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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


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Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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100 books, part 2

This the second in a short series of posts about “100 Books that Shaped My World”, as inspired by a list of 100 books published by the BBC. The first post in the series is here.

The 1980s

During the 1980s, I further explored science fiction and fantasy. This was chiefly a result of three events. First, I started college (for non-UK readers, that’s not a university, but a secondary school or gymnasium, typically private), and the college had a bookshop. Second, I discovered Andromeda Bookshop, the biggest importer of US paperbacks – almost entirely science fiction and fantasy – at the time. Finally, in the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association.

A word about that school bookshop: at the school, one afternoon a week was devoted to “activities, societies and hobbies”, and one of these activities was a bookshop, run by pupils, and at which other pupils could buy from a reasonable selection of titles. (I say “buy” but of course it was the parents who paid – any such “purchases” were added to the bill for the term.) The bookshop had a good sf section, although it was fairly typical for the time, not all that different to what you might find in a large WH Smith. All the usual names, in other words: Clarke, Smith, Asimov, van Vogt, Heinlein, Herbert, Le Guin, Cherryh…

The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950)
The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967). I’ve a feeling I may have read both of these books in the late 1970s… but it might also have been the early 1980s. Having looked up both titles while writing this post, I discovered the edition of The Undercover Aliens I own was originally published in 1976 (the Panther paperback to the left), but the Arrow reprint edition of The Winds of Gath, which is the one I have, only saw print in the UK in 1980. No matter. The Undercover Aliens remains a favourite sf novel, and the only van Vogt I hold in any regard. The Winds of Gath introduced me to Earl Dumarest – and the thirty-one novels Ted Tubb churned out for Donald Wolheim for as long as DAW was happy to publish them. Neither book is, to be honest, great literature, but while the van Vogt is likely forgotten by all but fans – its original title was The House That Stood Still – Tubb’s Dumarest series went on to influence a huge number of things, including GDW’s Traveller RPG…

The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979). Alien is one of my favourite films, but at the time it was originally released I wasn’t old enough to see it in the cinema. But I learnt all I could of it through the available books. I suspect it was this particular one which kickstarted my love of the film because of the worldbuilding it documented. From the age of about twelve to fourteen I was really into designing spaceships, spending hours drawing up deckplans on graph paper. This is pretty normal behaviour. It also proved useful experience when I started playing Traveller. But I was deeply envious of professional illustrators, such as Ron Cobb, who could actually draw the interiors of the spaceships they designed; and there were a number of illustrations in The Book of Alien that generated both admiration and envy. I still have my copy of this book.

The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984). Speaking of worldbuilding, one of the premier examples in science fiction is Dune. While Frank Herbert did an excellent job, The Dune Encyclopedia – written by a variety of hands – expanded Herbert’s universe with an impressive degree of originality. Some of the entries show more invention than your average science fiction novel. The Dune Encyclopedia remains, in my opinion, one of the best books of the series, even if it has been labelled non-canon (no brains in jars, you see). I eventually tracked down a hardback edition of The Dune Encyclopedia. It is one of my most treasured books.

The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968). From what I remember, by the mid-1980s bookshops in the UK, especially WH Smith, had extensive science fiction and fantasy sections, most of which seemed to comprise books featuring Chris Foss cover art, by authors such as Frank Herbert, CJ Cherryh, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. But, for some reason, relatives often gifted me minor anthologies. Including this one. Whose contents are pretty unexceptional, both for 1968 and for the year of publication of the edition I (still) have, the 1979 Magnum paperback: Sheckley, Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke. Lots of old white men. But it also includes ‘Equator’ by Brian W Aldiss, which has remained a favourite novella to this day. It makes this list because it’s a memorable re-packaging of mostly unmemorable material.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975). I’m fairly sure the first copy of this book I bought – I own three or four copies, for various reasons – was at the aforementioned school bookshop. It’s a difficult book, but I’ve loved it since my first read. It probably remains the genre novel I’ve reread the most times. Yes, even more times than Dune. I’ve always appreciated Delany’s prose, and I recognise him as one of the most important figures science fiction has produced, but I’ve no real idea why I love this book so much.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1979). I’m fairly sure I first read this during the 1980s, but I don’t remember when or where. I’d been interested in spaceflight and astronauts as a kid – I had posters of them on my bedroom walls – but it wasn’t until the 2010s I began to seriously research the topic. The Right Stuff was an early foray into the subject, and impressed because of its topic, not because of its prose or its author – although the prose was good. I have never read anything else by Wolfe, and have no real desire to do so.

The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978). I didn’t always have access to my preferred choice of reading during the 1980s. While visiting my parents in the Middle East for Christmas and Easter, the only reading material was what they had on hand. Books like Lace and I’ll Take Manhattan. Which I did actually read. But also The Far Pavilions. Which I enjoyed so much, I tracked down everything else Kaye had written and read it. The TV adaptation of The Far Pavilions is… okay. True, The Far Pavilions is, like Dune, a white saviour narrative, but it’s also respectful of the cultures of the country in which it is set, which is more than can be said of Frank Herbert, who plundered a variety of cultures for his novel.

Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975). I’ve a feeling the first Clive Cussler novel I read was Mayday, but the story of Iceberg has remained with me while that one’s story has not. I include a Cussler novel in this list for cautionary reasons. I was a big fan of his formula of readable techno-thrillers for many years. True, Dirk Pitt became increasingly implausible as a protagonist, turning almost superhuman sometime in the mid-1990s. That was sort of forgivable. But Cussler became so powerful a writer, he a) formed an atelier, in which others wrote novels to his instruction, and b) editors refused to touch his prose, which, unedited, was really very bad. Cussler has had an interesting career, but any book with his name on the cover published after 2000 is basically unreadable.

The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983). I am an inveterate list-maker – like, er, this one – and an avid consumer of lists created by other people. The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists is exactly what its title says, and it provided me with the titles of many books I could hunt for that I’d otherwise not known about. And then tick them off once I’d either bought a copy or read a copy. This is the stuff of life.

Radix, AA Attanasio (1981). The copy of this I own is the 1982 Corgi trade paperback, which I likely bought within a year or two of its release. The book made me a fan of Attanasio’s work, but he has had a varied career and I later stopped reading him so assiduously. A fairly recent reread of Radix proved… interesting. While the novel wasn’t as good as I remembered it, I found its ideas much more interesting. These days, I’d probably classify it as an undiscovered classic.

The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980). This may well have been a purchase from the school bookshop. Or I may have bought it in a Nottingham bookshop. Ether way, I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading it, and the title story remains a favourite sf short story. I have read pretty much everything Varley has written, but I think his best years are behind him. A recent novel was definitely as good as anything he wrote back in the 1970s and 1980s, if not better, but it wasn’t set in the Eight Worlds, and that’s a universe I really love.

Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980). My memory says the first Cherryh novel I read was The Faded Sun omnibus but that wasn’t published until 1987 and I’m pretty certain I’d read her before then. I know Serpent’s Reach was an early read, and one that especially appealed to me. It’s a fairly common narrative for science fiction, and one that no doubt explains the genre’s appeal for many. An outsider proves to have a special talent – it’s always in-built, of course, never learned – that helps her save her world. I’ve been a fan of Cherryh’s books ever since.

The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984). The only thing better than a list is, of course, an annotated list. The Science Fiction Sourcebook is a run – well, more of a gallop – through the old and new classics of the genre, with commentary and even a scoring of stars against several criteria (my copy is in storage, so I can’t check what those criteria were, although I remember “literary merit” was one). The Science Fiction Sourcebook introduced me to a lot of sf I had not heard of previously. I’ve not looked at it recently, I admit, and I suspect I would disagree with many of its recommendation. But not all of  them.

The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983)
Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975)
Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981). A mixed bunch, but I became a fan, to varying degrees of all three writers. Where Time Winds Blow remains a favourite sf novel, and I had the opportunity to tell Holdstock as much and get him to sign a copy. Rowley was never perhaps a favourite writer but one whose oeuvre I was keen to explore, but unfortunately the bulk of his work was published only in the US, not in the UK. So he was one of the first writers whose books I had to hunt for. Morressy, on the other hand, was published in the UK – at least his Sternverein novels were, and they’re the good ones. Under a Calculating Star is set in a universe Morressy used in several other novels, something which very much plugged into my love of Traveller and science fiction RPGs. (For the record, Morressy’s Frostworld and Dreamfire is a much better novel, and well worth reading.)

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985). In the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association, after learning of the organisation from an advert in the back of a CJ Cherryh paperback. One of the first things I did after joining was volunteer my services as a reviewer for the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno. The editor asked me for a sample review. I’d just read Knight Moves and thought it was terrible, so I wrote a negative review of it. The review was good enough to get me the gig. Through the BSFA, I learnt about fandom and conventions. And also about a great many sf authors, mostly British and recently-published, I had not come across before. (For the record, I later read several other books by Williams, and they were much better. But I never became a fan of his writing.)

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988). I don’t think this was the first Jones novel I read but it was certainly the first that made me sit up and take notice of her – to such an extent, in fact, she has been my favourite sf writer for a couple of decades now. And, in my opinion, she is probably one of the best sf writers the country has produced.

The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980). Back in the day, Woolworths used to have bins of remaindered sf paperbacks for 99p each, or perhaps even less. They were usually by authors you had never heard of. One such book I picked up was Children of the Night by Michael Kring, which proved to be a sequel. I eventually tracked down a copy of the first book of the series, The Space Mavericks. There were no more. Possibly for good reason. The Space Mavericks is notable because on my entry to fandom at Mexicon 3 in 1989 I ended up hanging out with a group of Glaswegian writers (you know who you are) and someone had a copy of The Space Mavericks and several of them tried to act out the fight scenes as described in the book. To much hilarity. The Space Mavericks was also a major inspiration in the creation of the fanzine Turkey Shoot, which was briefly infamous in the early 1990s.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972)
The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950)
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969). I’m pretty sure I read these books in the 1980s and, for many years, I was a fan of their authors. Some, I still am. But it’s hard to be sure when I read them exactly – although I’m fairly certain they were the first works by those authors I read (at novel-length certainly; I’d read some of Russ’s short stories much earlier). Russ I didn’t rediscover until the 2010s. Wolfe I rated highly throughout the 1990s, but went off him several years ago when ti felt like he was more interested in writing tricks and not narratives. Vance’s oeuvre I explored thoroughly during the 1980s and 1990s, and found much to like; but his last few works were poor and I went off him – only to thoroughly enjoy my first read of his Cadwal Chronicles this year. Le Guin is, well, Le Guin. I have read a lot of her fiction; I should probably read some of her non-fiction. She is definitely in the top five of greatest writers the genre has produced, certainly more so than the likes of Asimov.

The 1980s saw my science fiction reading expand greatly, chiefly through the three reasons given above. I remember reading Neuromancer, and then wondering what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Robert A Heinlein’s late novels and enjoying them, while still recognising their faults. By 1990, I’d started at university, attended two conventions, been a member of the BSFA for a couple of years (and reviewed books for them during that period), and had even tried my hand at writing short stories (with no success). I identified as a science fiction fan and was a member of science fiction fandom.


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Reading diary 2019, #8

After cracking through a bunch of novels, I hit the last book of the half-dozen below and ground almost to a halt. Possibly a result of its size as much as its extremely poor writing. Not to mention that the main characters are annoying as hell. Why on earth did I decide to reread the series?

Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). I picked up a copy of this at the SF-Bokhandeln in Stockholm while meeting up with family over on a visit to Sweden. It’s not Reynold’s usual fare, but a near-future time travel story. The human race is pretty much over, killed off by its appalling lack of husbandry of its environment (that’s pollution, Global Warming, germ warfare, hunting to extinction, etc, etc), but a group in Russia have perfected time travel and send someone back into the past to make enough of a change to allow humanity a small chance at survival. It’s not actual physical time travel – which means it’s at least free of the risible technobollocks in Avengers: Endgame – but the consciousness of the tempunaut is sent back to occupy the mind of a person of the target period. (A similar conceit, I believe to Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.) Of course, as is ever the way, nothing goes as planned, and protagonist Valentina must race across Russia to deliver the maguffin, only to learn how the future has changed when she returns to it. I thought Permafrost pretty good, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it was set in Russia, or what the setting brought to the story, other than, well, the title. Reynolds has never had much luck with the Hugos, but given that Permafrost was published by Hugo darlings Tor.com then perhaps he stands a chance next year.

Big Cat and Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). A new book by Gwyneth Jones, whether a novel, novella or collection, is cause for celebration in this house. She’s been my favourite sf writer since reading Kairos in the early 1990s, and I’d even go so far as to say sheäs the best science fiction writer who is still writing the UK has produced. Big Cat and Other Stories collects eleven stories originally published between 2007 and 2016 (and one original to this volume), only two of which I’d  previously read. Three of the stories are set in worlds from Jones’s novels, although one of those novels was published under Jones’s YA pseudonym, Ann Halam. This does mean for those three that you get more out of them if you know the original novels, more so for the story which lends the collection its title as it’s set in the universe of the Bold As Love quintet and features its central triumvirate of characters. The stories are chiefly science fiction but spread  widely across the genre, from the slightly off-kilter pulp adventure on Venus of ‘A Planet Called Desire’ and the Leigh Brackett/Lovecraft mashup of ‘The Vicar of Mars’ to the near-future of ‘Stella and the Adventurous Roots’, ‘Emergence’ and ‘Bricks, Stick, Straws’, although they depict worlds not quite the same as our own. All of the stories are a hit of the pure Jones, and if you appreciate her science fiction then Big Cat and Other Stories is as good a selection as any other. Recommended.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas (2018, USA). I’m not sure why I bought this. I guess the blurb must have caught my fancy or something. Although that doesn’t seem right, because, well, “near-future dystopia”. I mean, who reads them anymore? With the actual shit that’s going down in Trump’s US and Brexit Britain, literary dystopias are starting to look like weak sauce. In Red Clocks, the Republican Christian nutjobs are firmly in charge, abortion is illegal, and only families of one father and one mother can adopt kids. Which is unfortunate for a couple of the characters in Red Clocks, a pregnant schoolgirl and a single teacher desperate for a child (and whose numerous tries at IVF have all been unsuccessful). Zumi chooses to tell her story from the viewpoints of each of her characters, but in their viewpoint chapters they’re not identified by name, only by their role in the story – so “the biographer”, “the wife”, and so on. It doesn’t work. It’s an unnecessary hurdle – although it does successfully disguise for at least the first quarter of the book quite how ordinary its story is. I was also annoyed by the attempt at found documents pertaining to the historical figure who is the subject of the biographer’s unfinished, er, biography, a female polar explorer from the turn of the twentieth century. She’s named Eivør Minurvasdottír – and  the first time I saw it I thought, there’s no ø in Icelandic. But there is in Faroese. Which is where she’s from. But the accent on the surname is in the wrong place. It should be -dóttir. The name is misspelt throughout the novel. Didn’t the author check? Didn’t the editor? The publisher? It’s not like it’s hard to find out. It’s a minor complaint – and from someone who chiefly reads science fiction! But for all that Red Clocks was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, the first time an Orwell Prize has been offered for fiction, there didn’t seem much to me that stood out. (The Orwell Prize is probably best remembered for giving an award to Johann Hari, only to demand it back when it transpired Hari had plagiarised and misrepresented facts in his articles. He returned the prize but has never returned the prize money.) But Red Clocks. Dull and unoriginal. Not worth reading.

Breakwater, Simon Bestwick (2018, UK). A Facebook friend has been working his way through the works shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, and I saw this novella in my timeline and since it’s set in an underwater base, something I find fascinating, and was extremely cheap on Kindle, I decided to give it a go. And… oh dear. The title refers to an underwater complex just off the the coast of the UK. Originally built for research, it has been taken over by the military as a first line of defence against a mysterious underwater race who, we are told in an infodump, are now at war with humanity because of humanity’s history of polluting the oceans. The widow of the man with whom she co-designed Breakwater still works there. With the Royal Navy. And, wouldn’t you know it, the underwater people decide to attack a couple of pages into the novella, and this time it’s the biggest attack ever. The woman manages to escape, with the help of a female petty officer. They run through an empty complex, staying just ahead being drowned. But then the petty officer lets slip she’s one of the underwater people – or rather, one engineered to look human – and she belongs to a faction that wants to open dialogue with humanity… And, well, that’s it. The author doesn’t seem to understand how depth works – there’s a few mentions of airlocks and ears popping; oh, and the woman’s husband died of the bends – otherwise, changes in pressure are blithely skated over. There’s a bit of authorial prurience over the two female leads, which reads a bit old-fashioned. And something I’ve not seen in a book for years: a detailed description of the protagonist’s appearance. Who still does that? The British Fantasy Awards are, like the Hugos and Nebulas, prone to logrolling, and it’s not unusual for people well-known and well-liked among the voters to have their works find their way onto the shortlist irrespective of the quality of the work. The voting pool for the BFA is very small, probably even smaller than the average attendance of the annual Fantasycon (ie, a couple of hundred).

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (2018, USA). I had sort of avoided reading this as I’d covered similar material myself, although with a considerably lower profile and less commercial success. But then it was nominated for the Hugo, and so was made available in the Hugo Voter Pack, and a quick look persuaded me that there’s actual very little overlap between The Calculating Stars and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. In Kowal’s novel, a large meteorite strikes the earth in the early 1950s, crashing down somewhere in the north Atlantic and so kicking off an accelerated greenhouse effect. Elma York is a gifted mathematician and a pilot. She and her husband, a rocket engineer at NACA, survive the meteorite and are instrumental in the creation of an international space agency to lead the quest to settle another world so humanity survives once the earth as become uninhabitable. So this is the very early days of the Space Race, more Hidden Figures than The Right Stuff. But Elma also wants to be an astronaut, so there’s also a lot of the Mercury 13 in the story (and several names familiar to me from my research; but, strangely, not Jerrie Cobb). There’s much to like in the novel: the swing about halfway through to a Mercury 13 narrative (although Kowal characterises Jackie Cochran as a much nicer person than she was – it was Cochran who famously said that women shouldn’t be taking jobs from men but should “follow after and pick up the slack”). I liked Kowal’s stand-in for Al Shepard, Stetson Parker, although the narrative seemed curiously ambivalent about him, feeling like at times it was trying to make him sympathetic. I thought the anxiety aspect overdone, but I’ve been told by sufferers they thought it accurate and found it welcome. On the other hand, I’ve heard there has been grumbling about the presentation of Judaism in the novel (York and her husband are Jews). In hindsight, The Calculating Stars is a novel that wants to tell a story about a space programme created in response to an extinction-level meteorite strike, but it also wants to be Hidden Figures and feature women computers… Which gives it a slightly anachronistic feel despite the very good period detail. In the real world, women went on to become programmers, too, but were then supplanted by men – in many cases, the female programmers were moved to assistant positions despite being better qualified and more experienced. That, I think, might have made for a more interesting story, and would not have meant pulling the start of the space programme back to the early 1950s. (On the other hand, having it when Kowal set it meant there were lots of ex-WASP female pilots around, as well as the women computers.) The Calculating Stars won the Hugo last weekend. Should it have done? I’m told Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is the better novel, although I’ve not read it yet, but The Calculating Stars was certainly my choice to take the award.

The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). I’ve been told the Wheel of Time was originally pitched as a trilogy but then cut down to a single novel, but proved so successful the trilogy was reinstated, before mutating into the bloated fourteen-volume beast it eventually became. Certainly the pacing in The Eye of the World is so bad it’s entirely plausible its story was intended to stretch over several books. You have ten percent introduction to the world and characters, then 80% travelogue, and everything gets wrapped up in the last ten percent. The Great Hunt has slightly better pacing, and a great deal more happens in it, but there’s still a lot of travelogue. And padding. Reams and reams of padding. There’s even three or four pages where Rand experiences the same thing over and over again. It makes for a dull read. The one thing I’m noticing about these books during my rereads – other than the derision of friends when I tell them I’m rereading the Wheel of Time – is that the world-building is a strange mix of identikit sword-and-sorcery and weird but interesting original touches. It also feels strangely “lived-in”, with its various parts slotting together in a way that doesn’t feel entirely the result of authorial fiat. Having said that… the characters are still as annoying as shit. Rand al’Thor reads like a thirteen year old and his friends are no better. An important minor character turns out to be a Darkfriend (ie, agents of the the Dark Lord) but it comes totally out of left-field. The actual Darkfriend the protagonists spend the entire book chasing is far too pantomime. And another character do be talking like this all the time and it do be fucking irritating. The Great Hunt is a great improvement on The Eye of the World, but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. There are some enjoyable set-pieces and some good hooks set for later in the series. But the praise this series received back in the 1990s still astonishes me. It’s a poor piece of work – and that in genre not known for the high quality of its prose or plotting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2018, #9

I try to alternate my reading between male and female authors – or, at the very least, ensure that by the end of the year I’ll have read roughly the same numbers of each. But it doesn’t always work out 50:50 on a monthly basis, so here we have four male authors and only one female. But two of the books were short collections, squeezed in and around my Clarke Award reading (see here).

The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter (2017, UK). Baxter, of course, wrote the official sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine, The Time Ships, back in 1995, so I guess and official sequel to The War of the Worlds was always on the cards… even if shitloads of other people have had a bash at an unofficial sequel – of which the best is probably the graphic novel Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D’israeli. The Massacre of Mankind is set decades after the events of the original book, and is narrated by Julie – the character played, I think, by Julie Covington in Jeff Wayne’s version. She’s a journalist and suffragette, and when she’s contacted by the narrator of Wells’s novel, now a recluse in Italy, she gets dragged into preparations for a fresh invasion from Mars, a much bigger invasion. The Martians target Britain and create a zone fifty miles across in the Home Counties, and those caught within it are left to struggle without technology… so the Martians can harvest them as and when needed (they’ve already imported two slave races from Mars). The British build a massive trench around the Martian zone, but every attack is thwarted. Then a third invasion arrives, targetted at major cities around the globe (Baxter focuses on New York so he can do a Great Gatsby type thing). This time germs are not going to do the trick. To defeat the Martians, Earth needs something else. Something, or someone, perhaps from another planet… On the one hand, Baxter took Wells’s story in a direction I had not expected and the early twentieth century ambience did not feel, er, paper-thin. On the other, the prose is functional at best, and some parts do read a bit juvenile. I’m not sure how it reads as a sequel to Wells’s novel, given I’m more familiar with Baxter’s work than I am Wells’s. It did all feel a bit in places like it wanted to have its cake and eat it too, but given it kept me reasonably entertained for a couple of days – although a part of me thinks a sequel to a Wells novel should do more – I can’t complain over much.

Author’s Choice Monthly 5: Into the Eighth Decade, Jack Williamson (1990, USA). Williamson had an enviable career – I’m not sure what that “eighth decade” refers to since he was 82 when the book was published, which would put him in his ninth decade; and his first story was published in 1928, which would put his publishing history in its seventh decade… But never mind. This collection features his most famous story, ‘With Folded Hands’, and it hasn’t aged well. It starts off reading like it’s set in the 1940s – men in fucking hats sf, in other words – before abruptly revealing there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of other worlds populated by humanity. The premise of robots so keen to help humans they effectively nanny them into uselessness could be read as a juvenile right-wing commentary on the welfare state, but only by idiots. Sadly, there are many of them about it. The remaining stories are… forgettable. ‘Jamboree’ has no plot, it’s a squib about an out-of-control AI that kills kids when they reach a certain age. More nanny state commentary. Sigh. In ‘The Mental Man’, a man interfaces with a computer and becomes god. And in ‘The Happiest Creature’, a criminal is rescued by a flying saucer, but they can’t keep him so they return him after extracting a promise not to murder again which they know all too well he has no intention of keeping. The ending comes as no real surprise. Given that Williamson was being published for pretty close on a century – well, eighty years, his last stories were published in 2008, two years after his death – I’m surprised he chose the weak ones on display here. Okay, so ‘With Folded Hands’ is perhaps his most famous – and likely his most anthologised, so why repeat it? – but the others are hardly a good testament for a career, at that time, 62 years long. Still, it’s part of a set.

Author’s Choice Monthly 11: Skyrocket Steele Conquers the Universe, Ron Goulart (1990, USA). As is this one – part of a set, I mean. I read a Goulart novel once, it was one of his Chameleon Corps ones, I think. It was shit. And the five stories in this collection are probably worse. Goulart describes himself in the introduction as a hack – he made the choice many years ago to churn out crap to make a living, and it shows in the five stories in this collection. The protagonists are mostly hack writers. One is consumed with jealousy over the success of a writer he considers less talented – and he’s been forced to write pulp to pay the bills – but then he meets a time-travelling lit student from the late twenty-first century who tells him his novels are considered classic in the future. The twist ending is easy to guess. The title story refers to a plot by the Nazis in the early 1940s to replace FDR with a robot replica when he visits Hollywood. The plot is foiled by a screenwriter. To call this fluff would be doing fluff a disservice. The others are little better. There’s a strong thread of piss-take running through the stories, but it’s spoiled by an equally powerful whiff of “my pulp fiction is as good as your high-falutin’ litrachur yah boo sucks”, which is a bad smell in any decade and a sadly prevalent one in science fiction.

The A26, Pascale Garnier (1999, France). Mention of Garnier popped up on Twitter – I don’t remember who it was who RT’d it into my TL – but the description sounded interesting and I liked the look of the Gallic Editions paperbacks (there are eight, including The A26). So I bought one. It was… not what I expected. And sort of good. An aged brother and sister live alone in a house that is a dump – the sister hoards, and refuses to leave the house, after an event during WWII. The brother has been diagnosed with a fatal illness – cancer, I think – and has months to live. He retires from his job at the local railway station. And murders some people. Sort of accidentally, certainly unpremeditated. Meanwhile, the titular road is mentioned in passing as it is being built nearby. That original tweet described Garnier’s fiction as Ballardian, and I can sort of see the resemblance, but it reminded me more of some of the French noir Jacques Tardi has adapted. I wasn’t blown away, but I might try some more.

The Exchange, Gwyneth Jones (1979, UK). I’ve had this for years, decades in fact, but only recently realised I’d never actually read it. I remember someone – Brian Ameringen of Porcupine Books, I think – tracking down copies of Jones’s three YA novels from the late 1970s for me after I mentioned them at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate in 1991. And then later that same year, I met Gwyneth Jones at Wincon 2 in, er, Winchester, and she sent me signed copies… so I have two of each. Oh well. And embarrassingly it’s taken me all this time to read this one. Debbie and Claire are sixteen years old and best friends. Except Debbie fancies Michael Grey but is too shy to admit as much, and her friendship with Claire beings to suffer. Which is badly timed as the two are going to spend the summer in Paris with a French family. At the airport – I’m not sure where the story opens; Manchester, I think, as Jones is originally from there – they miss their flight after hiding out when all their friends come to see them off – including one or two unwelcome friends. So they decide to hitchhike to the South Coast and catch the ferry across. They spend a week in Nottingham, working as chambermaids for next-to-nothing at a “hotel” that is little more than an old folks’ home, before doing a runner. When they reach Brighton, after several adventures on the road – and considerably less had they made the same trip today – they get work as cooks in a girls’ riding school for overseas students… before eventually coming clean to their parents over the phone, and finally leaving for France. The novel is told entirely from Debbie’s POV is pretty much about her friendship with Claire, the way it began to unravel at the start of the summer, how it hung together precariously as they made their way south, and the eventual confessions which healed it just before the left for France. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s a very late-1970s novel, and some of its sensibilities have not aged well. But Debbie is drawn with impressive detail, and nothing in the plot seems in the remotest implausible. I was, to be honest, expect it to be fantasy, as I seem to remember Jones’s other YA titles from the late 1970s are fantasies: The Influence of Ironwood, Dear Hill and Water in the Air. Although I may be misremembering the first two.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

books
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition 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 GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.


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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.