Yet more books read, and this time they seem to be mostly genre. Including a – kof kof – fantasy novel. And even a horror novel. If I keep this up I’ll have to give back my science fiction curmudgeon badge.
The Thousand Emperors, Gary Gibson (2012). This is a sequel to 2011’s Final Days, in which humanity has spread out across a number of exoplanets after losing the Earth to an artefact brought back through the wormhole network they had been exploring. But all that – an alien network of wormhole tunnels created billions of years earlier by an unknown race (an idea last seen in Williams & Dix’s Geodesica: Ascent and Geodesica: Descent a decade ago, not to mention Alastair Reynolds’ The Six Directions of Space from 2009) is pretty much just background in Gibson’s novel. It’s more about one of the two human interstellar polities which has formed in the wake of Final Days‘ events. The Tian Di was founded in revolution, and the revolutionary council grew until it numbered one thousand – hence the title – but now power is pretty much concentrated in the hands of Father Chang, the council leader (after a coup a century or two previously), and the council members are just a hugely powerful elite, sort of a cross between the One Percent and Saudi princes. They even have their own secret planet, where they maintain luxurious estates untainted by proximity to the unwashed masses. When a council member is murdered on that secret world, Luc Gabion is asked to investigate, and though he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to solve the crime, he does learn a lot more about politics inside the council – which at that point is concerned chiefly with the Tian Di’s possible response to diplomatic approaches from the other human polity, the Coalition, after more than a century of isolation – and it all ties into a move to make the Tian Di even more repressive a regime than it currently is. This is heartland sf, full of well-polished tropes deployed with assurance. If it all feels a bit disposable, it’s not because it’s not done well but perhaps because it’s done a bit too well: familiar ideas given an interesting spin, prejudices given a little tweak just so readers are reminded they have them, and a plot which gallops forward at a pace that discourages too much close scrutiny.
Breed, KT Davies (2014). I was fortunate enough to win two of Davies’s novels – this and The Red Knight – at the last York pub meet, at which Davies read from Breed. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy – while certainly not epic, its setting is plainly of that subgenre – but enlivened by an assured comedic touch, some nice pieces of invention, and a clever use of first person that doesn’t reveal the gender of the narrator. The book opens with a prologue – argh – it could just have easily been the first chapter – in which the narrator escapes imprisonment in an ancient demon’s castle but comes a cropper on learning they had been tricked. Back home in Appleton, where Breed’s mother runs one of the local criminal gangs, Breed is sentenced to five years of bonded servitude for a one-handed wizard after getting caught up in a riot following Breed’s attempt to assassinate the leader of a rival gang. The wizard wants to head for the capital, which is fine as that’s where Breed needs to go in order to fulfil their bargain with the demon of the prologue. Adventures ensue. The characters are all venal, the world is dirty and grim and has never really recovered from a catacylsmic war centuries before, and Breed is an amusingly foul-mouthed narrator. The plot may run on well-polished rails but it does so like clockwork, sort of like a toy train then… but Breed is never less than a fun read, and if grim-but-funny – grimlight? – fantasy is your thing you could do a lot worse than this.
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell, Jacques Tardi (2015). Tardi’s bande dessinée are more often mainstream thrillers than genre, and it makes for a pleasant change from your typical Anglophone graphic novel. A young woman from an institution is hired by a wealthy and philanthropic industrialist to be the nanny for his nephew. The industrialist inherited the wealth, and care of the boy, when his brother and sister-in-law died in a car crash. Shortly after taking up her duties, while the uncle is away on business, the boy and nanny are kidnapped by a dyspeptic hitman and his dim henchmen. But the two manage to escape, and head across France to the eccentric retreat of the industrialist, where they hope to find sanctuary. En route, the nanny proves more than a match for the henchmen, and then the hitman. This is a pretty gruesome story, and Tardi’s art doesn’t shrink from the gore. It’s not the cartoon violence you’d seen in some superhero comic, but more like that of an 18-certificate brutal thriller. Good, though. I shall continue to buy these for as long as Tardi and Fantagraphics churn them out.
The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999). I forget where I first came across mention of Dedman, but back in 2002 I read his 1999 novel Foreign Bodies, and thought it pretty good. But quality Australian genre fiction, especially that published by small presses, is not easy to get hold of in the UK, and I seem to recall buying The Lady of Situations when I bought Justina Robson’s collection Heliotrope from Ticonderoga Press (who are definitely worth checking out as they publish some excellent books). Anyway, provenance aside, this is a strong collection. Several of the stories concern a man who has been befriended by vampires, particularly one that looks like a young girl. I’m no fan of vampire stories, but these are handled well – especially the one about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. ‘Transit’ is probably the most sfnal story, a young love tale set on a world of hermaphrodites during the visit of some Muslims en route to Earth on Hajj. ‘Amendment’ is fun, an alternate history set at a sf con where Charles Manson turns up to get a book signed by GoH Heinlein. ‘Founding Fathers’ is a nasty story, about a world settled by a small colony of white supremacists, and a visit by a mission from Earth causes a couple of murders and reveals the horrible secret at the heart of the colony. There are a couple of slight pieces here, but the rest more than make up for them. Recommended.
The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983) was Russ’s first collection, published first by Arkham House and then by, of all publishers, Baen. A more variable collection than I’d been expecting, perhaps because it contained so many of her early stories. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.
No Time on Our Side, Roger Chapman (1975). In 1973, some 240 km south of Ireland, while engaged in burying an undersea cable to prevent it being caught by trawlers’ nets, the submersible Pisces III sank in 500 metres of water. The crew of two had just completed their shift, but when surfacing in rough seas, the hatch on the rear pressure sphere (which contained machinery and supplies) broke open and filled the sphere with water. The submersible promptly sank tail-first and ended up stuck vertically in the ocean bottom (just like in the cover art). A full-scale rescue operation began. But first they had to find Pisces III. Chapman was one of the two crew, and No Time on Our Side is a blow-by-blow account of the three days he spent trapped in the submersible. Thanks to the dwindling air supply and increasing carbon dioxide, he was not wholly compos mentis for much of the period, so portions of the book skip over a lot of the hours spent on the bottom. Everything seems a bit slapdash to modern eyes – the submersible crew barely managed a couple of hours sleep each night due to things repeatedly failing and needing fixing before each dive – but once disaster strikes, the response is quick and widespread (and, it seems, happily inconsiderate of cost… which I suspect is not something that would happen in today’s neoliberal uber-capitalist global economy; progress, eh).
Luminous, Greg Egan (1998). Egan is one of those authors whose fiction I’m repeatedly told I’d like, but everything by him I’ve read in the past has left me a little bit cold – which is one novel, and a handful of stories in Interzone over the years. Nevertheless, if I see one of his books going cheap in a charity shop, I buy it. And even now, when perhaps my taste in fiction is somewhat more discriminating and I look for different things in the fiction I read than I did twenty or thirty years ago… Egan’s fiction still leaves me mostly cold. There were a couple of good stories in this collection – I especially liked ‘Silver Fire’, about a epidemic in the US; and ‘Our Lady of Chernobyl’ had some narrative impetus to it, even if the central conceit was weak – but many still felt cold to me, peopled by little more than walking, talking ideas. And ‘The Planck Dive’ is just a really dull physics lectures with a bunch of character interactions to provide something for the reader to connect with. Interestingly, although most of the stories in Luminous were written in the mid-1990s, they’re chiefly set in this decade, the second of the twenty-first century. Egan got one or two things right, but he also got a lot wrong – and yet he still manages to catch the flavour of now better than many other sf authors of the time who wrote stories set in the early twenty-first century. I’ll still keep my eye open for Egan books in charity shops, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a fan.
The Three, Sarah Lotz (2014). I took this with me to Finland – did I mention I went to Archipelacon in the Åland Islands in Finland, and it was excellent? – anyway, I took The Three with me to read during the convention. I had no intention of reading it during the journey – for that I had DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow – but I started it shortly after I arrived in Mariehamn, and had finished it by the Sunday so I left it on a table for someone else to, er, enjoy. The central premise is, well, pretty much the same as James Herbert’s The Survivor (an awful book, but actually quite a good film). Four planes crash within minutes of each other around the world – in Japan, the US, the English Channel, and South Africa – and a child is the only survivor in three of the crashes. No one survives the fourth. An enigmatic phone call by an American passenger on the plane in Japan, shortly before she succumbs to her injuries, prompts a US evangelist to declare the three children the, er, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Um, yes. He claims there’s a child who survived the fourth crash, and various hints suggest this may be true, but… Why? Why base the plot on the Four Horseman but only have three of them? It makes no sense. The kids are certainly not ordinary and who, or what, they are is never categorically stated. The novel is also presented as found documents, the research materials of a journalist writing a book on the whole affair. Lotz handles her voices impressively well, and for commercial fiction this is a well put-together piece of work. But the premise is weak and over-stays its welcome by a couple of hundred pages. Oh, and definitely don’t read this book when travelling by air…