It’s really not difficult to maintain gender parity in your reading. After you’ve read a book written by a man, you read one written by a woman; and vice versa. Or, as it seems is the case in this Reading diary post, two books by women followed by two books by men. And then, when you have to write about science fiction or science fiction books, or indeed any branch of literature, you’ll have as many female authors you can cite as examples as you have male authors.
Having said all that, the books below are a bit of a cheat… I’ve been a fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years and have all her collections (she has never written a novel). The Emshwiller I read for SF Mistressworks. David Tallerman is a friend. So the only book I actually chose to read unaffected by non-textual factors was the Tregillis… and well, you can see below what I made of it.
Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015). As far as I remember, I first came across Helen Simpson in an anthology of “best short stories” of some sort – I do know, however, that it was her story ‘Heavy Weather’, and I fell in love with it. This was in Abu Dhabi. So on a later visit to the library, I checked out one of her collections – her second, in fact, Dear George & Other Stories. And I’ve been a fan ever since. And yet, the only place I’ve read her fiction has been in her collections – the stories in Cockfosters, for example, originally appeared in Granta, New Statesman and daily newspapers, none of which I read. But hey, that’s what collections are for. There are nine stories in Cockfosters, one of which is genre. In ‘Erewhon’, a husband lies awake at night, worrying about the day ahead, while his wife sleeps oblivious beside him. It’s only as the story progresses, and the hours tick away, that you realise the gender roles are reversed in the world of the story. ‘Kentish Town’, a discussion amongst the members of a book group, is a particularly scathing criticque of Tory Britain. The longest piece, ‘Berlin’, is about a party of middle-aged tourists visiting Germany to see various of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and how the narrator and her husband slowly come to an appreciation of the operas. Those are the stand-outs, but the others are still highly-polished pieces of prose. Simpson is very, very good at what she does, and Cockfosters amply demonstrates it.
The Start of the End of it All, Carol Emshwiller (1990). I’d read a few of Emshwiller’s stories before in various anthologies, and had always found them the sort of science fiction not to my taste. While there was no denying their quality, they didn’t offer me the things I looked for in genre fiction. And while this collection certainly shows that Emshwiller is a good writer, I found it something of a mixed bag in terms of what I enjoy reading. I’ve been working on a review of it for SF Mistressworks, but it’s been taking a bit longer than expected.
Patchwerk, David Tallerman (2016). Dran Florrian has invented a machine he calls Palimpsest and, afraid it might be used as a weapon, he decides to do a runner with it. But his arch rival, Harlan Dorric, tracks him down and tries to take Palimpsest for himself. Oh, and Florian’s ex-wife, Karen is now with Doric too. Palimpsest apparently provides a means of viewing, and even manipulating, alternate realities – as is revealed when Doric and his goons attack Florrian, and Florrian and Karen find themselves in a completely different world (a steampunkish one, in fact). And so it goes. As the chase continued across alternate realities, it occurred to me this was a very cunning way to expand a short story to novella-length. Because the resolution of the story is not dependent on the realities Florrian and Karen visit – in fact, all they do is delay, or perhaps even obstruct, the resolution. But this is hardly a problem as the story is fast-paced, very readable and manages a more-than-sufficient level of invention. Perhaps the various backgrounds are a little sketchy, and Florrian has a tendency to over-analyse at times; but at short-story length this would probably have been too light on detail to be satisfying, and there really isn’t enough plot to justify novel length. But it works just fine as a novella.
Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis (2010). I “won” this book on Twitter – a friend did a giveaway and… I can now understand why he gave it away. Bitter Seeds is a reworking of World War II – although it opens during the Spanish Civil War – in which the Germans have half a dozen super-powered teenagers, who need electricity wired directly into their brains to manifest their powers. The British are forced to make deals with the Eidolons, enigmatic and omnipotent demon-like creatures, who exact a blood price each time they deign to help. It’s an interesting idea, a mishmash of Nazi occult science mythology and the sort of potboilers Dennis Wheatley used to churn out. Unfortunately, it reads like a novel that’s been through far too many writing workshops, where the writer has tried to follow every “rule” and address every critique levelled at the manuscript. So when it’s not overwritten, it’s trying too hard do everything it thinks prose should do. And then there’s the research… Although much of the story is set in Britain, it’s not in the least bit convincing. Everyone carries billfolds. The book’s hero marries his wife in the garden of his boss’s house. The second son of a duke wears a bowler all the time (and the ducal estate is in Bestwood, which is actually a colliery village but never mind). There’s a pub which resembles no British pub ever. And the dialogue sounds like it was based on that spoken in 1970s and 1980s UK television series. There are apparently two sequels to this book. I won’t be reading them. But I might well be doing a giveaway on Twitter for Bitter Seeds…
Atoms Afloat, Edward Radlauer & Ruth Shaw Radlauer (1963). The NS Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, was one of only four ever built. She was launched in 1962 and served as a passenger and cargo ship until 1965, and then as cargo-only until 1972. She was designed as a demonstration model for nuclear power and a show case for Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” project. And she was quite a stunning-looking vessel. The interior was also designed to be in keeping with ship’s “atom age” styling, and looked fantastic. Atoms Afloat is the only book I’ve been able to find on the NS Savannah – and it’s aimed at middle-grade readers. It’s also more about the construction of the ship, and how her nuclear reactor works, than it is her design. But there are some nice photos in the book. I also have a copy of a brochure, published in the late sixties by the shipping line which operated her, and that contains some nice colour photos of Savannah’s passengers spaces. The NS Svannah was a design icon of her age, and someone really should do a proper book on her, filled with lots of colour photographs.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122