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Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


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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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You can never have too many books…

… but you can have not enough space for them. I’m going to have to have another clear out soon to free up some room. I’ve already boxed up some books, but I think more will have to join them… None of this is helped by me continuing to buy books, of course – although some of those below I won’t keep once I’ve read them… well, one of them, at least.

It might be time to write a sequel to ‘Wunderwaffe’… Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Strategic Bombers 1935 – 1945Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Fighters 1939 – 1945 and  Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Ground Attack & Special Purpose Aircraft I bought on eBay as a job lot for a really good price. Soviet Secret Projects: Fighters Since 1945 means I’ve now got both of the Soviet books. Um, perhaps I could write a sequel to ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’…

Some new genre fiction – well, Exit West isn’t category genre, but has somehow managed to make the shortlist for the BSFA Award. Oh, and the Man Booker too. Elysium Fire is a sort of follow-up to 2007’s The Prefect, which has now been republished under the title Aurora Rising, because. I liked The Prefect, it’s probably my favourite of Reynolds’s novels, so I’m looking forward to this new one. The Smoke I reviewed for Interzone; it’s excellent and one of my books of the year so far. Finally, Dun da de Sewolawen is by a friend, and it sounded interesting.

I bought some of the Author’s Choice Monthly books a while ago, and I’ve always been annoyed that I don’t have a complete set, because, well, sets are for completing, of course. Moonstone and Tiger-Eye (Charnas) I wanted to read, not so much Neon Twilight (Bryant) or Into the Eighth Decade (Williamson). But, well, sets. The same is sort of true for the two Mike Mars books: #6 South Pole Spaceman and #7 Mystery Satellite. I have a couple of them already, but I want to complete the set. But I’m also interested in the topic they cover: early space flight.

Some other books by, er, authors I collect. I’ve been a big fan of Blumlein since first reading one of hs stories in Interzone back in the 1980s. Charnas’s ‘Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast’ is one of my favourite genre stories and it appears in Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms. It and The Roberts I ordered direct from Tachyon Publications… and was delighted to discover on arrival they were both signed. Transit of Cassidy is one of George Turner’s mainstream novels. I think it’s the only one that was published outside Australia. (All of his science fiction, however, was published in both the UK and US.)

Finally, some books for the collection… US first editions of Whipping Star are usually really expensive, so this one was a really lucky find. I hadn’t known The Artificial Kid, Sterling’s second novel, had been published in hardback until I stumbled across a copy on eBay. I have The Women’s Press edition of The Two of Them, but I found this hardback for a couple of quid. In the Heart or in in the Head is a literary memoir, published by Norstrilia Press. Copies are hard to find. And, last of all, a signed slipcased edition of Visible Light, which a UK-based seller had up on eBay for a very reasonable price. I have the contents already in The Collected Short Fiction of CJ Cherryh, but, you know, sets


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New Year spend

Christmas comes but once a year, but you can click on the “buy” button or wander into a bookstore on any day of the year…

To start, some Christmas presents. Having been impressed by Charnock’s other novels, especially Dreams Before the Start of Time (see here), I’m looking forward to reading her debut, A Calculated Life. I “discovered” Henry Green only a year or two, but I’m steadily working my way through his oeuvre; Pack My Bag is an autobiography, written because Green didn’t think he’d survive WWII (he did). I bought the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, because it was on offer for £2.00, and thought it quite good; so I bunged The Obelisk Gate on my wish list.

Further additions to some bandes dessinées series I’ve been reading for several years. Volume 20 The Order of the Stones and Volume 21 The Time Opener are actually the end of the Valerian and Laureline series; there’s a volume 22, but it looks more like a B-sides sort of collection. Orbital 7: Implosion is the start of a new two-part story, although it does follow on from Orbital 6: Resistance.

Some recent science fiction. I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first one, An Exchange of Hostages, so I was pleased when they started again recently; Fleet Insurgent is a collection of short stories and novelettes set in the universe. Not every novella tor.com has published has been to my taste – in fact, most of them haven’t been – but Acadie is good solid contemporary sf, with a neat twist; also, the author is a friend and I like his writing. The Smoke is Simon Ings’s last novel, and I’m reviewing it for Interzone.

A selection of first editions. A few years ago I started reading some examples of post-war fiction by British women writers, and I’ve been a fan of the writing of both Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor for several years, but I’ve always wanted to try something beyond the handful of writers I read back then – hence, Devices & Desires by E Arnot Robertson, not to be confused with, er, Devices & Desires by Susan Ertz (see here). Many years ago I read a handful of novels by Philip Boast – they were all very similar, with plots based around secret histories of the UK, chiefly secret religious histories, but I really liked them and fancied reading more by him; The Assassinators is his debut novel and was a lucky, and cheap, find on eBay. Eye Among the Blind was Rob Holdstock’s first novel, and I’ve been intending to pick up a first edition copy for ages… so I was especially happy to find a signed one. The Two of Them I found cheap on eBay from a UK-based seller.

Some charity shop finds. I’ve never read any Ali Smith, although I’ve heard many people speak approvingly of her work; Autumn even looks like it might be genre. I keep an eye open for McCarthy’s novels when I find them, so Suttree was a happy find. And while I can take or leave Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is about underwater exporation, so it’ll be interesting seeing what Sir Arthur made of it.

I’m not sure how to describe this one. I found it on eBay, from a German seller, and since I’m a fan of James Benning’s films I couldn’t resist it. Although titled (FC) Two Cabins by JB, it seems to include essays on other works by Benning and not just that one. I didn’t pay anywhere near the price currently being asked on Amazon…


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Reading diary, #58

This is the last but one Reading diary post before my 2017 reading is all written up. And then, of course, I’ll have to start documenting my 2018 reading… Which I hope to do more frequently and more diligently than I did in 2017.

The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts (2015, UK). I have not in the past got on especially well with Adam Roberts’s novels. He’s an enormously clever bloke and has excellent taste in fiction, but I think there’s something in his approach to the genre which rubs me up slightly the wrong way. Except. I really did like The Thing Itself and thought it very good indeed. The narrator is a radio astronomer, wintering in Antarctica with a creepy geek. This is during the 1980s. The geek is secretly experimenting with perception – the idea that our senses mediate the world, that there is something there, in reality, an idea based on Kant’s Ding an sich, which our senses edit out… but what if we could actually perceive it… “It” all turns out to be a bit Lovecraftian and eldritch, but the geek’s unsuccessful attempt to kill the narrator, and the brief glimpse the narrator has of unadulterated reality, were enough to fuck him up. And now, decades later, he’s a complete loser (although the geek is in Broadmoor). But then he’s contacted by a secret thinktank – and it’s pretty obvious they’ve built themselves an AI, but the narrator is too dumb to realise this – because they need him to approach the geek… And, of course, everything goes horribly wrong and the narrator ends up on the run, not entirely sure who he’s running from and increasingly convinced the mad geek has developed some sort of superpower. There are also a number of historical sections, which better explain, and illustrate, the book’s central Ding an sich premise. I do have a couple of minor niggles, however. The narrator uses a cane, which he loses while fleeing from hospital… but mysteriously has it back a chapter or two later. And a female character changes name over a couple of pages. But that’s minor, trivial even. I thought this a very good sf novel.

Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson (2015, UK). The trade paperback of this, among several others, was being given away free at Mancunicon, the 2016 Eastercon, so I grabbed myself a copy because, well, free. And, you know, it’s twenty-first century space opera and I still pretend to like that – although it does seem like increasingly fewer of them float my boat, as it were. Crashing Heaven is a case in point. It ticks all the boxes for 21st-century space opera, but that to me felt like more of a handicap than an advantage. Forster is an ex-soldier and POW, returning home to the Station after the cessation of hostilities with a collective of AIs who apparently dropped a rock on a lunar outpost that happened to be hosting a children’s schooltrip. (They denied doing it, of course.) Implanted inside Forster is an AI called Hugo Fist, which was designed to kill AIs (in that sort of handwavey computing cyber warfare bollocks that sf seems to love) and which manifests as an old-style music hall ventriloquist’s dummy. Unfortunately, due to some contract shenanigans, Fist is due to soon take-over Forster’s body, effectively killing him. Worse, Forster thinks the AIs are innocent of the lunar rock thing (I mean, come on, it’s obvious right from the start they didn’t do it). It’s all a plot, of course, by the “gods” of the Station  – who are apparently uploaded humans so sociopathic they refuse the same existence and abilities to every other human, which to me is just putting a sf spin on slavery. And that’s pretty much the world of the Station – slavery, genocide, megaviolence, the usual 21st century science fiction crap. Not interested. Crashing Heaven is apparently the first book in a series. I won’t be reading the sequels.

Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (2012, USA). I read the first book of this series a while ago, and a conversation on Twitter in late 2017 persuaded me to carry on with the series. So I bought book two. Which is Glamour in Glass. (Amusingly, according to the spine, it’s the second book in the “lamourist Histories”. Oops.) At the end of the first book, plain-but-talented Jane married estranged-earl David, and the two make their living as among the best glamourists in England. One of their clients is the Prince Regent,. He reveals to Jane that she will finally get her postponed honeymoon. In Belgium. Ostensibly there to study a new glamourist technique which can make things invisible, it turns out David is spying for the British Crown – since Napoleon has escaped and is expected to retake France… The end result is less Jane Austen and more Georgette Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, but the Heyer of An Infamous Army rather than Cotillion. Which is no bad thing, although the change in tone between the first half of the book and the second did jar a little. And the final scene wasn’t quite as dramatic as the lead-up had suggested. (On the other hand, a modern eye does mean some of the more skeevy aspects of Heyer’s fiction are avoided.) But I did enjoy the book, and I’m glad I was persuaded to give them another go. I think I’ll carry on reading them.

Swastika Night, Murray Constantine (1937, UK). It says Murray Constantine on the cover but it’s sort of an open secret that Constantine was a pseudonym of Katherine Burdekin, so I have to wonder why Gollancz chose to use the pseudonym on the SF Masterwork edition. I mean, no one remembers either name these days, so it makes no fucking difference. Use her real name, make it obvious the writer was female. Anyway, the story is set 700 years after the Axis won WWII, and and Europe is all Greater Germany. People – well, men… as women are considered subhuman and treated like animals – are divided into Nazis, Germans and everyone else. A clever Englishman visits Germany on pilgrimage and hooks up with a German friend who had worked in the UK. Through him, he meets the local Nazi lord, who reveals a secret history. Hitler was not tall and blond and godlike, and women were once considered equal to men… There are perhaps a few people in the US, or members of UKIP, who may be surprised by these revelations, but to the human race it’s the sort of reveal which has almost no dramatic impact. It’s not helped by the fact the narrative consists mostly of characters lecturing each other. The misogyny is baked into the world but, despite suggesting homosexual relationships are both common and unremarkable, there’s a still a whiff of homophobia. Swastika Night is not a great book. Had its profile remained prominent in the decades since it was first published, it might have been considered an important book. Sadly, it was all but forgotten. It’s good that the SF Masterworks series has chosen to publish it – although it would have been better thad they used the author’s real name – and it is scarily more relevant now than it has been since the 1940s… It’s an historical document, it reads like an historical document… but it’s a sad reflection on our times that its premise is no longer historical…

Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983, USA). This is the second book of Van Scyoc’s Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which I have in the SFBC omnibus edition. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s fiction for a long time, and I’m not entirely sure why. Or rather, I hadn’t remembered why until I started reading this trilogy, beginning with Darkchild (see here), and now Bluesong. She was genuinely good. She built strange worlds and set stories in them that were predicated on that strangeness and yet had plots which explained the cause, and sometimes cure, of the strangeness. She was never especially popular, but I think I’d rate her one of the best female US sf writers of the 1980s. Sadly, her last novel appeared in 1991 (although she apparently had a couple of stories in F&SF about ten years ago). The Sunstone novels are set on the world of Brakrath which, although mostly low tech, was settled from another world centuries before and remains aware of them. The planet is a bit too cold to be comfortable for humans, so they hibernate during the winter. Even during the spring, the valleys would be too cold for agriculture… but for the barohnas, the female rulers of each valley, who have the power to focus and direct the sun’s rays… to defrost the land and provide sufficient warmth to grow things. In Bluesong, a young woman realises she is not one of the river people among whom she lives, runs away, and eventually ends up finding her father among the desert people… But she is actually a daughter of a barohna, and so will change into one herself. Van Scyoc draws her alien societies well, and this series is particularly good at dropping hints toward a story arc. I liked Bluesong more than Darkchild, but they’re both pretty good. Cherryh may have received more love during the 1980s, and, er, since, and was hugely more prolific, but Van Scyoc was just as good.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987, USA). I don’t think I ever doubted that Russ was an extremely clever writer, although it was more evident in some stories than others – some of her short fiction, in fact, was so much of its time, it was hard to see see past how emblematic of their period of writing they were. But it wasn’t until I read The Hidden Side of the Moon that I realised how consistently clever a writer was Russ. This is not a specially curated collection, but it’s so much more intelligent a collection than her The Zanzibar Cat. Perhaps it’s because not every story in it is genre, and it was not put together to showcase her genre credentials. Perhaps it’s because every story in it is fiercely feminist. I don’t know. I do know a collected works of Russ is long past overdue – not just the short fiction, but also the non-fiction, like the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, or her criticism. She is, like Samuel R Delany, one of the most important writers American science fiction has produced. And yet who is it who remains in print and has countless stories and novels adapted by Hollywood? Philip K Dick. A drug-addled hack. We are, I suppose, fortunate that Asimov, one of the most graceless prose stylists of his generation, has not been so enthusiastically adopted by Hollywood. And while I still have a soft spot for some of Heinlein’s works, he’s pretty much science fiction’s embarrassingly outspoken old uncle with all the offensive opinions at the family barbecue, who’s pretty harmless until he starts touching up his young nieces. It’s long past time science fiction stopped venerating skeevy old hacks like Asimov and Heinlein and Dick, and started lauding the real grand masters, like Delany, Russ, Tiptree and Le Guin.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.

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Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.

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Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.

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Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.

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Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.

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Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).


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Reading diary, #9

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.

thousand_emperorsThe 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.

breedBreed, 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_tardi_manchette_fantagraphics_coverRun 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.

theladyofsituationsThe 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.

notimeonoursideNo 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).

luminousLuminous, 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_threeThe 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…