It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


1 Comment

Reading diary 2020, #14

There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.

Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.

But on with the relatively recent reads…

The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.

The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.


3 Comments

Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.