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Reading diary 2019, #11

Winter has definitely arrived and we’ve already had several days of snow. I’m a good deal further north than I used to be, although for much of the year so far that’s not really been apparent – it was hot during the summer, when it wasn’t wet and windy. But there’s definitely less daylight up here now that summer and autumn are over. After fifteen years in the UK, it’s nice to live somewhere that has clearly demarked seasons.

Greeks Bearing Gifts, Philip Kerr (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Bernie Gunther series for many years – and indeed of most of Kerr’s fiction (although, to be honest, a few of his thrillers are complete potboilers). Greeks Bearing Gifts is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther book, and the one following it, Metropolis, is unfortunately the last, as Kerr died last year. (And yes, I do have them all in first edition hardback.) Gunther is working as a porter at a hospital in Munich when he’s recognised by a local cop and blackmailed into assisting with a shakedown of a local bigwig with Communist connections. It goes wrong but gets Gunther a job at a reputable insurance company as an investigator. Which is why he ends up in Athens, investigating a claim for a yacht owned by a German that sank while searching for sunken treasure. Except, of course, nothing is ever that simple in a Bernie Gunther novel: and not only are the circumstances surrounding the sinking dodgy, but so too is the treasure they’re hunting – it’s gold stolen from Jews, basically – but then the owner of the yacht is murdered, and Bernie is up to his neck in events resulting from wartime incidents which he himself experienced but which make him look like a war criminal when he’s actually not one. They’re cleverly done these books, they treat their subject seriously. Kerr does his research and backs it up, and they show – through the point of view of a slightly corrupted witness – the many atrocities the Nazis committed and which people are now all too happy to dismiss. It’s quite simple: anyone who defends the Nazis is a Nazi. They were evil scum, and as the years pass and we learn quite how evil they actually were, so sympathising with them becomes even less justifiable. Bernie Gunther is a sympathetic character, and he worked with many Nazis – including a number of well-known ones, as is thrown in his face at one point in this novel. But he was never a Nazi and never sympathised with their views. And Kerr has used him extensively to criticise Nazi thought and views. It’s just a shame the people most likely to promote Nazi views are too stupid to read Kerr’s novel. Or indeed read books.

Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, DG Compton (1966, UK). Mars has become a new Botany Bay, and convicts are transported there at regular intervals. Life is brutal on Mars – although not as brutal as it would have been had Compton’s Mars been anything like the real Mars – as the latest group of transportees discover on arrival. I consider Compton one of the best science fiction writers the UK has produced. His prose is astonishingly good. But his best work was published in the 1970s and 1980s, and those books are very much of their time – to an extent, in fact, that it becomes part of their appeal. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss was Compton’s second sf novel – he had previously written crime fiction as Guy Compton, and continued for a few more years after his first sf novel. I’ve no idea why he decided to change genre. Perhaps he thought it would be easier to sell novels – although he doesn’t seem to have been discovered by the US until 1969, when his third sf novel, The Silent Multitude (see here), was published in the first Ace SF Special series. Anyway, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss owes much to Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (see here), at least in terms of its depiction of the Red Planet. The characters are well-drawn but a deeply unpleasant bunch. And there’s a low level everyday racism – although one viewpoint character is black, and his narrative is handled sensitively – that does not sit well with modern readers. But, in common with other novels by Compton, it’s hard to see where the story is going. He was never one for plotting – perhaps that’s why he swapped from crime to science fiction, he couldn’t plot and could disguise that lack in sf – and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is fairly typical in that regard. It reads like a series of character studies, something Compton did really well, although they work better when they’re in service to a barebones plot, which this novel lacks. It is a rare writer who impresses you with every book in their oeuvre, especially the early ones. Compton remains, to my mind, one of the best prose writers science fiction has produced, but that does not mean every book he wrote was amazingly good. (If you give a book five stars, what if you read one that’s even better? For fuck’s sake, give up with the juvenile “everything is awesome”, you’re not in the marketing department, you’re not being paid to make it easier for some multinational to rip you off.)

Semiosis, Sue Burke (2018, USA). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and while I often disagree with the jury’s choices, there’s at least some expectation of quality in the books they pick. I mean, this is a national award. For science fiction. They might define the genre a little oddly every now and again, but they at least recognise good fiction when they see it. Except, well, maybe not last year. That was a really shit short list. Happily, the best book did indeed win. This year was quite an odd shortlist – the final book of a trilogy, a book of sf art, a horror novel, a debut novel, a mainstream novel that’s really sf, and… this, Semiosis. Which is certainly science fiction. It is, in fact, a first contact novel, and it says so on the cover. But it’s also surprisingly old-fashioned. I was reading sf like this back in the 1990s. The fact it’s done well doesn’t make it any more twenty-first century. The novel is structured as the diaries of members of a colony that has settled an alien world – a private venture, with very fixed ideas on minimising the colony’s impact on the alien world. The personal accounts follow on one generation from the next, first outlining the accommodations the colonists have made to survive, then the perversion of those accommodations in order to preserve ideals that no longer are relevant. Then the colonists learn there are others on the planet, descendants of colonists from an alien world. Where Semiosis differs from other first contact novels is that the major intelligence the colonists discover is a plant. And it more or less programmes the humans according to its own needs, which happily also result in some degree of success for the humans. That is until the humans meet the descendants of the prior alien colonists. There’s no denying Semiosis is done well, but there’s nothing I can see in it that makes it stand out from other well-crafted science fiction novels that privilege science. And while that may be a rarity in this day and age, it should not on its own be enough to merit appearance on a major genre award shortlist. Semiosis was good but I don’t think it deserved to be a Clarke finalist.

Throy, Jack Vance (1992, USA). So the Cadwal Chronicles comes to a close and it’s pretty much as expected, but this is Vance so it’s the journey that’s been the real source of entertainment. By the start of Throy, the conspiracy threatening Cadwal is pretty much understood. It seems to be driven chiefly by pique – the two sisters Spanchetta and Simonetta Clattuc couldn’t have Glawen Clattuc’s father, so they determined to destroy Cadwal’s society – in other words, the sort of brainless arrogance which seems to have been prevalent in British politics for the last fifteen years. Two factions want to open up Cadwal to exploitation – the LPF faction of the Naturalist Society, which owns Cadwal, wants a feudal society in which they lord it over vast estates of Yips, the planet’s servant race/class; while the two Clattuc sisters simply want to destroy the society in revenge. Unfortunately, the society’s ownership of Cadwal was safeguarded in the second book, Ecce and Old Earth (see here). Which means the two groups are forced to use more violent means to achieve their aims. Happily, the forces of good have a good idea of what is about to go down, and even though the novel is mostly a hunt for clues to resolve a couple of minor mysteries, and there’s a humongous atrocity which is pretty much passed over in a couple of paragraphs, everything works out pretty much as expected, and it’s all done very entertainingly. I’ve enjoyed these three books, more than I thought I would, and that’s despite being extremely familiar with Vance’s career. I’d happily recommend these above other better-known works by Vance.

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1933, UK). Well, if I’d thought Black Mischief (see here) was racist, it’s almost woke compared to Scoop. And yet Scoop is the Waugh novel which appears on so many best of lists, including “Best British Novels of All Time”. Of course, the people putting together these lists are not the ones who are troubled by the casual everyday racism embedded in them, but things have changed – for the better – and these works really should be re-evaluated in light of present-day sensibilities. And yes, I’m happy to call any right-winger a fascist, even if their views don’t fit the dictionary definition of fascism, let’s not forget taxonomy is a derailing technique and the only people who derail arguments are people who don’t want their views held up to public scrutiny. Because they’re probably fascist. Or racist. Like Scoop actually is. Its story is apparently inspired by real events, but it’s still a story about a white man – a hapless white man, it must be said – who goes to an “uncivilised” African country. Because all brown countries are, of course, uncivilised. At least to 1930s white people. But then, to add insult to injury, the text is filled with a number of racial slurs, not just spoken in dialogue, but in the actual descriptive prose. I lost count of them. The big joke is that a newspaper magnate has picked the wrong man – due to some confusion over names – to be his foreign correspondent covering a civil war in the invented African nation of Ishmaelia, but the Ishmaelians are too stupid and indolent to actually fight and all that happens is a series of contradictory communiques by government agencies. It’s a variation on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, but written from a British colonialist perspective of the 1930s. Waugh was a terrible snob and a horrible person – it’s well-documented, he was deemed “officer most likely to be shot by his troops” during WWII – but he had a wonderful prose style. It’s a dilemma. His command of English is a joy to behold, but he wrote horribly racist and snobbish books (the latter allegedly presented as “comedy”). Read him and then throw his books away, that’s my strategy.

Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK). These books have been recommended to me several times, although perhaps the third book, Before Mars, more than that others. And I’d had a vague ambition to give them a go, but then Planetfall was reduced to 99p for the ebook version so I though it worth a try. And I’m glad I did. From what I remember of the reviews, I had not thought it would appeal, but in actual fact it was much closer to my tastes in sf than I’d expected. There’s something in Planetfall that recalls a lot of older works – Rogue Moon is an obvious example – but also something very twenty-first century about the treatment. The narrator is  member of a colony on an exoplanet. She is in charge of the colony’s 3D-printers, which has caused problems for her, as the novel slowly reveals. The colony is also sited juts outside an alien enigmatic and uninhabited city. The novel does not explain the alien city, but it uses it and its strange properties to open up the workings of the human colony. Planetfall is not only very readable, it also makes an excellent first of its premise. Perhaps I would have liked the alien city to be a little more explained, but Planetfall is the first in – to-date – a series of four books, and I plan to keep on reading, so how knows what will be revealed…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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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, #10

I really should read more classic literature as I seem to be spending most of my time reading science fiction and a lot of it has been pretty shit. But, well, I’m a sf fan, and sf gives me something classic literature does not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give me good writing. And all too often it doesn’t even give me good science fiction. Sf that’s well put together is getting harder to find – because that’s not a commercial quality and it is commercial qualities which determine whether a) books are published, and b) they are successful and so everyone talks about them and they’re easily available. Back in the day, when the NBA existed, editors could curate their lists, and publish books that might not sell many copies but were actually good. Now they have to chase the the bottom line. This is not a change for the better. It’s like privatisation: it never fucking works. Still, it makes the rentiers happy – and that’s basically what society apparently exists to do, so there you go.

Splintered Suns, Michael Cobley (2018, UK). Mike is a mate of many years, decades even, and I’ve followed his career from the beginning. Unfortunately – if that’s the right word – he’s a better writer than his books would suggest. Partly this is because he’s determined to write commercial genre fiction – fantasy initially, now space opera – and in order to get work accepted by publishers, he’s had to work within those constraints. With his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, he wrote a smart British space opera, based a little too obviously on the works of Iain Banks – which is hardly a crime – but with enough invention to hold its own. And if the descriptive prose and characterisation were a cut above what were typical for the sub-genre, well, that was all to the good. But these pendants to that series – Ancestral Machines (2016) and Splintered Suns – on the one hand haven’t done the trilogy any favours, but on the other are likely to have introduced new readers to the series. They’re weaker books – or rather, they’re lighter books, lacking the heft of the trilogy, with more adventure-oriented plots, explicitly so in Splintered Suns. Both make extensive use of a Big Dumb Object, but Splintered Suns is the more inventive of the two. And its plot is better suited to its cast. Who are the misfit crew of a trading ship which is often involved in less than legit business. And who remain still mostly irritating – especially the captain of the Scarabus, Brannan Pyke – and had they been players in a RPG the GM would have lied about their dice rolls very quickly to ensure they were killed off… Totally unfair, of course, as space operas like Splintered Suns are just as much about their cast as they are their setting. The plot, however… Not only do you have the crew of the Scarabus trying to track down a legendary two million year old giant spaceship, and when they find it they have to navigate a shifting set of time streams and alternate realities to do the space opera maguffin thing, meanwhile there are a set of copies of the crew stuck in a VR fantasy RPG who have to work their way up the levels to kaibosh the space opera maguffin from within. Cobley manages his cross-cut plots with impressive aplomb, although the dialogue does occasionally drift towards parody. Splintered Suns is, as I said, a better book than its predecessor, and it certainly demonstrates there are many stories to be told in the Humanity’s Fire universe.

Ecce & Old Earth, Jack Vance (1991, USA). I used to think Vance was great, one of the actual real great writers of science fiction, although these days that label seems to be handed out to books on a daily basis. Then I sort of went off Vance – the plots often seemed the same, the prose was variable, the invention a little too obviously copying from earlier works… There are great Vance works, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. I still like the Alastor Cluster books, but the Demon Princes series is badly plotted. Happily, Ecce & Old Earth, the second book in the Cadwal Chronicles, a part of the Gaean Reach loose series, is good. It’s also late Vance, from a time when he was no longer at his prime… or so I had thought, except… I really enjoyed the first book of the trilogy, Araminta Station (see here), and thought it read like Vance on form. Happily, the same is true of Ecce & Old Earth. The plotting is not quite as solid, and the invention does not spark as much, but both seem more than suitable for the story. The world of Cadwal is protected by a charter held by the Naturalists’ Society, but the society is moribund and it seems the charter may have been sold decades before by an unscrupulous secretary. The plot of Ecce & Old Earth is compared by its characters to a ladder – one character starts from the bottom, the other from the top, both hope to discover who currently owns the charter and so safeguard Cadwal’s future. Most of the novel takes place on Earth, and Vance’s inventiveness fails him to some extent as he present Earth towns pretty much as they were at the time of writing (or at least some romanticised version of them from the time of writing). But then Vance was always one for recycling the real world, and even then he manages to give the quotidian a touch of the alien. But you read Vance for the prose style, not for the plotting, and Ecce & Old Earth is Vance in fine voice. And the wit seems a little funnier than I remember from other series. The Cadwal Chronicles have rekindled my respect for Vance’s works. I’ve already bought an ebook copy of Throy so I can complete the trilogy.

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (2016, USA). This was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2017, and its sequel in the year following, and the third book of the trilogy this year… so this is science fiction which is highly regarded by that small section of fandom which votes for the Hugo. I wasn’t planning to bother reading the trilogy – I’d bounced out of Lee’s short fiction enough times that trying it at novel-length didn’t appeal at all. But I was given a copy of the third book as part of this year’s Hugo Voters Pack (but not the first two books, even though the Machineries of Empire trilogy was nominated for Best Series), and the first book went on sale at 99p, so… Ah, why the fuck did I bother? This is pretty much fantasy with a spaceship on the cover. Also, it’s not very good, certainly not worthy of a Hugo nomination. In the space opera universe of the series – and assorted short stories, now collected – humanity has split into a variety of factions, six of them in fact, the “Hexarchate”, and they all make use of a specific calendar and “calendrical mathematics” to magically generate things like FTL or exotic weapons. Imposing this calendar is what allows the Hexarchate to maintain control. Except when one of its core fortresses decides to use a heretical calendar, and introduce democracy, so jeopardising the existence of the Hexarchate. Which responds by bonding the mind of the Hexarchate’s most successful general, a criminal psychopath whose mind is held in secure stasis, with that of a mathematically-gifted Kel (ie, military) officer. And the pair of them are charged with taking the fortress from the rebels. Most reviews I’ve read have praised this book’s worldbuilding, and the density of it, but it’s meretricious nonsense. The whole calendrical thing is no different to a RPG magic system. The plot of Ninefox Gambit consists chiefly of the two protagonists lecturing each other. And the whole thing exhibits the sort of mindless brutality and callousness at which even sociopaths would blanch. A calendar that requires ritual torture as reinforcement? Sounds a bit fascist. The Kel have “formation instinct”, which is where the individual Kel are neurologically programmed to obey orders. Sounds a bit fascist. There used to be seven factions, but one of them rebelled so the other six committed genocide. Sounds a bit fascist. It transpires the psychopath general objected to this and felt the Hexarchate – the Heptarchate as was – might not be such a good thing. So, Ninefox Gambit suggests towards its end, and the blurbs of the two sequels suggest it’s the story arc of all three books, he chose to do something about this. But the only way he could live long enough to bring down the Hexarchate was to be put in stasis as a criminal. So he commits a huge massacre. WTF? Not even the most cynical Jesuit could rationalise that means as justifying the ends. It would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on London to bring down Boris Johnson’s government and then writing it up as if the bomber were a hero. Welcome to US space opera. Abu Ghraib means nothing; Gitmo means nothing. With a total lack of irony or reflection, US space operas are willing to bake into their worlds the sort of shit George W Bush was happy to sign off on, even if as individuals they are committed to opposing neocon politics. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to them is that putting shit like that in sf novels only helps normalise it. They need to take responsibility for the worlds they build. I don’t care what the politics of the writer may be, but if they’re writing Nazis in space then their book is no different to anything written by an actual Nazi. It’s one thing to present bad ideas and then argue against them, but space opera doesn’t do that. It presents them as normal. And that is more damaging. To read the works of an author who is explicitly not fascist but whose works embody concepts that are fascist is… exactly the same as reading the works of a fascist. No art is created in a vacuum; no art is consumed in a vacuum. You cannot separate the art from the artist. You should not give a free pass to those creators whose personal politics you approve but whose works contain politics you do not approve… without commentary. The Machineries of Empire trilogy, which renders fantasy as space opera, normalises a level of brutality which differs from grimdark only in the gruesome destructiveness of its invented arsenal. And people nominate this for awards! Had Ninefox Gambit been brilliantly written, had it provided a morally-balanced commentary on its worldbuilding, then perhaps it might have been worthy of nomination. It is, and does, neither. The prose is about average for genre writing, the commentary is focused almost exclusively on the characters within their world. The whole idea of democracy being a bad thing is a wink at the reader – or rather, a knowing nod at what the author imagines is an enlightened reader. If there’s one thing the Sad Puppies debacle has taught us, it’s that not all sf readers are enlightened. Not on a literary level, not on a political level, not on an intellectual level. Indeed, some of them actively reject being enlightened, particularly on an intellectual level. The Sad Puppies were defeated and I am glad of that, but I do worry that science fiction learned nothing from the skirmish. It was presented as a battle for the heart and soul of science fiction, but it looks very much like it was a fight between authors who held different personal politics but were happy to write down exactly the same political line in their sf stories. A hollow victory indeed.

Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK) and Kon-Tiki 3: Insights, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2019, UK). Both authors are friends. I’ve known them for many years, and their fiction has always struck me as good, but it never seems to garner the acclaim needed to raise their profiles. They’re craftsmen – what they write is well-written; but sometimes it lacks that additional inventiveness required to bounce it to the next level – and when it does, it doesn’t matter because they’re boringly ordinary people with very low, if not zero, online presences. PS Publishing have regularly published Brown’s novels and collections, as well as the novellas he’s written in collaboration with Brooke (and they’ve been collaborating, every now and again, for at least thirty years). The Kon-Tiki Quartet is about the colonisation of an earth-like exoplanet by an Earth very close to catastrophic failure from climate crash. The gimmick here is that copies of the colonists are sent and “printed” on arrival. Leaving the originals behind in. In Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, the colonisation ship arrives at “Newhaven”, only to discover it was beaten there by a more efficient vessel. And so the crew – or rather, the handful the story concerns – discover they have copies of themselves, with different histories. If that isn’t enough, one of them has been researching the local fauna and discovered it has a form of hormonal telepathy which is compatible with human chemistry. And so an unregulated experiment becomes the means to untangle a love triangle, and some of its nasty secrets, including the murder which formed the plot of the first book of the quartet, while also presenting a magic bullet that will present all future human interactions in a different light. Which, unfortunately, certain movers and shakers on Newhaven have a problem with in Kon-Tiki 3: Insights. Because they have plans for Newhaven, which they intend to take back to Earth, and if everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts, experience their actual being, then not only are their plans jeopardised but their entire lives are rendered useless. And they don’t want that. Which does, unfortunately, give the novella more of a thriller plot – albeit on an alien world – than a science fiction plot. And the central premise, that people might be “printed” into bodies other than copies of their originals, is not really explored, other than as an enabler for infiltration of government offices. In many respects, the Kon-Tiki Quartet is almost the dictionary definition of traditional sf: it’s ideas-based, and carefully worked out and well-presented… but it’s also Eurocentric, with a cast of almost entirely white people, and concerns that apply chiefly to them. This is hardly unexpected, given the authors’ backgrounds. But a series about a project to safeguard humanity by settling an exoplanet you would expect to mention more races and cultures. Of course, this is all a bit Scylla and Charybdis – which is more damaging to the reputations of the authors, the lack, or including it and not getting it right enough for some readers? Given the authors’ lack of online presence, it hardly matters. What happens on Twitter only really matters to people on Twitter. I feel like I’m damning the Kon-Tiki Quartet with faint praise, when if in fact it’s a well-constructed series of four novellas (well, three to date) that occupies the heartland of Atlantic, albeit more UK than US, science fiction. It does what it does with a degree of accomplishment you’d expect of its authors. It may well be a shame neither are not better-known, either side of the Atlantic, but, to be honest, this is not the work to do that. One for fans – but I do recommend becoming a fan of both authors.

The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan (1991, USA). The reread continues, and most of the time I have to wonder why I’m bothering… The story arc is still bouncing around, trying to work out what length the series will finally be (and even then, Jordan had pretty much no clue right up until his death), most of the characters continue to be very irritating – or rather, Jordan’s repetitive way of presenting them is hugely annoying – but the worldbuilding, despite being somewhat identikit fantasy, is starting to come together. After the big battle which ended the previous book, and actually resolved very little, book three seems to be mostly explanations of what might happen. Rand al’Thor has declared himself as the Dragon Reborn, and is afraid he’ll go mad from channelling the One Power (as has every other bloke who could since the Age of Legends). But he’s determined not to be controlled by the Aes Sedai, or rather the small group of Aes Sedai who actually believe he is the Dragon Reborn. So he’s run away to Tear, partly driven by bad dreams and partly by the onset of madness caused by using the Source. The three young women, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve, are on their own adventure – approved this time – to find the escaped Black Ajah, who have gone to ground in Tear. Moiraine, Lan, Loial and Perrin are hot on Rand’s tail, but having adventures on their own. And Mat, cured by the Aes Sedai, has been sent to Caemlyn to deliver a letter to the queen, but then heads for Tear after overhearing a plot to murder Elayne… In other words, the plot is eighty percent travelogue, with plenty of history lessons, before everything comes to an explosive head in Tear in the final chapter. Nynaeve’s constant tugging of her braid is getting really fucking annoying. Rand is pretty much a blank, chiefly because his viewpoint appears very little – amusingly, the Wikipedia describes The Dragon Reborn as “unique at the time” in the series because of this. It’s the third book in the series, FFS. Anyway, The Dragon Reborn is a definite improvement on the preceding two books, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I can see why people became invested in the Wheel of Time as this is the first book of the series which actually feels like part of a series. And that’s not just because the end clearly slingshots into the next book. It’s like the setting is starting to develop a third dimension. That doesn’t stop it from being 75% identikit, but it’s like that tilt-shift thing where a flat backdrop sort of refocuses and… Hmm, isn’t that effect used in the opening credit sequence of Game of Thrones? Anyway, next up: The Shadow Rising. Although I think I will continue with my Dune reread before tackling it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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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.