWylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015). This appeared on the BSFA Award short fiction longlist, and was recommended by several people whose opinions I trust – and, it had to be said, the précis did sound interesting… so I bought it, read it, and I’m giving it one of my four slots on my BSFA Award ballot. An acid folk group in the very early seventies hires the eponymous country manor to rehearse and record their second album (following the suicide of the group’s original singer; she was also the girlfriend of the band’s main creative force). Wylding Hall is a strange place, but this novella doesn’t go for in-your-face ghosts and apparitions but a much more effective general atmosphere of uncertainty. Windhollow Faire come across as a believable band, and the links to the darker side of English folklore are well-handled. The story is told as the decades-later reminiscences of the band members, a technique which is especially effective as it gives it the authority of a Sky Arts documentary. I have only a couple of minor niggles – back then, a grammar school would have been more posh than a comprehensive, and Radio 3 – not BBC 3 – was always more into classical and jazz, not folk; and John Peel was on Radio 1, which was the station mostly likely to play electric folk at that time.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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readings & watchings 2011 #4

Here we go again – we know a song about that – it’s time for more scrapings from the petri-dish of popular and unpopular culture, as studied under the microscope by Your Scientifically-Minded Correspondent.

Books
Satan Wants Me, Robert Irwin (1999). Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare is one of the best fantasies of the 1980s, and his Night and Horses and the Desert (re-issued as The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature) is a highly-entertaining and informative study of, well, classical Arabic literature. Satan Wants Me – god knows what people thought when they saw me reading this on the tram during my commute to work – is presented as the journal of a hippie sociology doctoral student in early 1970s London. He has recently joined an occult group spun off from Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn. He’s also taking a lot of drugs. And he has some very weird friends. There are some very funny laugh-out-loud bits in this novel – which probably got me even stranger looks on the tram – and it’s sharply-observed throughout. Then it goes completely batshit weird towards the end. While not the classic The Arabian Nightmare is, it certainly confirms my belief that Irwin is a writer very much worth reading.

Cinco de Mayo, Michael Martineck (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. I’ve known Michael for a long time, though we’ve never actually met in person. We’re both members of an informal critting group, with a couple of other people – i.e., we email each other stories, novel extracts, etc., for comments. So I saw bits of Cinco de Mayo several years ago. But I’d never seen the finished product. I have now, and I enjoyed it very much. And thought it a happily diverse and intelligently put-together story. Definitely worth a read.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (1870). This 1973 edition of Verne’s classic has my name and old school number written on the ffep, which means I’ve owned this book for just over thirty years. So I must have read it at some point. I know the story – everyone does – but is that from actually reading the book, or just from some form of cultural osmosis? This (re)read did demonstrate that there’s much about the story I’d forgotten / not known. It’s very dull, for one thing. There are endless pages listing ocean flora and fauna. Very little actually happens. Aronnax et al go hunting a mysterious sea monster which has been sinking ships. In an encounter with it, they are swept overboard and then rescued by the monster… which proves to be a submarine: Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The Nautilus sails around the world, and they do things every now and again. Eventually, Aronnax and his two companions manage to escape, and witness the Nautilus being sucked into a giant maelstrom. That’s pretty much it. Some of the science is impressively detailed; in other places it is impressively wrong – the quoted ocean depths, for instance, are out by quite a margin, claiming the deepest part of the Pacific is something like 15,000 fathoms deep – that’s 90,000 feet! Challenger Deep is actually almost 36,000 feet deep – I know this because of this. Still, despite Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea being a bit of a slog to read, I actually fancy trying a bit more Verne. Perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced by David Herter’s Evening’s Empire

Phase Space, Stephen Baxter (2002), is a collection of short stories, many of which are off-cuts from Baxter’s Manifold trilogy. I read those three books back in 1999, 2000 and 2001 – when they were published, in other words. But not Phase Space. I have a lot of time for Baxter’s fiction, both short and long; but this collection was a bit of a disappointment. There’s some good stuff in it – ‘War Birds’, for example, which won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story in 1998 (and unfortunately resembles something I’ve been working on myself; damn); ‘Tracks’, based on an interview Baxter conducted with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke; ‘Moon-Calf’, about a retired astronaut on holiday in south-west England; ‘Barrier’, which is the sort of sf I’d be happy to have in Rocket Science. Unfortunately, many of the other stories follow a similar pattern – the narrative is interspersed with italicised first-person infodumps – and so they tend to blur together. And one or two, well, I was surprised to see they’d originally been published by Asimov’s and Interzone… Phase Space is not Baxter’s strongest collection by any means, but there’s some good stuff in it.

High Vacuum, Charles Eric Maine (1957). I’m currently working on a two-hander review of this and Jeff Sutton’s First on the Moon for my Space Books blog. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to contrast two novels about Moon landings written before the Apollo programme with the real world lunar landings. While I would have said there was plenty of drama in actually trying to get to the Moon, both Sutton and Maine clearly felt what was need for real drama was… a crash-landing.

Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson (1984). I have planned a “cage-fight” – which I will write up on this blog – between this book and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which I will have to read first; sigh). Because Icehenge is a much better candidate for the SF Masterwork series. Some of the world-building is a little quaint now – USA vs USSR – but I’ll be completely unsurprised if I find that Icehenge shits all over the Heinlein.

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990), was April’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.

The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953), is the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia by publication date, but the sixth book by internal chronology. Useless Eustace and new-found friend Jill Pole escape from bullies at “modern” school Experiment House (dear god, but Lewis shows his reactionary side with his description of the school), because Aslan wants them to find Prince Rilian of Narnia, who was abducted ten years before. Aslan gives Jill four clues, which she manages to screw up, but it all works out in the end. And everyone gets lashings of buttered scones and hot chocolate at the end, or something. These books are a bit like your old Daily Mail-reading grandad telling a bedtime story – the only bits missing are rants against immigration and falling house prices…

Orbital Vol 3: Nomads, Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2011), is the third book of a bande desinée series published in English by Cinebook. It’s heartland sf, but far more adult than you’d expect of a science fiction “comic.” Earth is a reluctant new member of a galactic federation, after a war with the alien Sandjarr. A pair of special agents, one human and one Sandjarr, must ensure the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur to mark the end of the war, to which a Sandjarr delegation has been invited, goes without a hitch. But a nomadic alien race has settled nearby, and something is killing all the fish and the fisherman are not happy about it… Good stuff.

Films
Barbarossa – Siege Lord, Renzo Martinelli (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Ship That Died of Shame, Basil Deardon (1955), is an adaptation of a Nicholas Monsarrat short story of the same title. The crew of a wartime MGB are re-united when they find their old boat – stripped of her weapons, of course – for sale. So they buy her, make her seaworthy, and use her to run contraband across the Channel into post-war austerity Britain. But it all goes horribly wrong when they accept a job to smuggle a murderer to France. Good solid British film-making from the Fifties.

Tin Man (2007), is a mini-series “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz, in which Oz becomes the Outer Zone or “Oh Zee”. DG, not Dorothy Gale, finds herself embroiled in a plot by her evil sister to bring endless darkness to the OZ. DG hadn’t known she had a sister, or that the OZ even existed. But when the Midwest farmhouse where she lives with her parents is attacked by strange men in black uniforms, she escapes through a tornado – discovering as she does so that her parents are actually robots. Because she’s really a princess from the OZ. With the help of a heartless ex-law officer (i.e., a “tin man”), the queen’s old advisor who has had his brain removed, and a cowardly lion-like humanoid – oh, and her old tutor, who can transform into a small terrier – DG must find the Emerald of the Eclipse in order to defeat her sister. An interesting spin on a children’s classic which, to be honest, has never appealed to me; but it all felt a bit meh in places. Though it reminded me a lot of the Sci Fi Channel Flash Gordon telly series – which was cheap and a bit silly, but which I quite liked – it didn’t have that programme’s charm.

Rio Grande, John Ford (1950). I am not, I admit, a big fan of Westerns. In fact, the only one in my DVD collection is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo – which is actually an alternative name for the Rio Grande, the river forming part of the border between the US and Mexico. Rio Grande the film is the third in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, following on from Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, neither of which I’ve seen. It’s John Wayne doing manly men stuff in the Wild West as injuns run rampant and hide out in Mexico where Wayne’s cavalry can’t follow them. Except he does, even though it might provoke a diplomatic incident. Then he learns that the injuns have captured a wagonload of white kids, which only makes the mission more righteous. The US Cavalry must have been the biggest bunch of war criminals in uniform until the formation of the SS, and their portrayal in films such as Rio Grande has only romanticised their crimes. It’s unlikely a John Wayne film would be “warts and all”, given that there’s always been a strong element of fantasy to the depiction of the Wild West in Hollywood cinema. Wayne’s character may be a racist, but he’s still the hero…

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Martin Ritt (1965), is a curiously flat adaptation of Le Carré’s novel of the same name. Richard Burton, who always sounds as though he’s declaiming rather than acting, plays the head of the Berlin office who comes under a cloud when a defection from East Berlin is bungled. He is demoted to a lowly position in London, eventually leaves the “Circus”, and turns to drink and a succession of low-paid jobs. At which point he is approached by East German agents, and reluctantly defects to them. But, of course, it’s all a cunning plot. They’re a bit bloody convoluted these Le Carré films. I have the novel on the TBR; I shall have to read it.

An Autumn Tale, Éric Rohmer (1998). That’s it, all four of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons now watched. In this one, a forty-something woman attempts to matchmake for a winemaker friend of the same age. As does the winemaker’s son’s ex-girlfriend, who has just split up with her university professor lover and who she thinks is an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, most of the characters in An Autumn Tale aren’t especially likable. They prattle and pontificate too much. The ex-girlfriend is particularly annoying – she spouts off lots of arrogant drivel about love and people, but doesn’t actually display much insight. Some poor bloke who gets dragged in as a prospective suitor is horribly mistreated but still hangs in there, though he and the winemaker don’t appear all that well-suited to each other… I first came to Rohmer’s films after watching Triple Agent, and enjoyed its slow-burning drama very much. These Four Seasons films have been… mixed. A Summer’s Tale was easily the best one, with A Winter’s Tale a middling second. A Tale Of Springtime and An Autumn Tale both suffered from unlikable casts. All the same, I’ll be bunging Rohmer’s six Comédies et Proverbes films on the Lovefilm rental list.

Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929), I will be reviewing in more depth on my Space Books blog. For the time-being, I’ll just say that it’s badly-paced, with far too much silliness up-front and not enough screen-time devoted to the mission to the Moon.

The Objective, Daniel Myrick (2008), is advertised as being by the director of The Blair Witch Project, which I’ve never actually seen. A Special Forces team of walking clichés, led by a tight-lipped CIA agent, infiltrate the mountains of Afghanistan where satellites have spotted something very strange indeed. If you like films in which US military stereotypes spout manly men bullshit, and then shoot at things, you might find The Objective interesting inasmuch as it’s not wholly a war film: the eponymous, er, objective, is – keep this to yourselves – not of this world. The film felt a bit amateur in places, and probably would have benefitted from a couple of beers inside the viewer.

I Come With The Rain, Anh Hung Tran (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

Aliens From Outer Space, Bill Knell (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Small Back Room, The Archers (1949). Those back room boys… Without them, we’d never have won the war, you know. Though they don’t actually appear to do much in this film. Sammy Rice is one such back room boy. He has an artificial foot, which pains him; and a dependency on pills and alcohol. He’s also in a strange relationship with his boss’s secretary. When a new type of booby-trapped explosive device, dropped by Jerry planes, starts killing children, Rice is brought in to puzzle out how it works. Meanwhile, he’s crawling further into a bottle, politics at the office is causing major problems, and his increasing bitterness is jeopardising his relationship with his girlfriend. Despite some clever photography, the tension and drama in The Small Back Room never quite works, but as a study of a man succumbing to despair during wartime – including a bizarre drunken dream sequence – the film is very effective. The Archers – Powell and Pressburger – were bloody clever filmmakers, and it certainly shows in this. In lesser hands, The Small Back Room could have been just another anodyne WWII home-front melodrama. We need directors like the Archers in the twenty-first century.

Le Refuge, François Ozon (2009), was surprisingly ordinary and a bit dull for an Ozon film. Could it really have been directed by the same person who made 8 Women, Angel or Water Drops On Burning Rocks? Two junkies score some smack, but one dies of an overdose. The other, the dead man’s girlfriend, only just survives. And then discovers that she’s pregnant. The dead junkie’s family, who are wealthy, don’t want her to keep the baby. But she chooses to have it, so runs away to a friend’s house on the coast. A few months later, the dead junkie’s gay brother comes to visit, and ends up staying a week or so. And, er, that’s about it. There are a number of scenes filmed on a beach, in which the woman’s pregnant belly is plainly visible. I was quite impressed by the prostheses and make-up used for this effect, only to learn in a featurette on the DVD that the actress, Isabelle Carré, really was pregnant during the making of the film. You have to wonder if she was cast because she was pregnant; or did Ozon completely rewrite the script on learning she was pregnant? Le Refuge is a likable drama, but Ozon has made much more interesting films.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), I will be reviewing for VideoVista, but I decided to give it an early mention because it’s a pitch-perfect spoof of low-budget action/spy movies, and might well end up on my Best of the Year top five films.