It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

starmanjones

Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

capture

The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

hear_us

To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


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Reading diary, #32

I seem to have come over all genre. No idea how that happened. Six books and all are genre. Two weren’t published as genre, although one of them did win a science fiction award. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better the next time I come to write one of these posts…

the-brain-from-beyond-jhc-by-ian-watson-[3]-3859-pThe Brain from Beyond, Ian Watson (2016). This was launched at Mancunicon, but they didn’t have the signed edition available, so I ordered it from PS Publishing a couple of weeks later. It’s your typical Watsonian mad science fiction, which is – I hasten to say – not a bad thing. The invention of time travel has resulted in a lot of lost time machines, and so the Time Machine Salvage Ship Fibonacci, with its crew of four and AI, must go looking for them… and so gets dragged into a bonkers plot involving aliens in statis buried under Antarctica for 12,000 years which had been discovered a couple of centuries earlier, a Boltzmann Brain from far future after the universe has collapsed, a Creationist geologist from a theocratic USA… and jumps back and forth in time, stitching together the various elements of the story so that cause and effect end up tied up in some sort of Gordian Knot. Despite a tendency to fling ideas at the page in the hope that some will stick, this is a fun and clever novella. A definite contender for the BSFA short fiction award next year.

station_elevenStation Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (2014). This won the Clarke Award last year, and while I’d heard many good things about it, it’s a lit-fic post-apocalypse novel and I find post-apocalypse fiction banal at the best of times, and lit fic attempts at the genre all too often seem to think they’re doing something brand new and innovative, that no one has ever thought of before, and so the prose tends to reek of smugness. So my expectations were not especially high. Happily, Mandel proved a better writer than I’d expected, and I found myself enjoying reading Station Eleven. It’s still banal, of course; more so, in fact, because it trots out the Backwoods Messiah With The Persecution Complex plot, which should have been retired sometime around 37 CE. Anyway, a global flu epidemic wipes out most of humanity. Station Eleven opens in Toronto, when a famous actor has a heart attack on stage and dies. Then everyone else starts to die from the flu. The book jumps ahead twenty years to a post-apocalypse US, and a travelling orchestra/acting troupe, who travel the southern shores of the Great Lakes. And then there is a half-hearted attempt at a plot, which ties in with some of the flashback sections, which are about either the actor or the main character of the post-apocalypse story, a young actress in the travelling troupe. The writing was a great deal better than I’d expected, and so despite being post-apocalypse I came away from Station Eleven a little impressed. A worthy winner of the Clarke Award.

harlequinThe Harlequin, Nina Allan (2015). At some point it seems every writer has a go at a World War I story. Although World War II was more recent, and killed more people, and had a more profound effect geopolitically, for some reason it’s the Great War which attracts the literateurs. It’s not like I can claim to be immune – I’ve written at least one short story set during WWI. But Allan’s The Harlequin is actually set immediately after the Armistice, when concious objector Dennis Beaumont, who drove an ambulance near the Front, returns to London. On arrival, he bumps into an old shool master, whose reputation was somewhat unsavoury. Beaumont tries to pick up his life, with his sister and his fiancée, but instead finds himself in purely sexual relationship with a barmaid from a rough pub and unsuccessfully trying to ingratiate himself with the widow of a soldier who died in his ambulance. The Harlequin scores big on atmosphere, but like a lot of Allan’s fiction there are several things going on that don’t quite fit together. Clearly something happened to Beaumont in France, and its not until the end of the novella we learn that it might have been supernatural. But it feels like the plot is not in synch with the protagonist’s behaviour – the events of the past are insufficient grounding for his actions in the present. Still, what do I know? The Harlequin won the Novella Award last year. Allan is certainly a name to watch, and her prose is really very good, but, for me, her stories are never quite joined up…

dont_bite_sunDon’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976). I’ve been after a copy of this, and its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine, for several years – although not enough to hunt down a copy on eBay, or even shell out full price for the omnibus edition available from Amazon… but it was one of those books I kept an eye open for in the dealers room at conventions, in the hope of picking up a cheap secondhand copy. And, in the end, I had to leave the country to find one: I bought this is the Alvarfonden book room at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. I also found a copy of Drinking Sapphire Wine at the same time. A pair of lucky finds. I reviewed Don’t Bite the Sun on SF Mistressworks here. I can’t say it was really worth the wait…

nazi_moonbaseNazi Moonbase, Graeme Davis (2016). I stumbled across this on Amazon – I can’t remember what I was actually looking for – and as soon I saw I knew I had to have it. It’s a faux non-fiction book which takes the whole Nazis at the South Pole Who Went To The Moon mythology as fact. It’s a clever melding of the various nutjob theories, and impressive in the way it presents it all absolutely straight-faced. It even takes the piss out of Iron Sky at one point by pointing out that Swastika-shaped buildings would be a bad design for the lunar surface. However, when it sticks to the interstices of known history, that grey area populated by the mythology, then it comes across as almost plausible. But the book has a tendency to push a little bit too far and declare as real something that plainly cannot be… Um, I’m explaining that badly. It’s suspension of disbelief, basically. UFO and Nazi occult science mythology exist in the shadows of science and history, and part of the reason for their longevity and pervasiveness is that they can fit in those dark spaces and the lack of illumination works in their favour. But when they step out of the shadows, the whole edifice collapses. And at several points in Nazi Moonbase, it threatens to do just that. As someone who has themselves stitched an invented history – more than one, in fact – into real history, I’m aware of the difficulties and sensitive to the techniques used. Nazi Moonbase is not entirely successful in that regard, although I did find it very amusing.

grazingGrazing the Long Acre, Gwyneth Jones (2009). I ‘ve been a fan of Jones’s fiction for many years, and consider her the best science fiction writer the UK has produced… so even though I probably I already have the stories in this PS Publishing collection in other books, I had to have it. The slipcased signed and numbered edition too. Grazing the Long Acre contains: ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Balinese Dancer’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’, ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’, ‘The Tomb Wife’ and ‘In the Forest of the Queen’. Only ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, which originally appeared in Dark Terrors 5, was new to me. ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’ and ‘The Tomb Wife’ also appear in The Buonarotti Quartet; ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘In The Forest of the Queen’ are also in The Universe of Things. And yes, I have both of those collections. (‘Balinese Dancer’, incidentally, is also one of the stories in Daughters of Earth, followed by an essay on Jones and the story by Veronica Hollinger.) Apart from ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, as mentioned previously, I’d read all the stories before. Not that it proved a hardship. There are some authors whose novels you love but their short fiction you are cool toward; and vice versa. But Jones’s short fiction I find as sharp and bitingly intelligent as her novels, and while I may enjoy some stories more than others, in terms of quality I find little to distinguish between the two lengths. This reread proved an interesting exercise because revisiting stories can change your perspective on them. I found ‘The Eastern Succession’, for example, a far subtler story than I remembered it. But ‘La Cenerentola’ I felt a little heavy-handed. ‘Balinese Dancer’ was another I thought much better than I’d remembered it; and the Buonarotti stories proved much stranger than I recalled – the aliens of ‘The Fulcrum’ who are not aliens, the horror of the creature which bleeds… qubits?; the creepy atmosphere of the mausoleum in ‘Gravegoods’. I recently posted a review of Jones’s The Universe of Things I wrote back in 2012 (see here), and reading this collection four years after that I found my opinion of the stories pretty much unchanged. This is why I am a huge fan of Gwyneth Jones’s writing.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones

universe-cvr-lr-100The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7

Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading. As a result, throughout her career Jones has published remarkably few collections: five, in fact; and three of those are chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these collections, but if I were to choose one as the best, with the best choice of stories, and the most representative, with the widest selection of stories… it would be Aqueduct Press’s The Universe of Things. It contains fifteen stories, ranging from 1988 to 2009. Most are from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most are science fiction, but not all. Some cover a page or two, others are novelette-length.

This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.

Some of the stories are set in the universes of Jones’ novels. The title story takes place in the world of the Aleutian trilogy – White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Café and Spirit – and is deceptively simple. An Aleutian takes its car along to a mechanic to have it serviced before selling it. The mechanic realises it is something more than just a car, it is a car that has been driven by an alien. He determines to do more work than asked, so he can then make an offer on the car, and so sell it profitably because of its provenance. But while effecting repairs, his thoughts are drawn to the Aleutian customer, and he briefly experiences how they view the world around them. His desire for the Other drives this epiphany, but to glimpse heaven is to recognise the cost of admission.

Change always exacts a cost. ‘The Eastern Succession’ takes place in the future-distant Peninsula of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. One of the ruling princes has died heirless, so the remaining Dapur (the female councils who actually rule the principalities) gather in a town to determine to which of three candidates they will offer the crown. They must chose a prince who is both popular with the people of the prince-less state, the governments of the other principalities, and the Koperasi, the people who conquered the Peninsula and now rule it. The narrator is a young man of no family who visits the town to observe the deliberations. As a male, he has no power in Peninsulan society. Jones not only neatly turns the tables on gender relations, but she shows how pervasive sexism is at all levels and in all aspects of society. When the narrator tries to influence the Dapur’s decision through revealing a secret, it ends badly for all concerned. The narrator is playing at politics, he is imposing his own worldview, his own desires, on a situation which is resistant to both – but it is not him who pays the price for his meddling. There’s a clear sense in ‘The Eastern Succession’ that tradition exists for good reason, that change is costly and not always beneficial – and this in a world which is a distorted reflection of our own and, tellingly, set in a non-Western culture.

‘La Cenerentola’ by comparison is both near-future and set in Europe. A same-sex couple, Thea and Suze, are holidaying with their young daughter in the south of France and make the acquaintance of an American woman and her three daughters. Two of the woman’s daughters are beautiful, almost perfect, teenage twins; the third is a ragamuffin. The twins are in fact clones of the mother, their genetics tweaked to “improve” them – and yet, perhaps they are not: perhaps they are no more than holographic “eidolons”, idealised visions of their mother. The story plays with the tale of Cinderella, as its title suggests – Jones has, like Angela Carter, frequently turned to fairy tales for inspiration – but there’s no happy ending for this Cinders. Whatever the twins are, clone or eidolon, they are also signifiers of conspicuous consumption and part of their price has been exacted from the third child. Like the other stories in The Universe of Things, ‘La Cenerentola’ presents with a remarkable economy of words a fully-fledged world which seems as real and true as the real world. It seems wholly appropriate, for example, that in the world of Thea and Suze women fill every role and men are mentioned only in passing.

‘The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle’ mocks the construction of a fairy tale while making use of its ur-text. It is a fairy tale, but also a postmodern literary piece, as mutable as the changes it rings on its titular protagonists. Though it opens with a line which follows the form, but not the content, of its type:

Once upon a time there was a princess who was quite pretty and fairly intelligent, and when the time came to marry her off, the royal family didn’t worry about it too much. (p 225)

The story then promptly gives the lie to this opening – the princess is headstrong, wilful and unbiddable – and then subsequently dismantles the fairy tale narrative to suggest a layer of inventions in which the relationship of the princess and the thief is defined by the world in which they live, and in which they define the world around them. The princess is driven by a need for realness but inhabits ever-changing surroundings – her environs are defined by herself; she is her environs. This is woman as creator, using a mode of fiction in which women’s empowerment is either gifted by an external agency or altogether absent.

‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ is one of three horror/dark fantasy stories in the collection. A young couple move into an old house in dire need of renovation. But again, the change exacts a high price: the house is haunted. Or perhaps not. The narrator, Rose, must juggle her daughter, her career as an animator, and her aspirations for the house, and she is unequal to the task. Her failure to cope is externalised as the spirit haunting the house – the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, so to speak. Some of the imagery in the story extremely unsettling, and that the story maintains a chilling tone throughout, despite a focus on the quotidian, is testament to the strength of the prose.

The jewel of the collection is ‘Identifying the Object’, which has been a favourite story of mine since I first read it in Interzone in 1990 under its original title of ‘Forward Echoes’. It is, like ‘Blue Clay Blues’ and ‘The Universe of Things’, set in the world of the Aleutian trilogy. In fact, the Braemar Wilson of ‘Identifying the Object’s is the eponymous “white queen” of the first Aleutian novel. Braemar, the narrator Anna Jones, and Johnny Gugliogi (also the protagonist of ‘Blue Clay Blues’) are in Africa on the trail of what may or may not be the first aliens to land on Earth. Though it is set in the near-future, there is a thoroughly contemporary feel to the story. It is about Europeans experiencing an earthly Other while in pursuit on an unearthly one. It is also a story replete with assumptions, which it neatly skewers one by one:

Once he caught her in low company, têta-à-tête with an African down by the lifeboats. The black man fled. I heard racist assumption and that awful note of ownership in my poor friend’s voice.

“Hey! How come you suddenly speak their lingo?” (p 256)

There is no neat ending, no flying saucer on the Mall with a handsome representative in a space-age jumpsuit. There are many agendas at work here, and the truth of the alien landing is neither obvious nor relevant. Either way, a price must be paid – the possibility of the aliens’ existence is enough to force change. And this in an Africa which has refused to implement Western-imposed change; or rather, has made of its own change imposed upon it by Western powers. ‘Identifying the Object’ remains a favourite sf short story, and it continues to astonish me it was never shortlisted for an award.

It’s tempting to look for common threads in Jones’ fiction, but I suspect you’d find exactly what you were looking for. Her stories do not present easy answers. They’re happy to describe complex situations – indeed, they revel in their complexities. For that reason, Jones has often been called a “political” writer. In essence, this means she doesn’t write action-adventures stories in space. This is not sf as escapism, this is sf as literature. This is fiction that forces you to think, that makes you challenge your prejudices and preconceptions. These are stories that argue against change while forcing you to embrace it. These are stories which could only be science fiction, etc, yet are greater than mere genre fiction.

Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction, who is currently still writing, this country has produced. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Daughters of Prometheus in May 2012.


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.