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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.


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Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.


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Reading diary, #20

A new year, more books read (some of which are actually from the Christmas holiday, but never mind).

the_uninvitedThe Uninvited, Liz Jensen (2012). I am a Liz Jensen fan, although I don’t make as much of an effort to read her books as I should do. True, whenever I see one in a charity shop, I buy it. But, seriously, I should be buying her books new from a retailer – online or otherwise – because they are that good. Consider it a personal failing. In The Uninvited, the narrator, who suffers from Asperger’s, finds himself drawn into an investigation into children who have murdered their parents. And there seems to be an epidemic of such murders. In all cases, the children have no idea why they committed murder, and seem completely unaffected by their actions. Jensen never gives you quite what you expect – and that’s as true of this novel as it is of any of her others. The narrator’s condition is handled expertly, the circumstances of the deaths he investigates are presented convincingly, and the actual plot of the novel actually seems almost plausible. I’m not the only one with a failing here – we should all be reading Liz Jensen. And The Uninvited is as good a place to start as any.

Last Pilot_PicadorThe Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock (2015). How could I not read this? A test pilot at Muroc Air Force Base (later renamed Edwards) in the late 1940s becomes an astronaut in the Apollo programme. This is exactly the same ground I covered in All That Outer Space Allows, although I did it from the wife’s point of view. And my take is a lot more technical. As far as I can determine, Johncock’s Jim Harrison takes the place of Dave Scott (Apollo 15 commander), although Scott does actually appear toward the end of the book. Also, while many aspects of Harrison’s persona life are invented, many incidents assigned to Harrison actually happened to others. Harrison is there when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier in 1947, he gets assigned to the X-15 program and then to the X-20 program, before eventually joining NASA and becoming an Apollo astronaut. Also like All That Outer Space Allows, The Last Pilot focuses on its protagonist’s marriage. Although Harrison and his wife try for children for years, they’re not successful – but then, against all odds, as is usually the case in fiction, they have a girl. But she sickens and dies of cancer at the age of ten, and her death slowly tears the marriage apart from within. If lit fic is unfairly characterised as fiction about middle-class marriages disintegrating, then The Last Pilot is lit fic – albeit with a test pilot/astronaut as its protagonist. It is well-researched, well-written, and Johncock cleverly covers plenty of ground by assigning so many documented incidents to his protagonist. But – and I can actually say this: it’s not the book I would have written. And my own novel coloured my reading of Johncock’s – almost certainly unfairly. It’s a good piece of work, certainly – but I would have preferred something a little more interesting as the plot’s engine… And lots more technical detail.

Caliban-1Caliban, Garth Ennis & Facundo Percio (2015). This was the first of two graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarers in order to make up my numbers on my 150 book reading challenge. To be honest, the shop also had an impressive number of Moebius collections, and I would have bought them like a shot – but they were all in Danish. Sigh. Instead, I had to make do with substandard US/UK sf graphic novels like this one. A spaceship collides with a mysterious alien spaceship in hyperspace and the crew of the former decide to explore the latter. Guess what – this proves to be a bad move. There’s like some alien virus thing which takes over one of the crew and leads it to slaughter all the others. This is pretty much Event Horizon meets Alien. A thoroughly unimpressive and derivative piece of science fiction in graphic form. Seriously, given the stuff produced by France, Anglophone graphic sf needs to step up its game big time.

4263805-1+lady+killer+1+cover+final+designLady Killer, Joëlle Jones & Jamie S Rich (2015). And this was the second graphic novel from Faraos Cigarer. It was the also the more appealing of the two. Nineteen-fifties housewife secretly works as an assassin on the side. Sadly, the plot is almost pure cliché from start to finish – after several successful, and very bloody, jobs, there’s one which proves she’s not a totally heartless killing machine. Meanwhile her boss has decided she’s going to become a liability – because she’s a woman. Perhaps there could have been more housewife stuff (probably not of interest to your average comics fan) to provide a better contrast with the killing and gore, but despite that the art is really very nice indeed. It’s just a shame the story couldn’t think beyond its boundaries – I mean, there’s plenty of room for commentary on fifties society, something a little more subtle than the blunt instrument that is a housewife-assassin (who actually masquerades as a Bunnygirl at one point!). But this is hardly Moebius, or any bande dessinéee, so I guess I should take what I can get.

moonshotsMoonshots & Snapshots of Project Apollo, John Bisney & JL Pickering (2015). The second of two books by the authors about – well, the title pretty much gives it away. Like Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini, the authors have selected photographs not normally seen in these sorts of books. There are, of course, a huge number of books about the US space programme (not so many about the Soviet one, obviously), which does make you wonder how some people didn’t know who Neil Armstrong was – even if Project Apollo ended forty years ago with ASTP and that’s pretty much ancient history to some. But Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – not to mention Vostok, Voskhod and the many versions of Soyuz – were an astonishing achievement, and sadly seem nowadays to be little more than fuel for a lucrative nostalgia industry rather than an actual stepping stone to further achievements in the human exploration of space. It’s tempting to think that two hundred years from now all this might be indistinguishable from some sort of science fiction documentation project, like one of those mockumentaries about invented rock bands – but what a project! So much documentation! And all the cross-referencing! (All of which, of course, means people who think the Moon landings are a hoax are complete idiots.) Anyway, there’s a huge number of books on twentieth-century space exploration, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with them. But these two by Bisney and Pickering would look good in any space books collection.

annhilationAnnihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (2014). This is a good book, one of the better ones genre fiction produced in 2014. Let’s get that out of the way. It is also completely not my thing. If I had to vote for it on a shortlist, it would be because of its recognisable quality not because I liked it. I’ve already decided I won’t be bothering with parts two and three. Four women are sent into Area X, a wilderness area which manifests strange behaviours, as the latest in a number of expeditions, of which all the previous were unsuccessful. The women are never named – the narrator, whose journal forms the narrative, explains that the expeditions do not use names since referring to each other by profession is considered safer within Area X. A day or two after their arrival, they find a structure which the narrator calls the Tower but the others refer to as a tunnel. It is a staircase circling down into the earth to an unknown depth. Along the wall of the staircase is a line of glowing script, possibly fungal in nature, written by a creature several levels lower. None of this is explained. And deliberately not so. As I commented in a Twitter conversation with Jonathan McCalmont a few days ago, prompted by John Clute’s review of David G Hartwell & Patrick Neilsen Hayden’s 21st Century Science Fiction in The New York Review of Science Fiction (see here)… Clute’s point that science fiction colonises the universe – “to make the future in our own image” – resonated with some of my own thoughts on the genre. To me, the universe is explainable but not necessarily knowable, and I prefer science fictions which reflect that. Area X in Annihilation is plainly neither knowable nor explainable, and is clearly not meant to be. It’s an artistic choice, but it’s one that doesn’t interest me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Tomes immemorial

I was really good in August, and bought only two books during the entire month. So, of course, I went a little berserk this month – and we’re barely a week into it! Ah well.

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Some first editions for the collection. I have rather a lot of Ian Watson first editions, many of them signed, but a copy of his first novel, The Embedding, had always eluded me. I found this one for a reasonable price on eBay. Which is where I also found this first edition of DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude, although it was a good deal more expensive than the Watson. Worth it, though.

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One each for the space books and the deep sea books collections. The title of Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini pretty much describes the contents. A companion volume on Apollo will be published later this month. It’s on the wishlist. Conquest of the Underwater World I found cheap on eBay. It seems mostly to cover underwater archaeology, and I’m more interested in much deeper exploration. Never mind.

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Some proper literature: In Ballast to the White Sea is a lost novel by Lowry, believed to have perished in a fire, but decades after his death it was discovered his first wife had a typescript. Selected Letters is another volume in the DH Lawrence white Penguin series, which brings my total up to twenty-two (of, I think, twenty-seven). Given these editions all date from the 1970s, finding good condition copies is quite an achievement. Not sure where I saw My Fair Ladies mentioned, but it looked like an interesting read so I bunged it on an Amazon order. The subtitle pretty much explains the topic, “Female robots, androids and other artificial Eves”.

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Here’s some recent “genre” novels. Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine I’ve been meaning to pick up for ages, and now I’ve finally got around to it. It says “fantasy” on the spine, so it’s definitely genre. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award earlier this year, but it wasn’t published as category sf. I read Faber’s Under The Skin shortly after it appeared and didn’t like it one bit. I also have several Faber novels sitting on the TBR. I expect this one to be a difficult read. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, which mystifyingly seemed to miss out on quite a lot of award shortlists this year. I’ve tried VanderMeer’s fiction before and not got on with it, so we’ll see how this ones goes. Finally, the latest volume in a space opera bande dessinée, Orbital 6: Resistance, and it’s clearly one long story but I think I’m following it. They’re short, so I could always go back and read the preceding five books…

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And here are some books for SF Mistressworks. In Conquest Born is on the actual SF Mistressworks list, but no review of it has yet to appear, so I thought I’d read the book myself. I’ve liked Scott’s two previous novels I’ve read – and it’s a shame I didn’t discover her back in the 1980s as I suspect she would have become a favourite writer – and I saw Dreamships going very cheap on eBay… except it turned out to be an ARC and not the described hardback. I have contacted the seller. I bought Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah at Archipelacon, read it in Helsinki Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, and reviewed it on SF Mistressworks (see here). I liked it a lot, so I thought it worth trying something else by her – and I found these two, Aventine, a linked collection, and the bizarrely-titled, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree.


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The floorboards are creaking

Time for another book haul post, and it’s been a good month or so book-wise. Some new books from authors whose books I like, some good bargains picked up in charity shops, and some books that look really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading… Having said that, I’m going to have to purge my collection some time soon as it’s getting a little out of hand…

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Some heartland science fiction: Evening’s Empires, On the Steel Breeze and Proxima are all new this year. Navigator is from 2007, I found it cheap on eBay.

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A few collections and an anthology. Jagannath: Stories I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm, Getting Out of There is from Nightjar Press (it’s signed and numbered and a bargain at £3.50; get yourself a copy), and both the women-only anthology Space of Her Own and Cliff Burns’ extremely rare first collection, Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination, were from Cold Tonnage.

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The Luminaries, of course, won the Man Booker this year. The Kills and Unexploded were on the long list but didn’t make the short list. But these three seemed the most interesting to me of the listed books.

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A few for the collection. The jacket-less book is Too Many Murders, and is DG Compton’s debut novel – a crime novel as by Guy Compton. These are almost impossible to find in good condition. Escape from Kathmandu is signed. The Violent Century and Prayer are both new this year.

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A Tale for the Time Being was also short-listed for the Booker, I found this copy in a charity shop. Sea of Ghosts I bought new after reading Martin Petto’s review on Strange Horizons (plus it has a deep sea diver on the cover); and Ancillary Justice I bought because it’s been getting extensive positive buzz of late – deservedly so: I reviewed it here.

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These three books I bought on a recent visit to Harrogate. I’ve always fancied trying Nabokov and I’m told Pale Fire is his best. Jensen and Houellebecq I pick up whenever I see copies.

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Five books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series. I bought these at Fantastika. To be honest, they’re not great sf – I reviewed the first two books on SF Mistressworks here and here – but I’ll read them and review them anyway.

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Finally, a 1970s sf novel by a woman writer I’d never heard of (bought at Fantastika) and a humungous book on writing genre I have to review for Interzone. I shall be approaching Wonderbook with a healthy scepticism, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it.

Incidentally, I make this haul 15 books by men and 13 by women, which is pretty close to parity.


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Songs of the Dying Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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