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Reading diary, #54

I’m slowly picking up on my reading, partly I think because I really enjoyed a recent reread of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy. I mean, I’d remembered the books as good, but I’d been starting to forget what reading good intelligent sf was like. Although not all of the sf I’ve read recently would qualify as that…

The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973, USA). Okay, I admit it: I bought this because of the cover art. It was at the Eastercon, and it was like a quid. And I knew I could review it for SF Mistressworks (when I resurrect the blog, that is). I’d previously read a collection by St Clair, and some of her other stories in various women-only anthologies, but I think this was by first novel by her… And it wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, it read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s hard to tell with US sf novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. Sort of. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of the tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. So he’s sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany. Instead, he begins to relive the lives of people from earlier times, including a dead young woman being autopsied, and the inventor of the androids. To be honest, not a single bit of this novel made the slightest fucking sense. McGregor meets up with the daughter of the android inventor, who also appears to have something to do with “bone melt”, the disease which basically depopulated California, or the US, or the world. St Clair seems to have no clear idea of her story or what she wants to say. The result is a novel that doesn’t read so much as if St Clair made it up as she went along but more like a novel she couldn’t be bothered to turn into sense. It was her last.

Valerian and Laureline 18: In Uncertain Times, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2001, France). Our two heroes are still wandering the galaxy after the loss of Galaxity and, well… When a graphic novel opens with a plot diagram that makes Primer look like a straightforward narrative… Because Galaxity’s disappearance was caused by God, who lives on Hypsis with His layabout son and Whose fortunes have been declining because humans no longer worship Him… But making Galaxity never exist means Earth will now be destroyed in the 27th Century, which is even worse. So God has to go back in time and sort of undo things, along the way preventing a multinational corporation from building for themselves a godlike creature. And this somehow involves Valerian and Laureline, because Laureline’s origin (revealed in the very first book in the series) is pivotal. Or something. One of these days I’m going to have read this series in one long binge – or at least the story arc that began with Galaxity’s disappearance in volume 11, The Ghosts of Inverloch. It’s good stuff, and fascinating sf, but I’m starting to lose track of the story-arc… And there’s no way Besson could have adapted these last few volumes.

Phoenix Café, Gwyneth Jones (1997, UK).. This is the final book of Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, after White Queen and North Wind (see here), and, as can be seen, just as well-served as those books by Gollancz’s art department. The story is set a century after the events of North Wind, and the Aleutians are preparing to return to the home world. They have the Buonarotti Device, and they’ve fitted it to their worldship. Unfortunately, it seems the Device doesn’t really work for humans – they can certainly travel somewhere else instantaneously, but their time at their destination has all the concreteness of a dream. Fortunately, it works perfectly well on Aleutians. (By the time of Spirit, Jones’s last published novel, and also set in the same universe, the problem seems to have been solved for humans.) The Gender Wars have pretty mcuh split humanity into two antoginstic blocs: Women (Reformers) and Traditionalists (Men). Men believe in traditional gender roles, and keep their women veiled. The Reformist agenda is less clear. The protagonist is Catherine, a “descendant” of Clavel (the Aleutians are serial reincarnators) engineered before birth to be human. Which presents a problem: because the serial reincarnation is partly learned and requires the total immersion in the Aleutian chemical communication medium, and Catherine obviously lacks the biology to read or generate such communication. In North Wind, Clavel was Bella a half-Aleutian/half-human hybrid, but as Catherine, who is fully human, Clavel can finally atone for the rape of Johnny Guglioli in White Queen, which kicked off three hundred years of Aleutian rule, and arguably led to the Gender Wars and the destruction of the environment. Like the other two books in the trilogy, Phoenix Café is a darker novel than I remembered it. There’s a hardness, almost a brutality, to the way the characters treat each other and themselves, and in places it makes the book a difficult read. And yet, there’s a fierce intelligence in the novel too, a sense that there’s far more going on than appears on the page. Gwyneth Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and I consider her one of the best this country has produced, but it’s good to remind myself of that at times by rereading her books.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK). The novel opens with a middle-aged woman entering a London railway station (I don’t think it’s named) and finding a dead pigeon. She picks up the corpse, takes it into the ladies’ toilets, washes it, and then wraps it in brown paper. She’s not entirely sure why. And after she bumps into the young woman she is there to meet (she was in service with her family as a nanny), she throws away the dead pigeon. But then she goes and retrieves it from the bin. The young woman is there to meet up with a bunch of friends who are all heading for the south of France on the boat-train. However, thick fog has closed down the station, and no trains are running. So after the party has gathered, they head into the station hotel to wait for the fog to lift. At which point, the ex-nanny is taken ill (it’s not clear if she’s just had too much to drink or is genuinely ill). Meanwhile, the party settles down in a suite, and the banter begins – mostly focusing on two women and their relationship with the young playboy who’s funding the trip to the Riviera. The fog still hasn’t lifted by five o’clock, and all the commuters have turned up to find their trains home aren’t running. So the management seal off the hotel while the station concourse fills up with angry workers. Green’s prose is beautifully done. There’s very little in the way of exposition, and what there is comes naturally from the characters. The prose is sparse and clear, and often dispenses with definite articles or pronouns in a Modernist style. The characterisation comes purely from the characters’ words and deeds. Green neither shows nor tells. It’s up to the reader to plot what’s going on, to figure out the relationships between the characters, to work out the story-arc (and, to be fair, there usually isn’t one), and to make sense of the situations Green documents. I stumbled across this omnibus of three of Green’s novels in a charity shop and was intrigued by the description of him as “the best English novelist alive” (by WH Auden, in 1952). His prose is indeed superb, and I greatly admire its clarity and its refusal to compromise. The Modernism reads a little quaint these days, and I’d sooner novelists experimented with structure rather than grammar, but every writer worth their salt should try a Green novel at least once.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA). According to my records, I received this book as a Christmas present back in 2008. I’d read Chabon’s multi-award-winning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that year, and thought it good. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me nearly nine years to get around to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Maybe I was put off by its size – 643 pages in this paperback edition. And, to be honest, the history of comics, or fiction about early comics history, doesn’t really interest me. Which is a shame, because The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is actually really good, much better in fact than The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The eponymous duo are not comicbook superheroes but the creators of a comicbook superhero, The Escapist, who is as successful as Superman during the 1930s and 1940s. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also about Jews in New York – particularly when Europe was fighting WWII – and American Nazis, and Kavalier’s family back in Prague after the country was invaded by Germany… It’s also about stage magic – Kavalier is an amateur magician and escapologist – and real magic – the story opens with a plot to move the Golem from Prague – and broken dreams – Clay’s great love is the actor who plays The Escapist first on radio then in a film serial, but Clay chooses a “normal” life instead. I’m not entirely convinced by Chabon’s prose. There are occasions when it seems over-egged – actually, most of the time it seems over-egged. Although it’s always very readable. A prose stylist, he is not. But the story he tells is completely engrossing (okay, the whole Golem plot-thread was completely unnecessary). Such as Kavalier’s war service in Antarctica – a completely bizarre detour, but entertaining and interesting. I don’t get the comicbook history elements – or rather, while they come across as convincing, they don’t seem like plausible precursors of the comics I read as a child in the 1970s. But then, back then, I read US comics infrequently, and UK comics followed the anthology model – either WWII-set, or comical (as in Beano and Dandy). Do you know how weird it was for a British kid of the 1970s to read a comic that contained only a single strip and it wasn’t even complete? Which I guess seems like an odd aspect to notice, given the other elements in the novel. But I have no equivalent experience in those areas and am more than willing to accept the authority of Chabon’s narrative. Which all sounds a bit like cavilling, when I don’t mean it to. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was really very good indeed, and any infelicities in the prose style were offset by the novel’s breadth and depth. Recommended.

Solar, Ian McEwan (2010, UK). You know that old story about the bloke who buys some biscuits in a cafe, then sits at a table with a complete stranger. He eats one of his biscuits, and then is shocked when the other man takes one of the biscuits? McEwan turns that old chestnut into six-pages of over-baked prose in Solar. He later admits it’s a variation on an urban legend, the Unwitting Thief; but then so many parts of this books feel like variations on urban legends. McEwan also thinks airlines serve food on flights between London and Berlin – I didn’t think they bothered anymore for journeys of less than three or four hours, but perhaps I’m wrong. The protagonist is a womanising scientist who has been trading on his Nobel laureate for much of his career. He’s not so much a product of his time as a product of McEwan’s time, because he reads like a lecherous and sexist pig. His marriage is failing, his current job feels like a waste of time, and then he accidentally causes the death of his wife’s lover and frames his wife’s ex-lover for it, and uses it as a springboard to boost his own career. There’s some solid argument for anthropogenic global warming and against all the dumb climate change deniers, but everything esle in the novel is sadly quite bad. The protagonist is unlikeable, the female characters are badly drawn, elements of the plot seem to have been lifted from snopes.com, and there are assorted rants against “postmodernism” – which it is not: McEwan is just ranting against critics of male white privilege. I was much impressed by McEwan’s earlier novels when I read them back in the 1990s, but this century I’ve found them increasingly disappointing. Saturday, in fact, I thought awful. I only continued to read him out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. But after Solar, I purged my TBR of McEwan’s novels and I’ll no longer bother reading him. Life is too short.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary, #53

Apparently, I still read science fiction – or rather, most of my reading is still science fiction. Which is odd, given my opinion of the quality of much of it. But then two of the books below were rereads and by my favourite sf writer. Make of that what you will.

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991, UK). I’ve been meaning to reread this book, and its two sequels, for a long time, but in the continual chase to main a positive TBR balance (ie, reading more books than I buy) I usually don’t find time for rereads. But then I agreed to write something about Jones’s aliens for a critical work, not just because I welcomed the opportunity to write about Jones but also because it would force me to do that long-put-off reread. And so it did. And… White Queen was not only better than I’d remembered it, but also a good deal nastier than I’d remembered. True, I’m a different reader now than I was twenty-five years ago – who isn’t? – when I last read the book. I can see how some of the characterisation was of that time… but it does read differently now. The word “whore”, for example, is thrown around a lot more than you’d find in a novel of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The characterisation also seems not as I remember it – the aliens are better drawn than the humans, basically. Some time hence, a decade or two, aliens land secretly on Earth. These are the Aleutians, so called because of their original landing place. They resemble humans, but have no noses, a single gender, and bio-technology based on “wandering cells” from their own individual bodies. Johnny Guglioni is an engineer/journalist, or eejay, (one of the novel’s less impressive neologisms), who has been infected with a virus which can degrade coralin, the “living clay” on which all modern electronics are based. He becomes involved with the Aleutians through Clavel, one of the three Aleutian “captains”, in an invented African country. Braemar Wilson is a tabloid television journalist who thinks Earth cannot survive an encounter with superior aliens, and who seduces Johnny as a means of gaining access to Clavel. Then the Aleutians reveal themselves to what they think is the world government, an international conference on women’s rights taking place in Thailand… The Aleutians are one of sf’s great alien races without a doubt, thoroughly convincing with the minimum of hand-waving. And the novel has plenty of the latter, as the plot soon congregates around a FTL drive, or instantaneous transportation method, invented by eccentric engineered genius Peenemunde Buonarotti, and which features in later stories and novels set in the same universe, notably Spirit and the stories in The Buonarotti Quartet. It seems an odd hook on which to hang the narrative up to that point, although it does handily lead into Johnny’s Christ-like redemption – and I have to wonder if that was the point of it all. It was Jones’s ‘Forward Echoes’, published in an issue of Interzone in late 1990 which made me sit up and take notice of Jones’s fiction (perversely, a revised edition of the story, ‘Identifying the Object’, in a chapbook collection of the same title, doesn’t give me that same jolt), and ‘Forward Echoes’ is about the first contact with the Aleutians in an African country. White Queen is an extension of it… and yet it’s not my favourite Jones novel, which is Kairos. But rereading White Queen after so long reinforced my admiration of Jones’s prose and made me realise how very very good she is at depicting the alien (and, on reflection, that ties in quite well to the fracturing of reality which is one of the strengths of Kairos). Jones is one of my favourite writers, and still, to my mind, one of the best science fiction writers this country has produced. And being at an age when rereading old favourites  usually ends up poisoning the well of my childhood, it’s heartening– no, it’s a delight… to discover my appreciation of Jones’s writing not only remains undimmed but has probably been strengthened.

Totalitopia, John Crowley (2017, USA). A new collection by John Crowley! Time for celebration. Except, well, this is a collection of essays and columns and a couple of stories, plus an unpublished piece of fiction… although, to be fair, I’ll pretty much take any Crowley I can get. (And I wonder when the Incunabula anniversary edition of Little, Big is going to appear, it’s been going on a decade since I paid for it). There’s a review of Paul Park’s fiction, focusing on his Princess of Romania quartet and his last “novel”, All Those Vanished Engines. Much as I admire Crowley’s fiction, for me Park is the best sf novelist the US has produced – although Crowley is more than qualified to write about him. The fiction is a little too Americana for my tastes – much as I love All That Heaven Allows, fiction that evokes a similar atmosphere leaves me cold. The columns are good, and while their subjects may not necessarily appeal, they certainly act as good inspiration for pieces I want to write myself – I really must write something about why All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, for example; I mean, I listen to death metal, I write science fiction… and my favourite film is a 1950s melodrama. Go figure.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016, UK). This was the first of three books I took with me to Finland to read during the trip, and during whatever downtime I might have during Worldcon75. I pretty much finished the novel before the first day of the con was done. Which I suppose is a testament to its readability. I had high hopes for The Power. At one point, it seemed a serious contender for the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist this year, and while the Shadow Clarke Jury ended up split on the book, and it never even got a look in with the actual jury, it did sound interesting enough to be worth a punt. But, oh dear. The central premise is brilliant: young girls develop the ability to generate electricity like electric eels, and the scaffolding to back it up is well-built (Alderman namechecks Peter Watts in her acknowledgements). But this is then used in service to a feeble cross between a transatantlic thriller and a BBC euro-thriller plot. There are three main narratives: a young woman in the East End of London, who witnesses her mother’s brutal murder, and ends up taking over her father’s gangster empire; the ex-athlete trophy wife of the Moldovan president, who desposes him and turns her country into women’s state; and an American orphan, who proves have the strongest power of all, and who starts up a religion with herself in the Christ role. The entire book is framed as a novelisation of “historical events” written a millennia or so later in a world in which women are the dominant gender. It’s not very subtle. I enjoyed the book, but I found it disappointing as the three narratives were such obvious ways of treating the concept, and made it all feel more like a techno-thriller than a commentary on its premise. I gave the book away after I’d finished. I hope the person I gave it to is more impressed than I was.

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding (2009, UK). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was seen as an odd choice at the time. Having now read it, I’m even more mystified. It’s a steampunkish sf adventure story with 1970s sexual politics. And while one word in the preceding sentence qualifies it for the Clarke Award, the rest should have immediately disqualified it from the shortlist. The title refers to a semi-mythical town populated by pirates. Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a Millennium Falcon sort of equivalent in a world where there are powered aircraft who use an invented gas, aerium, to improve their lift. So they’re sort of a cross between zeppelins and aeroplanes, but are treated like steampunk spaceships. And it’s totally unconvincing. Then you have the crew, who are the usual bunch of RPG-session misfits (or Firefly-inspired character writing, which I guess is the same thing), who get inadvertently embroiled in a plot which reaches all the way up to the highest levels of society… Yawn. The book was, according to the author, written to be fun, which is fine in and of itself. But when the only two named female characters are a) undead and b) a ruthless pirate captain who turns out to be the jilted lover of the hero… Oh, and let’s not forget his current girlfriend, who’s been sent to a convent by her upper class father… All the other female characters are whores or nuns. Well, this is not a book that should have been published in the twenty-first century, never mind shortlisted for a major genre award. Seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? It’s not even like the plot is hugely original, as the way it unfolds is pretty much obvious from page one. Retribution Falls reads like a write-up of a dudebro session of a derivative RPG game. The genre is better than that, the Clarke is way better than that. Avoid.

Around the World in Eighty Days*, Jules Verne (1873, France). I have no idea if I’ve read this before – I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell since I’ve seen versions of the films enough times over the decades to know the story. Except, well, they’re not the story. I don’t think any of the movies I’ve seen – I can think of two, off the top of my head, one starring David Niven and the other Steve Coogan – are at all faithful to the book. Yes, Phineas Fogg accepts a challenge to travel around the world in eighty days. Yes, he thinks he’s failed, only to discover that by travelling east he has gained a day. Yes, he has adventures along the way, and even rescues a young woman who becomes his wife at the end of the book. But in the novel, he meets her in India, when he rescues her from suttee. And I don’t recall a Scotland Yard detective on Fogg’s trail for much of his travels – he believes Fogg stole £50,000 shortly before leaving London. And the final section, in which a desperate Fogg, Passepartout, Fix and Aouda race across the USA to catch a ship to Liverpool… the big set-piece is driving a train over a damaged bridge at high speed so the bridge doesn’t collapse under it. Much of the prose is larded with geography lessons, and while Verne’s didactism is one of the more charming aspects of his novels, here it seems overdone. True, I’m coming at the book more than a century later, as a member of a society considerably better-informed about world geography, and a highly-educated member of that society with an interest in other countries… So much of the exposition was superfluous as far as I was concerned. Further, Fogg’s characterisation as unemotional and po-faced hardly made him a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps Verne intended this so the reader would indeed think Fogg was the bank robber, but it only made him feel like he had zero depth. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced, from what I remember, that the film adaptations are especially superior. The book is, I suspect, the best version of the story. Which is a bit of a shame.

North Wind, Gwyneth Jones (1994, UK). I can’t remember if White Queen was initially presented as a standalone, I can’t remember when I first read White Queen if it was sold as the first book of a trilogy – although judging by the gap between it and North Wind, I suspect not. The story of North Wind opens a century later, long after all those mentioned in White Queen have died – although the Aleutians are, of course, serial reincarnators. Everyone now knows the Aleutians arrived in a generation ship – less of a hardship for serial reincarnators, obvs – and the events of White Queen have pretty much passed into legend, especially among the Aleutians, who remember it as a significant epic, The Grief of Clavel. The opening of North Wind turns the tables on White Queen, this time having a human rescue a naive Aleutian, rather than vice versa, when a backlash against the aliens takes place, and all but Bella, the “librarian”, among the Aleutians are killed in, again, Africa. Bella – “he” to himself and other Aleutians, but “she” to humans – is rescued by human Sidney Carton (the name explicitly taken from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). Since White Queen, Earth has been embroiled in several Gender Wars – the Women are not all women, the Men are not all men; reformers and traditionalist are mentioned throughout as better labels – and this has made things more difficult for the Aleutians, and the halfcastes, who are humans who surgically alter themselves to resemble Aleutians, and consider themselves reincarnations (of, obviously, cultural icons of Jones’s own formative years, like Jimi Hendrix, who is of course also heavily referenced in Jones’s Bold As Love novels). In North Wind, Carton’s rescue of Bella, and her/his subsequent escape from his “care”, eventually leads into a hunt for Buonarotti’s mythical FTL drive… I couldn’t honestly tell you if North Wind is better than White Queen. I suspect the distinction is irrelevant. White Queen is a more memorable narrative, but it has the advantage of kicking off the series. North Wind has a more coherent narrative – but one of the strengths of the series, novels and short stories, is that a lack of narrative coherence is a side-effect of FTL travel, or rather, the narrative deliberately obfuscates in order to evoke the experience of FTL travel. I had forgotten how good this trilogy was, so I’m grateful for being prompted into rereading them. I should reread them more often, regularly perhaps. On the other hand, I had forgotten how badly Gollancz had served these books with cover art. Jones has recently rereleased the novels herself on Kindle, and she may well have updated them. Which is really annoying, as I’m not a fan of ebooks and would much sooner read hardcopy, paperback or hardback. Next up, Phoenix Café, the original 1997 Gollancz hardback…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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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