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Reading diary 2018, #15

I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (qalthough his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #11

Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.

C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.

The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.

Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially  good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s  almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.

Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.

Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Summer bounty

One rule I always try to follow is to not buy more books each month than I read. That way, the TBR gradually reduces. Unfortunately, I’ve been failing more often than not so far this year – plus one in April, plus three in May, plus two in June… On the other hand, I’m four books ahead of schedule in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018.

Anyway, below are the latest additions to the collection, not all of which will stay on my shelves once read.

The last couple of years, Swecon has had a better dealers’ room than the Eastercon. In respect to secondhand books, that is. Secondhand book dealers no longer seem to have tables at Eastercons anymore, but the Alvarfonden (and there’s that “the the” again) is always present at Swecon. I am, of course, loath to buy too many books at Swecon, because of carrying them back from Stockholm in my cabin baggage… but half a dozen paperbacks – or in this case: four paperbacks and one hardback – is more than manageable. Spaceling and The Exile Waiting I bought to review for SF Mistressworks, although I’ve enjoyed work I’ve previously read by both authors. The Third Body I purchased after reading the blurb: “The conflict between men and women begun in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries long since had flowered into naked hatred and complete separation. Now both sexes had their own nations, each a passionate enemy of the other. Now sexual pleasure was taboo, and the act of coupling for reproduction was part of a contest for domination, with death to the loser”. Um, yes. I usually pick up Jeter’s novels when I find them, and Seeklight, an early work, is hard to find in good condition and for a reasonable price. This copy was both. The View from Another Shore is a 1973 anthology of non-Anglophone science fiction. I read it way back in the early 1990s, a paperback copy lent by a friend, but when I saw it in the Alvarfonden I thought it worth having a copy of my own.

Three for the collectibles. They Fly at Çiron I found on eBay for a good price. Two Trains Running is a not an especially hard book to find, but I wanted a signed copy… and eventually found one on Abebooks. And Forcible Entry I’ve been after for years, but it seems it never made it to paperback and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, the bulk of whose sales were to libraries, making copies of their books really hard to find. (There’s currently a copy of Forcible Entry on Amazon priced at £590!) But a few weeks ago three books by Farrar popped up on eBay from a single seller. I ended up in a bidding war for Forcible Entry, but then discovered a copy had also appeared on Abebooks – from a different seller, obviously – so I bought that one… and the one on eBay went for more than I’d paid for my copy. One of the other Farrar novels looked quite interesting, but I was sniped on that too. Bah.

The Delany is The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. I already have this in a tatty paperback, but I couldn’t resist a nice hardback edition. Nasa has been churning out histories of its various programmes for years, and I have several of them – This New Ocean (Mercury), On the Shoulders of Titans (Gemini), Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Apollo), Living and Working in Space (Skylab), Stages to Saturn (Saturn V) and now Moonport, about the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral. Most of the books are now available as POD paperbacks but, of course, I want the original hardback editions. Some aren’t that difficult to find in hardback, but Moonport is one of the really difficult ones. Previous copies I’ve seen were priced around $400 or $500. This one I bought on eBay for… £25, from a charity shop somewhere on the south coast. Result.

Three collections. I don’t have much time for Kevin J Anderson’s fiction, but under the imprint WordFire Press he has over the last few years published a bunch of stuff by Frank Herbert that was previously unpublished. I’ve no idea what the stories in Unpublished Stories are like, or if any of them are also included in the comprehensive Herbert collection published by Tor four years ago (which I own and have yet to read). Ad Statum Perspicuum by F Paul Wilson and Legacy of Fire by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, volumes 13 and 14 in Pulphouse Publications Author’s Choice Monthly, bring the total I now own up to twenty. Only nine more to go.

Some new releases. It seems Mézières and Christin have allowed someone else to continue their Valerian and Laureline series, and Shingouzlooz Inc is, I hope, the first in a new series. I liked it (see here). Buying Time is a pseudonymous work by Eric Brown, although plans to keep his identity a secret pretty much fell at the first hurdle when the publisher plastered his real name all over the publicity material. I forget why I had Levels: The Host on my wishlist, althuogh I bought it because the price had dropped below £2. I believe it’s a rewritten version of an early nineties sf novel,  republished by a small press, perhaps even Emshwiller’s own imprint. Emshwiller is the son of Ed and Carol Emshwiller, both well-known names in twentieth-century science fiction.


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Books in May

It’s a shame the York and Sheffield pub meets have packed in as it was a good way for me to get rid of books I didn’t want. After all, I’m not going to dump first editons in excellent condition I no longer want in charity shops. I’d much prefer them to go to a good home. Selling them on eBay is a faff, and no one will buy them on Amazon if you price them what they’re actually worth… Perhaps, instead of a book haul post, I should put up a book sale post here…

These books, however, are ones that have just arrived… although one or two I may be getting rid of once I’ve read them.

I was a bit behind on my Eric Brown books, so I ordered a bunch of them: Salvage, Jani & the Great Pursuit, Murder Takes a Turn and Satan’s Reach. Two are sequels, and I’ve yet to read the previous books. But I’ve been reading, and enjoying, the Langham and Dupree crime novels as they’re published.

I remember just before Loncon 3 seeing mention of a signed limited edition of a book of art by Chris Foss, Hardware, but had assumed they’d all been sold back then. But recently I discovered the Titan Books’ online shop still has copies. So, of course, I ordered one. I ordered The Art of Edena several weeks ago from a large online retailer, but they told me a month later the book was unavailable. A week later, it was in stock. Go figure. Years ago, I had the Dragons Dream book of Syd Mead art, but I gave it to a friend in payment for some cover art. I’ve always regretted that, but now I have The Movie Art of Syd Mead instead. And I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was kid. I’m not old enough to have read him in the Eagle; my introduction was via a 1974 Hamlyn annual containing two stories. Over the years, various attempts have been made at re-imagining him, mostly unsuccessfully. Dan Dare: He Who Dares is the latest such try.

I was very sad to hear of Philip Kerr’s death earlier this year as I’ve been a fan of his books for a long time, especially the Bernie Gunther ones. Greeks Bearing Gifts is the latest, but not, I think, the last. I seem to remember hearing there is one more to come. And then that’s it. A very big shame. Someone tweeted about Pascal Garnier a few weeks ago, and his books sounded interesting so I thought I’d give one a try: The A26. I already have a copy of Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, The Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil (a sure winner for the most unwieldy title of a sf novel evah), AKA Chronocules, but this one a) is in much much better condition than mine, and b) was really cheap. I’ve been after a hardback copy of In Search of Wonder for several years, most of those for sale on eBay are from US sellers. This copy – the third edition from 1996 – was from a UK seller. And it’s in mint condition. Result.

They announced the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award a week or so ago, and I must admit it’s a more interesting shortlist than we’ve had for a number of years. I certainly agree that Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time should be there – I’ve been championing it since I read it last year. But the others? Spaceman of Bohemia I’ve heard some good things about. American War, Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust were completely off my radar, although I vaguely recall hearing mention of the last. Anyway, I’ll give them all a go. And yes, there is a sixth novel, Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I didn’t take to his Annihilation when I read it so I’m not going to bother with Borne.


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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #59

This is the last of 2017’s reading. I’m going to restart the numbering for 2018. I don’t remember why I didn’t for 2017, but never mind.

The Metabaron Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & the Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Valentin Secher and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Niko Henrichon (2016/2017, France). As far as I can work out, Jodorowsky’s name only appears on the covers of these two graphic novels because the Metabarons are his characters (they were originally spin-offs from The Incal). The actual story of this trilogy – the third book is due out this year, I think – is by Jerry Frissen. The Techno-Techno Empire has control of Marmola, the planet that is the only source of the Epiphyte, used to fuel all starships. When they learn the last Metabaron is on his way to the planet, they assume he is going to wrest it from them. So they assign the Techno-Admiral, their cruellest warlord to to stop him. In the second book, the Techno-pope’s closest advisor is promoted to Techno-cardinal and then sent to Marmola to take over production, as the Eipiphyte stocks are dwindling. With him, he takes the Transhuman, an engineered assassin who has all sorts of built-in weapons. But the Metabaron is still out there, causing problems… Frissen manages a good pastiche of Jodorowsky’s bonkers storytelling – not just the bizarre ideas; but also the male gaze and whiff of misogyny (something happily missing from The Incal, but sadly not from its spin-offs). The artwork in the first volume is very -CG-like and really quite gorgeous. In the second, however, it’s more sketchy, more like the penciller’s work has been coloured. I didn’t think it as effective. On the whole, I suspect it’s a series for fans only, as there’s little here to attract a new audience or those unfamiliar with the universe or Jodo’s work.

Ways of Worldmaking, Ben Rivers (2017, UK). A compilation of notes by Rivers on his films, and essays by critics, some of which are about Rivers’s art/films while others are about the man himself. The book is copiously illustrated with stills, photographs and strips of film. It’s also a handsomely put together volume, a solid hardback (and stitched, not glued!), of the sort you seldom see these days in bookshops. Obviously, it’s only going to appeal to someone who appreciates Rivers’s films. I’ve seen only a handful of them – his three feature-length pieces and a couple of short films (included as extras on the DVDs of the former) – but I’m definitely a fan. So Ways of Worldmaking certainly gave me an insight into the man and his works. The title, incidentally, is deliberately taken from Nelson Goodman’s 1978 book, which was a seminal influence on Rivers at college. Goodman argued that “art, philosophy, and the various sciences all make statements about the nature of reality through the creation of ‘worlds’,” as one of the essays in Rivers’s Ways of Worldmaking explains. As someone who reads and writes science fiction, that’s an idea which resonates for me, although in sf the act of worldmaking is not so much overt as it is a fundamental tenet of the genre.

Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, Maryam Omidi (2017, UK). Titles don’t get more descriptive of a book’s contents than this one. Apparently, back in the day, Soviet workers were encouraged to go on holidays to places that were a combination of holiday resort and health spa (and surely the plural is sanatoria?). Many were on the Caspian Sea, but there were also plenty in the mountains, particularly the Urals and Caucasians. With the fall of the USSR, most of them fell into disrepair and closed down. But some kept on going, and some have since been re-opened by private consortiums (or even consortia). Architectually, most of the sanatoriums were good examples of Early Soviet Modernist, and several of them are attractive buildings. The holidays offered varied by region and sanatorium, with many having specialist treatments, such as crude oil baths, mineral waters, or just sun, sea and sand. There are plenty of photographs in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, but it’s not a deep study of its subject and the text is quite light. But I just wanted the pictures anyway.

Bodies of Summer, Martín Felipe Castagnet (2012, Argentina). I saw mention of this on someone’s blog, and the central premise sounded interesting so I picked up a copy. In the near-ish future of this short novel – it might even be a novella – the minds of dead people can be downloaded into reanimated corpses. But those who keep their own corpses for their life after death are shunned as pariahs. The narrator occupies the body of an old and overweight woman – he was male when alive – and lives with his grandson. The older the reanimated corpse when it died, the more power it needs to remain whole; otherwise, it starts to fall apart. The science in all this, incidentally, is complete bollocks, but never mind. Some people choose not be reanimated, but stay as virtual personalities on the Web. On the one hand, there’s a Catholic country (the author’s own) and a world in which there is demonstrably no afterlife. But the reanimation thing is also economic, and the quality of the body being occupied is dependent upon the price. The narrative mentions in passing rich people who deliberately kill themselves in order to inhabit better, or different, bodies; as well as those who indulge in dangerous pasttimes with no fear of really losing their lives. For the narrator, however, it’s more a case of reconnecting with his family, both alive and dead, and navigating a world that has changed considerably since he died. Much as I enjoyed Bodies of Summer, I didn’t find it an especially convincing story, but it was clearly not intended to be. I don’t mean that old thing about literary writers “slumming it” in genre, because that’s complete bollocks. It’s not just a matter of approach, or perspective, or even focus; but also how the writer chooses to use the tools available in genre. And there’s enough variation in those among writers who self-identify as genre, never mind among those who don’t. Worth reading.

Emperor (Time’s Tapestry 1), Stephen Baxter (2006, UK). I’m not really sure what to make of Baxter’s novels. He’s frighteningly prolific, and keeping up with his books is almost a career in itself. Some of his novels I’ve enjoyed and thought quite good. And then the next one I pick up is weak and juvenile. And there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. For example, I liked the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, Coalescent, but was bitterly disappointed by the second, Exultant, and I really must read last two some day… Emperor I quite enjoyed, although it was ridiculously contrived. A woman in pre-Roman Britain begins speaking in tongues while in labour. Someone recognises it as Latin and writes it down. She dies in childbirth, but the son survives. And the Latin becomes the family prophecy… It is supposedly the words of the “Weaver”, a mysterious someone from the future. At least, this is the interpretation by several of the characters, as the prophecty is passed down, and mangled, through generations, and elements of it come true. The novel paints an interesting portrait of Roman Britain, mostly in the region around Hadrian’s Wall – the building of which comprises one section, and a visit to it a couple of centuries later forms another. The whole Weaver thing, however, feels too modern a conceit for the novel’s setting, but since it’s the link which ties the four novels of the quartet together – or so I’m guessing – then I suppose the novel is stuck with it. As Baxter novels go, this is a thin one, a mere 302 pages in hardback. I’m hoping I’ll find the second book as enjoyable a read, unlike the Destiny’s Children quartet.

Murder Take Three, Eric Brown (2017, UK). Despite the title, this is the fourth book in Brown’s Langham and Dupré series of crime novels. They’re set in the 1950s, Donald Langham is a midlist crime writer who works part-time for a private investigation agency with a wartime buddy, and French emigrée Maria Dupré is Langham’s agent and fiancée. A Hollywood starlet, filming at a country house, employs Langham to snoop around the set as she thinks there’s something fishy going on. Langham duly heads up there for the weekend, with Maria in tow, and they get to meet the cast (there is, curiously, not much of a crew on this film). It transpires that Langham knows the scriptwriter, a crime novelist like himself. The cast of the film are a mostly unpleasant lot, and there’s definitely an odd atmosphere to the place, but nothing especially peculiar seems to be going on… Until the starlet is found shot to death in the director’s trailer… They’re easy reads these books, and setting them in the 1950s means all the old murder-mystery tips and tricks and tools can still be used. The two leads are engaging characters, and if the supporting cast tend to drift into caricature territory, it’s no big deal. I think on balance I preferred the volume prior to this, Murder at the Loch, as its plot revolved around an interesting historical mystery. This one feels more like a pastiche of a 1940s Hollywood take on an English countryhouse murder, which gives it more of an air of unreality than it deserved.

The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955, UK). I may have read a Wyndham novel when I was at school, but I’m not entirely sure. I do remember reading one of his collections a few years later – if only because the cover art was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica. From what I recall, the stories were pretty bad. But Wyndham occupies a peculiar position in British sf – considered an important writer in the history of the genre by many, but also widely accepted by the mainstream. Some elements of his novels have even entered British culture, such as the Triffids. The Chrysalids, however, is set in Canada, although it might as well be set in Kent. The Earth has been depopulated by nuclear war, and much of it lies in ruins. In Labrador, in a small farming community, the narrator and seven other kids can all talk to each other telepathically. But they keep it secret, because mutations are ruthlessly culled (if animal) or exiled (if human), although the latter do sometimes have a tendency to turn up dead. Unfortunately, the secret gets out when the narrator is in his late teens/early twenties, Chiefly thanks to his very young sister, who is an extremely powerful telepath, so powerful in fact that she can just about hear the thoughts of people in New Zealand… which comes in useful as New Zealand is apparently a near-utopia for telepaths, and they’re sending a mission to Labrador to rescue the mutant teenagers. But not before the teenagers have been chased into the badlands and have witnessed a battle between the farmers and the mutants. Of course, radiation doesn’t cause hereditary mutation, we know that now, although perhaps they didn’t in the 1950s. The whole “keeping the genome pure” thing is also policed using religion, leading to some all too plausible – and sadly common, even now – Bible-backed bigotry. The narrator’s father is an especially big arsehole in that regard. And yet… it all feels very Home counties. For all the regard in which Wyndham is held, he’s never been an important figure in my map of science fiction, UK-only or Anglophone; and I’ve yet to be convinced he should be considered as important as he is.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #55

It might look I had a run of books by male authors, but in amongst these were several sf novels by female writers, which I plan to review on SF Mistressworks soon-ish. As it is, there are two books by a single writer, Eric Brown, who’s a friend of many years: a novella and a short collection.

Exalted on Bellatrix 1, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This is the final book in the Telemass Quartet, in which obsessive father Hendrick chases after the body of his young daughter, who has been put in stasis until a cure for her condition can be found, and who has been kidnapped by Hendrick’s ex-wife. And she is apparently just as warped as she’s been subjecting her daughter to increasingly desperate remedies, none of which have worked. But this is the fourth novella of a quartet, and Brown rarely fails to deliver some sort of uplifting closure to the agonies through which he puts his protagonists. In this one, Brown uses a setting he’s used many times in the past, an artists’ colony. Hendrick’s ex-wife has taken their daughter to the eponymous planet, where they’re hoping the reclusive, but advanced, alien inhabitants, the Vhey, will cure her. The end result is something in which the quartet’s story arc feels almost incidental. The novella focuses on the head of the colony, who is a nasty piece of work, and whose wife died in mysterious circumstances, and who plans to make use of the secret of the Vhey. Although not in the way Hendrick’s ex-wife is expecting, and not in a way that will save the daughter. Of the four novellas, this was probably the least satisfying, chiefly because it feels a bit warmed-over in places. Also, annoyingly, the previous three books used Roman numerals in their titles, but this one uses an Arabic number 1.

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (2016, UK). This is, I think, supposed to be a YA novel – or at least YA-ish. The narrator is a teenage girl, in a planetary system populated by billions of space habitats, and which as been colonised in waves over billions of years. It is, it must be said, a pretty cool piece of world-building. Except… it’s all a bit steampunk. The spacecraft use light-sails to travel around the system, the technology is all brass and clockwork, except for magical tech artefacts left behind by aliens from earlier waves of colonisation… One of which are the skulls. Although the alien race whose skulls they were has long since vanished, and all that remains of them are bones, the technology inside their skulls remains active, and they’re all plugged into some sort of FTL comms network. Some teenagers can eavesdrop on this network, and send signals. Both Fura Ness and her sister Adrana have this knack. Adrana, the older of the two, persuades her sister to join her in running away from their financially-ruined father and making their fortune as skull readers. They join the crew of a ship that raids “baubles”, abandoned repositories of ancient alien tech (perhaps the baubles were habitats in the distant past, it’s never entirely clear). The baubles are usually secure behind impenetrable shields, but the shields occasionally drop for short periods, and some people are able to predict when these windows of opportunity will occur and how long they will last (again, it’s never made entirely clear why the shields should do this; because plot, I guess). Unfortunately, at their first bauble, the ship is attacked by a semi-legendary pirate, Bosa Sennen, who takes Adrana to be her skull-reader, and kills everyone else. But Fura hid, and survives. She vows revenge on the pirate, but her plans are derailed when her father has her brought back home and has a doctor halt her ageing so she will remain under-age and under his control. To me, that was the most horrifying part of the whole novel – Fura imprisoned by her age and society. Of course, Fura breaks free, joins the crew of a ship, engineers an encounter with Bosa Sennen and, well, there are no real surprises at the climax. As I said, the world-building is cool, but it’s never really convincing – and the baubles reminded me of something, A Deepness in the Sky perhaps? – and I didn’t really like the faux Victoriana. Fura makes for a good protagonist, but I thought the violence over-done. There is, I believe, a sequel called Revealer, due next year or the year after. I’ll buy it, of course.

The Paperchase, Marcel Theroux (2001, UK). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and having been impressed by the last Theroux novel I read, Strange Bodies, I bought it. It’s not science fiction in the slightest, more of a family drama slash mystery. The narrator is a UK-based American, who is surprised to discover he’s been left his uncle’s house on a New England island in a will. The uncle was a celebrated writer, who faded away and became a recluse. The narrator leaves his job at the BBC and goes to live in the house – it’s a condition of the will: he only gets to keep it if he lives in it. And something about the papers left by his uncle, and the stories, and histories, of his neighbours, persuades the narrator there is a deeper story here – a mytsery about his uncle’s death, or his life. From a variety of unrelated facts, and assorted residents of the island, and friends of the late uncle, the narrator figures out the secret at the heart of the family. The problem is the prose, and the narrator, is so laid-back the revelation doesn’t really have the impact it should. True, it’s not especially earth-shattering, and very personal, but it’s the point of the novel so I’d expected something with more consequence. There’s a nicely digressive tone to the narrative, and the characters are well-drawn (and mostly likeable), but I polished this off about as quickly as I would a commericial crime novel and I had expected more of it.

Strange Visitors, Eric Brown (2014, UK). This is the eighth volume in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of short collections. The contents in this one were originally published in a variety of venues, but, as is usually the case with collections, one story is original. It is not, to be brutally honest, Brown’s strongest collection. ‘Life Beyond…’, a piece of Simakiana, hews so closely to Simak’s patterns the plot is obvious from the first page. ‘Steps Along the Way’ is a post-human story about a twentieth-century human reincarnated thirty thousand years later… just to set up a surprise reveal ending (I suppose I should have liked this one, given its plot, but I thought it weak). ‘Myths of the Martian Future’ is one of those sf stories where every character in it is an alien of some form. It felt lighter than its tone suggested. ‘The Scribe of Betelgeuse V’ felt more like Dr Who story than an Eric Brown one. But without Dr Who. Its tone suited its lightness. ‘The Rest is Speculation’ is set during the last days of planet Earth, and reads more like a travelogue than a story (and the header in the book is incorrect as it gives the title of the following story). Which is ‘The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador’, a HG Wells / Sherlock Holmes mash-up, and succeeds as that if not entirely as a Holmes mystery. ‘Bukowski on Mars, With Beer’ was written for “bizarro fiction” anthology Vivisepulture (which also contained my Nazi occult flying saucer story, ‘Wunderwaffe’). I don’t know enough about Bukowski to feel qualified to comment on this story. ‘People of Planet Earth’ is one of those stories based on one of those silly ideas that wants to be both shocking and humorous, but fails at both. Finally, I was prepared to be disappointed by the collection’s only original story, ‘P.O.O.C.H.’, if only because of its terrible title. And prepared to hate it when I read that P.O.O.C.H. was an acronym for “Personal Omni-Operational Correctional Hound”, but… The premise is daft – giving convicted felons robot dogs programmed for bad behaviour in order to make them better people – but Brown draws his protagonists well and does a good job navigating the emotional landscape of the story. And yes, I also got to feel smug about being a cat person. It’s easily the best story in the collection.

The Quarry, Iain Banks (2013, UK). This was Banks’s last novel and is about a man dying of cancer, so questions about art and life were inevitable after Banks announced he had terminal cancer. The novel is actually narrated from the point of view of the dying man’s son, who has, I think, Asperger’s Syndrome. It is, like most of Banks’s non-M novels, a story based around a family secret, but the secret in this case is actually pretty irrelevant. A group of people who shared a house during their student days have returned to the house, where the oldest of their number now lives, and is in the end stages of terminal cancer. There is mention of a videocassette – the group fancied themselves as avant garde film-makers at university – which none of them want to see the light of day, but neither dying Guy nor his son Kit, know what’s happened to the tape. Meanwhile, a few home truths are aired, a few minor secrets from the past are let out of the bag, and the mystery of the identity of Kit’s mother is occasionally floated past the reader, only for it to be dealt with in passing at the end. The scene where the group view the sought-after videocassette is also pretty much a damp squib. The novel is narrated by Kit, and I don’t know enough about Asperger’s or autism to just how accurately or effectively he is portrayed. Other than that, Banks always wore his politics on his sleeve, and they’re out in full force in The Quarry. It’s far from his best novel, mainstream, science fiction or both, although it does come across as an angrier novel than his earlier ones (except perhaps for Complicity) – but that’s hardly surprising given what the Tories have been doing to the UK since 2010. Banks’s death makes The Quarry a more uncomfortable read than it would have been otherwise – the politics were clearly intended to make for uncomfortable reading for some, but the cancer aspect of the plot, sadly, overshadows it. Still, it’s a Bank novel, so it’s a given that it’s worth reading.

Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany). After reading The End of Days, I knew Erpenbeck was a name to watch. So I tracked down her previous books and read them, and they were good. And now we have her latest, actually published In Germany in 2015, but the English translation is new this year. A retired professor in Berlin, and who grew up in East Germany, one day stumbles across a camp of African refugees in Alexanderplatz. He follows their story in the press as they are moved to a tent city in another square, and then split up and placed in temporary accommodation – mothballed schools and sanatoria – while the Berlin senate makes a decision on their fate. The professor decides to document the plight of these refugee men – from Libya, Ghana, and Niger, chiefly. There is a group of them in an old nursing home near his house, and he is allowed to interview them. As he gets to know them and their stories, so he realises that the narrative written by European governments and press about the refugees is both inaccurate and incomplete, in much the same way the powerful in Germany fostered a desire for unity and imposed their own narrative on the union of East and West. There are contrasts also – the initial easy acceptance of East Germans by West Germans, which soon soured, not to mention the expectations of the East Germans based on myths of the West propagated through Western culture. This is a book that properly interrogates its topic, and it pulls no punches. Right wing press and governments have traded on people’s racism and xenophobia to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that has no basis in fact – because people scared of strangers are easier to control and are less likely to notice when their rights and property are taken from them just so some oligarch can earn more money than he could possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes. They’re the ones we should be scared of, the oligarchs; they’re the ones we should hate – not the poor sods driven out of their homes by wars created by inept US foreign policy and British arms sales, or the economic depredations of Western corporations chasing profits, and organising violent regime changes, in the developing world to offset their decreasing margins in the developed world…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131