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Reading diary 2019, #7

I was never much of a fan of ebooks, but circumstances forced me to use them. Because of my move, I got a Kindle and, since it took a while for me to find somewhere reasonably permanent to live, I was reluctant to buy hardbacks or paperbacks due to the hassle of shifting them from one address to another. So the Kindle has proved extremely useful. In the last three months, my reading has been around 80% ebook. There are some books I would like to keep as physical copies, which means I’m not going to buy them as ebooks. I have some catching up to do there, however.

Meanwhile, below are: a paperback I brought with me to Sweden, and five ebooks I bought once I was here, two of which I actually have as physical copies, but in storage back in the UK.

Lord of the Flies*, William Golding (1954, UK). This was Golding’s debut novel, and probably the only book for which he is known by most people. Which must have rankled. I have a feeling I read this at school, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, although the only novels I remember reading at that time as part of my schooling are Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea. But I did read a lot then. In fact, it was around that time I was introduced to science fiction when a lad in my class lent me a copy of Starman Jones. Another boy in the year below me then lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith Lensman novels… and the rest, as they say, is history. Lord of the Flies has sort of entered British culture and its central conceit is part of the country’s popular consciousness. That conceit is, of course, schoolboys marooned on a desert island who start behaving like, well, children. Everyone remembers Piggy and his glasses, but he’s not the focus of the story. (I’ve not seen the film adaptation, from 1963 or 1990, so I don’t know if either made changes.) There is Ralph, mysterious and charismatic (and reads like Golding recalling a school boycrush), who is more or less dragooned into leadership. And there is Jack, leader of a choir, who fancies himself a leader (so is the Boris Johnson of the group). Ralph rightly insists on a signal fire to attract the attention of any passing ship. But Jack is more interested in hunting wild pigs. The conflict splits the group of schoolboys, and Piggy is accidentally killed. It has been said that Lord of the Flies is not as universal as it’s proclaimed to be, because its cast consists entirely of white British schoolboys (mostly) from the middle classes and above. This is only a problem if you think Lord of the Flies was intended to be, well, universal. I don’t think it is. It’s about public schoolboys (well, mostly; I think a few are not). If Golding was making a point that might be applicable to a much wider group then he wouldn’t have been so careful about the make-up of the marooned boys and their group dynamics. I know very little, I admit, about Golding’s life, or his thoughts on writing, so I may be projecting. But Lord of the Flies strikes me as too carefully staged and cast to be chiefly allegorical – an assumption based on a reading of only third of his oeuvre, I admit. But careful writers are careful writers, and careful writing is a good indicator of a habit of carefulness, much as a history of stupid decisions is a good indicator of stupidity (hello, Boris Johnson). I finished Lord of the Flies surprised it was Golding’s best-known work as it felt too slight. And this after reading The Pyramid (see here) and The Paper Men (see here). Perversely, though they felt too much like what they were, they also felt more… considered than Lord of the Flies. This is not to say it’s a bad book, but it is more of an historical document than its reputation would suggest. Read it by all means, but Golding wrote more interesting novels and they would be better reads.

Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK). I’d heard a number of good things about this novella, and while I’m usually sceptical about recommendations, and, to be honest, I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions, but… it’s a novella, and it was on offer on Kindle. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. The purported Nazi invasion of Shingle Street, Suffolk, has pretty much entered WWII mythology. McDonald posits it as a Project Rainbow-like experiment (AKA The Philadelphia Experiment), which actually results in sending two men careering independently through time. Unfortunately, they happen to be in a relationship. Fortunately – and this provides the entry to the story – they communicate using a collection by an obscure poet, left in antiquarian bookshops scattered throughout Europe. (Reading this novella, I was reminded of the Italian publisher who published a pirate edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the UK at the time, and was so embarrassed at how it successful it was he sent royalties to Lawrence.) So Time Was is sort of a literary detective novel because the obscure collection is really obscure. But it also hints at a relationship between two men that leaves evidence scattered throughout the twentieth century. It’s cleverly done. And, I must admit, it did remind me of something, or perhaps several somethings – but I couldn’t think what. Which is not presented as a criticism. If anything, those echoes of other half-remembered stories added to Time Was. I liked this novella a lot, and I’m surprised it didn’t make more award shortlists. It won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Campbell and Dick, but didn’t even warrant mention for the Hugo or Nebula. A shame. This is an excellent novella.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert (1969, USA). The Dune series reread continues, although perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. It’s all down to me, of course; there’s nothing stopping me reading the books one after the other. Except I have a habit choosing something different to my last read for my next one. Probably not a great strategy when reading a series – but given this year I also decided to have a go at rereading the Wheel of Time series, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive reading those books in quick succession… Anyway, Dune Messiah. Popular wisdom would have it that Dune Messiah is the best of the original Dune trilogy – or, as some would day it, the best of the Dune sequels. Which tells you how wrong popular wisdom is. Dune Messiah is not a sequel – Herbert conceived of the trilogy as a whole, although perhaps not in detail. It’s also not the best of the three. Neither, to be honest, is the first book, Dune. Which means it must be the third one… but I’ve yet to reread it. Dune Messiah is set some years after the end of Dune. Paul Atreides is now emperor and has become increasingly disenchanted with the institution he has created. Meanwhile, there is a plot to kill him, led by some Fremen who fought with him and are unhappy with the changes to Arrakis. There are also a series of sub-plots. Princess Irulan, Paul’s wife, is angling for an heir, and has joined a conspiracy with a Guild navigator, a Tleilaxu Face-Dancer and a Bene Gesserit. It’s clear they all have different objectives, and it’s a marriage of convenience, so to speak (marriages of convenience pop up a lot in the Dune books). Meanwhile, Chani is pregnant and Paul knows she will die in childbirth. Which she does. She has twins, which Paul had not foreseen. And it turns out the Tleilaxu are more interested in finding a trigger for the ghola Hayt, a clone of Duncan Idaho, to recover Idaho’s memories. While rooting out the plot to kill him, Paul was permanently blinded by a “stoneburner”, a type of nuclear weapon. It’s Fremen tradition to abandon blind people in the desert, and eventually that’s what Paul does: walks out into the desert. Some years later, a blind Fremen called the Preacher appears in Arrakeen, the capital city of Arrakis, and rants against the regency that has taken over from Paul. Is Dune Messiah better than Dune? Yes. The prose is much better-written. But then it improves as the series progresses, so that’s no surprise. But where Dune had the fifteen-year-old Paul Atriedes as its focus, a character readers, especially male teen ones, can glom onto, Dune Messiah has no one. Which means it reads as a more distanced narrative. Paul is presented as a tragic figure – in fact, no one in the book is all that sympathetic, except perhaps, perversely, Princess Irulan. (Since first reading the book in my teens, I’ve always been fascinated the most by Skytale, the Tleilaxu Face-Dancer.) Dune was definitely a book of two halves: ‘Dune World’ and ‘The Prophet of Dune’. But Dune Messiah also feels like a book of parts, perhaps because its sub-plots don’t gel especially well. To some extent, that’s down to Herbert’s decision to have a cabal of four plotters all pursuing different aims, and a plot to kill Paul on top of that. It makes for a busy narrative, and yet Dune Messiah is only 256 pages. So the plot jumps around and Herbert skimps on some of the detail. Dune Messiah reads like Herbert stringing together his favourite scenes from the story he had planned. It works – better than Dune does, to be honest – but it does feel more like a best-of than a coherent narrative. The Dune series is a science fiction institution, and is likely to be even more so in the future. After decades of trying to raise the profile of the Dune series, leading to the questionable decision to publish a series of shit novels by Kevin J Anderson, Herbert Limited Partnership have finally got their wish, with a two-movie adaptation of the Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve and a supporting TV series. Dune is going to be up there with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. The good news is the books are just as capable of supporting the cross-platform media giant Dune will become as Tolkien and GRRM. This is not necessarily a compliment. However, the Dune series reread continues and perhaps I will surprise myself with my re-evaluation of the following books…

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (2018, UK). Speaking of series, my mother lent me the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and, while I wasn’t overly impressed, it did strike me as interesting enough to continue with the series. Not because Galbraith was really JK Rowling (to be honest, I’ve only read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) but because The Cuckoo’s Calling sort of fell between the stools of crime fiction and literary fiction without actually being good examples of either, and yet still managed to present a pair of sympathetic characters more than capable of carrying a number of novels. And so I read The Silkworm and Career of Evil… and now Lethal White. The continuity between novels is good, even if the individual novels continue to suffer from that unfortunate fall between two stools. However, Galbraith does at least choose interesting subjects around which to base her novels (okay, so yes, Career of Evil was structured around the songs of Blue Oyster Cult, and I’ve been a fan of the band since my schooldays). Lethal White is, to be honest, more of the same. A politician somewhere between Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (AKA between arsehole and scumbag; or vice versa), is murdered. He had been the subject of a Strike investigation, which proves embarrassing. And so Cormoran and sidekick Robin Ellacott (Robin, get it?) have to solve the murder – initially thought to be suicide under weird circumstances (a time-honoured Tory tradition) – and clear the wife and estranged son of blame. But everyone seems to have an alibi. As mentioned previously, Lethal White does well as a follow-on from the previous book, and its central crime is sufficiently puzzling to drive the plot. But there’s a strange whiff of approval for the central Tory character, and I’m not sure if I misread the novel because this is JK Rowling and even vast riches wouldn’t turn her into a fan of Boris Johnson. Although, to be fair, Michael Heseltine might be a better model, and the extremism of the current Conservative Party has helped rehabilitate him and he’s now seen as almost moderate. I’m not saying the Galbraith novels are good – either as novels qua novels or as crime novels. But they’re certainly very readable and they do seem to have a somewhat sideways approach to crime… and this is in a genre which doesn’t necessarily prize originality.

Araminta Station, Jack Vance (1987, USA). I first read this many years ago, probably soon after it was published in 1989 (the edition pictured, the NEL A-format paperback, is the one I own), which was a few years before I started recording the books I read. For some reason, I never got around to picking up copies of the two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy, until many, many years later… Then I never got around to actually reading them. And now, of course, they’re in storage. Happily, all three books of the trilogy are available as ebooks from the SF Gateway, so I picked up the first as a reread. The planet of Cadwal has been declared off-limits to development and is ostensibly policed by a group based at the eponymous station. Which has existed so long its workings have come to define its society. Glawen Clattuc is a teenager likely to take a middling position in the Araminta bureaucracy. But enemies of his father arrange for him to be given a much lower ranking than he deserves. He goes to work for the station’s police force. At a festival, Glawen’s girlfriend disappears, believed murdered and her body shipped off-world in a wine cask. There’s a suspect, but no evidence to charge him. There’s also a plot brewing in Yipton, an offshore community composed entirely of Yips, a human subspecies used as temporary labour at Araminta Station. All of which results in Glawen being sent on a mission to another world, where he ends up imprisoned in a monastery. And that, and the plot in Yipton, seems to link into mutterings about opening up Cadwal for development… I remember reading Vance’s last couple of sf novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and being disappointed by them. And the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy were the novels published prior to those. So my expectations weren’t especially high. Happily, Araminta Station proved to be Vance on fine form. It’s busier than most of his other novels, but it’s also better plotted. The characterisation also seemed less arbitrary than I recalled in other novels. And the comic lines were good too.

The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan (1925, UK). A few years ago, I put together a list of postwar British women writers. Some of them were already known to me – Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Elizabeth Taylor – and not all of them began their careers after WWII, but there were undoubtedly some particularly big names from the period I chose to ignore… Not, I hasten to add, that I considered my list in any way complete. It was a selection. And I did indeed track down books by some of the names on the list – Katherine Burdekin, Susan Ertz, Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson, E Arnot Robertson, GB Stern… and Hilda Vaughan. Who, it turns out, probably didn’t really fit on the list, although her last novel was published in 1954, as she was chiefly active between the wars and is probably better considered a contemporary of DH Lawrence than a postwar writer. And, in fact, The Battle to the Weak, her first novel, has much in common with Lawrence’s novels. A young woman from a poor farming family in mid-Wales is sent to stay with an aunt at a seaside town. There she meets a young man, and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s the son of her father’s mortal enemy, a neighbouring farmer he’s been violently clashing with for years. The son was given to his aunt at a very young age and more or less adopted, so he’s not at all involved in the feud. When the young woman’s father learns the identity of her fiancé, he forbids the wedding. As does the fiancé’s father. So the fiancé goes off to Canada to make his fortune. The young woman prepares to join him, but her father fights with her sister, who falls down the stairs and is paralysed from the waist down. The woman puts her plans on hold to look after her sister. Years pass. The sister dies. The young woman prepares to move to Canada. Then the father dies, so the young woman stays on to help her mother. The man in Canada writes and tells the young woman he couldn’t wait and has married. Years pass. The man returns to Wales, and the two eventually reconnect. In its depiction of rural life in the 1920s, The Battle to the Weak is very Lawrentian. There’s also a cross-generational aspect. But Vaughan’s novel is much more grim than anything Lawrence wrote. The lives she documents are hard, and the men – bar a couple of exceptions, one of which is the fiancé – are monsters. Especially the father. The prose is typical of the period, but it’s good. If you like fiction from the early part of the twentieth century, then Vaughan is definitely worth a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135

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Reading diary 2018, #21

Another eclectic bunch of books read. Only one recent genre novel (and one old one). The rest are mainstream.

A Winter Book, Tove Jansson (1971, Finland). Jansson apparently came to adult fiction late. She was in her fifties before she wrote her first novel that wasn’t children’s fiction. She also wrote a number of short stories. A Winter Book is cobbled together from a previous collection – not translated into English, IIRC – and a number of uncollected stories. They’re grouped thematically, and many deal with childhood in some way. Except for the ones that are about old age. Those who have read other fiction by Jansson will know what to expect. She’s very good at describing  the world she knew – pretty much every story she wrote drew on her own life. So we have stories set in Finnish winters, and stories that take place among the islands during the summer. It’s all very smooth and effortless storytelling, although some stories are more interesting than others. And yet, the collection itself doesn’t exactly linger. I read it more than a month ago and I’d be hard-pressed to describe any of the stories in it. Perhaps it’s that smoothness. Worth reading, though I suspect fans will get more out of it than I did.

Marune: Alastor 993, Jack Vance (1975, USA). I’m not sure why I picked this one off the shelves for a reread, given that previous Vance rereads haven’t gone so well. But I had fond memories of his Alastor Cluster series, and if the books were going to go back into storage I might as well remind myself of those fond memories. And… Marune: Alastor 993 was a much better book than I’d remembered it. Or rather: I’d remembered it as middling Vance, but it was a better put-together narrative than Star King, which I’d remembered as good Vance. The plot is one Vance has used several times: the amnesiac who has to research his origin and background, and discovers that his amnesia was deliberately induced in order to improve his rivals’, or enemies’, lot. Of course, the book’s real charm lies in the bizarre society the amnesiac belongs to. And, of course, his experiences away from his people have given him a broader outlook, which allows him to think past his family’s customs and traditions, and so he takes his rightful place as head of the family and overcomes his rivals and the family’s enemies. Although his amnesia does get in the way at times… Vance wrote two other Alastor Clusters books: Trullion: Alastor 2262 and Wyst: Alastor 1716. I might give them a reread before they go into storage.

The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, which is easily one of the best first contact sf series ever written – and certainly contains one of the genre’s best-written villains in Elizabeth Weatherall – not to mention thinking Duchamp’s short story ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is a bona fide genre classic… So any new work by her is a cause for celebration. Except, she’s not always an easy read, and not because her prose is especially hard. There are lots of things in The Waterdancer’s World to like, but I still struggled to read it. It doesn’t help that its narrative is formed from multiple journals, all from different times during the history of the world Frogmore, because some of the narratives were way more engaging than others. There are also excerpts from a “galactic encyclopedia”, which is never a good way to info dump, and in many cases the info wasn’t actually necessary. But I’m a big fan of bending and twisting forms of narrative, so I can’t begrudge Duchamp’s experimentation. Of the various narratives, the journal of Inez Gauthier, the privileged daughter of the head of Frogmore’s occupation forces, is the most interesting; but the eponymous character, who doesn’t actually appear all that often, is the most fascinating person in the novel. There’s a fierce intelligence to Duchamp’s fiction – which is surprisingly rare in science fiction, the only other examples that spring to mind are Gwyneth Jones and Samuel R Delany – but Duchamp’s fiction seems much more, well, researched than those two. In the case of The Waterdancer’s World that has the unfortunate effect of making the sf feel a bit old-fashioned – not in sensibilities, they’re thoroughly twenty-first century; but in the whole look and feel… At times, I was almost visualising sets and costumes from Out of the Unknown, a British sf TV anthology series from the 1960s. Still, it’s all good stuff. I still have Duchamp’s latest to read on the TBR.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh (1930, UK). My first Waugh. I hadn’t realised when I decided to work my way through Waugh’s books quite how old they were. I’d known he was writing during the 1940s and 1950s, but it seems much of his fame rests on the novels he wrote in earlier decades satirising the “bright young things” of 1930s London. I do enjoy fiction from that period, although I prefer post-war, but I have at least something to which I can compare Waugh… And the obvious candidate is Henry Green, whose fiction I like a great deal. And who Waugh himself takes a few potshots at in his novels (perhaps not in this one but certainly the one below). Waugh is generally considered one of the best novelists the UK has produced but on the strength of Vile Bodies I’d say Green was better. Vile Bodies, which is apparently a sequel to Decline and Fall (which I also have), opens with the characters crossing the Channel from France, and then getting into various upper-crust scrapes in London. One long-running joke involves the dim-witted father of the female lead, whose less-than-illustrious fiancé wants to marry her, doesn’t have enough money, so he approaches the future father-in-law several times for help. There’s also a trip to a motor race to support a race driver friend, in which an air-head aristocrat socialite finds herself taking the race driver’s place and disappearing off into the wild blue yonder out of control. It’s all very obvious and yet all very cleverly done. And well-written, if not up to Green’s standards. I’ve got most of Waugh’s oeuvre to read, thanks to my mother, and I shall work my way through them. But it’s not looking like he’ll ever become a favourite.

Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh (1965, UK). My second (old) Waugh – and it’s also about the Second World War (did you see what I did there?). I’d been hoping to sneak this onto my Goodreads challenge as three books, as Sword of Honour is an omnibus of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Except it isn’t, as Waugh rewrote the trilogy as a single novel shortly before his death. So it goes down on the challenge as a single book. Anyway… The novel charts the war experience of Guy Crouchback, scion of an old Catholic aristocratic family now fallen on hard times. He has spent the between-war years in Italy and speaks the language fluently. But he’s a bit of a wet, and the British are so thoroughly incompetent they’re incapable of taking advantage of his language skills. The nearest he gets is serving in Croatia near the end of the war. In fact, if there’s one thing that comes across in Sword of Honour it’s how useless the British were. We like to pretend we won WWII, but we didn’t. Not really. The Soviets did. And the Americans. Initially, we just fucked up big time. That’s what Dunkirk was. A major fuck-up. And even after all that, we still had a country run by upper-class twits and it took a while for the competent middle-class to get control. Reading Sword of Honour makes Brexit seem a lot more understandable – or rather, the fucking hash our government has made of Brexit. And yet Sword of Honour was meant to be a satire. It’s based partly on Waugh’s own war experiences, although he makes a Crouchback a much more likeable protagonist than Waugh himself apparently was. Because was by all accounts he was a nasty piece of work – a total snob and arrogant and a good candidate for being shot by his own men. Waugh gives Crouchback a better, if more ironic, future in his rewrite of the trilogy, but it’s still an essentially cheerful novel for all that it takes the piss mercilessly out of the British armed forces during wartime. I thought it a great deal better than Vile Bodies, not just because its subject matter I found more interesting but because it didn’t feel so overdone. Recommended.

How to be Both, Ali Smith (2014, UK). It’s probably time to accept I just don’t get on with Smith’s novels. Admittedly, I’ve only read two, but I can’t say I enjoyed either. Which is odd, because you would think her style would appeal to me. It’s copiously-researched, often turns on little known history, is written present-tense and without speech marks for dialogue… but it’s also often – at least in those books I’ve read – pretty close to stream-of-consciousness and that’s never a style I could deal with at length. It doesn’t help that the actual plot of How to be Both is wilfully obscure. I mean, yes, I grew up on genre fiction, and it privileges plot, but I like literary fiction, and that privileges, well, any number of things but plot is rarely one of them. I’ve not had the training to be fully appreciative of Smith’s fiction, even though I’ve read any number of literary authors and appreciated what they’ve tried to achieve. I suspect this will be the last novel by Smith I’ll read. She’s just not for me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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May book haul

Not too many this month, so I appear to be getting my habit a little under control. More work still needed, however. On the plus-side, it’s getting harder to find irresistible bargains on eBay; on the other hand, it’s getting easier to find obscure books that look interesting…

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Three first editions. Amritvela is actually signed and was a couple of quid on eBay. It’s not sf, but I need to read more world fiction anyway. The Zanzibar Cat is Russ’s first collection. Arabian Nights and Days was given me by my mother. I’ve read several books by Mahfouz, and I have a couple more on the TBR. But I’ve yet to read his Cairo trilogy, as the only copies I have of it are in Arabic. That’s a project for one year – get my Arabic up to scratch so I can read them…

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The Novel To-day was a lucky (and cheap) find on eBay. It goes in the Anthony Burgess collection. Exploring the Deep was also from eBay (and also cheap), and is a pretty good overview of its topic. Useful research material, should I ever decide to write some hyperbaric sf…

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A pair of Tor doubles – No 12 He Who Shapes/The Infinity Box by Roger Zelazny and Kate Wilhelm, and No 15 The Last Castle/Nightwings by Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. I started collecting these after a bunch of them appeared in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi, and over the years I’ve managed to find 28 of the 36 Tor published. Some of them are quite good, but many are rubbish. The Invincible is more Lem. The Leopard and My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family were bought as a birthday present.

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For The Women’s Press sf collection – Across The Acheron I found on eBay, but Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Women as Demons, A Door into Ocean, The Judas Rose and The New Gulliver were all from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books.  I recently updated the list of The Women’s Press sf titles on the SF Mistressworks site – see here.


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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A critical bookshelf

Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:


First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).

On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.

These three books do exactly what it says on the tin: annotated lists of the top one hundred genre books, as chosen by the editors. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and Fantasy: The 100 Best Books are sister-works; I’m guessing Pringle wanted to do both but ended up approaching another publisher for his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels . Interesting books, but I can’t say I agree with the majority of their choices.

Two important critical works, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis and Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and a couple of general guides to sf, David Wingrove’s The Science Fiction Source Book and David Pringle’s The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction.

I’m not sure what use is The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, but never mind. Likewise, the Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Zool is actually the Oxford SF Group). Essential SF is, well, just that – at least according to the authors. Who’s Who in Science Fiction lists the pseudonyms used by genre writers.

Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.

I seem to recall Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder causing something of a fuss when it was published in the late 1990s. I enjoyed it and, like Westfahl, I’ve always felt science fiction began in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories. The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology is just that, and the title of British Science Fiction and Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys pretty accurately describes its contents too.

A pair of British critics: Paul Kincaid’s A Very British Genre and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction; and Gwyneth Jones’ Deconstructing the Starships and Imagination / Space.

Some books about writers: Snake’s Hands is a study of the fiction of John Crowley; The Cherryh Odyssey covers CJ Cherryh’s works; Parietal Games is criticism about, and by, M John Harrison; Heinlein in Dimension is about Robert Heinlein; and The Universes of EE Smith is about the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Some books about one writer: Gene Wolfe. The Long and the Short of It does not cover any specific work of Wolfe’s, unlike Solar Labyrinth, Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition and Attending Daedalus, all of which are about The Book Of The New Sun. I reviewed Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition for Interzone.

I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.

The Delany Intersection and the Starmont Reader’s Guide are both about Delany’s fiction. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is Delany’s first and probably best-known work of criticism, though he’s written nearly a dozen such books. Jack Vance – Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography is just that.

Finally, two books about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master Of Adventure about his fiction and A Guide to Barsoom specific to his Mars books. Who Writes Science Fiction? and Wordsmiths of Wonder are both collections of interviews with genre writers.

As well as the above books, I also have a number of science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedias and reference works. But that’s a post for another day.