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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Reading diary 2018, #2

Okay, we’re just about a month into 2018 and it’s already proving a better reading year than 2017. Of course, the real test is keeping it going for 12 months… One of the other things I’d like to do, reading-wise, in 2018, beside read fiction from other countries, is to try and increase that 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count at the bottom of each of these posts. I’m not good on the classics, I need to read more of them. Would you believe I’ve only ever read one book by Charles Dickens? And while I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novel (except Emma), I’ve never read anything by a Brontë.

Meanwhile, some recently-published and recently-read fiction…

Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). I’m not entirely convinced by tor.com’s line of novellas if only because they like to suggest they either saved the novella or created the current market for them. Small presses have been publishing novellas for decades. Which is not to say tor.com are doing a bad thing. I like novellas so I can’t fault tor.com’s mission. True, many of the novellas they’ve published have not been to my taste – and one or two have, I feel, been lauded far more than they deserve – but … one or two of them have been entirely to my taste. Like this one. Dave Hutchinson is a friend but I also think his soon-to-be-more-than-a-trilogy of Europe books is excellent. Acadie, however, is much closer to heartland sf. The narrator is the president of the Writers, a group outlawed because of their experimentation on the human genome. He was a famous whistleblower and was recruited by them. When the Writers learn their hideout may have been discovered, they kick into action a plan to abandon the star system and settle elsewhere. The narrator is one of several people left behind to oversee the withdrawal and ensure the Writers are not tracked to their new home. But what he learns calls into question everything he knows. Okay, so the big twist isn’t that hard to spot, and while I’m no fan of first-person narratives, it’s hard to see how this story would work in third-person. If I have one complaint, it’s the depictions of the Writers’ society are both a little extreme, which undermines the point they’re trying to make. But otherwise, this is good stuff. It may well make the BSFA Award shortlist.

Orbital 7: Implosion, Pellé & Runberg (2017, France). Cinebook have been doing an excellent job introducing well-known bandes dessinées to the UK market, but my interest lies pretty much exclusively in the sf titles, such as Valerian and Laureline and this one, Orbital. The series follows the adventures of a human and Sandjarr, both mavericks, who were once members of their respective races’ diplomatic corps. Humanity lost a war to the Sandjarrs and hate them, so the first couple of volumes were chiefly concerned with normalising relations between the pair. But now they’re pretty much partners, and it’s a wider conspiracy seeking to undermine the human-Sandjarr alliance which provides the stories. Neuronomes, giant sentient ships which were instrumental in saving the galaxy in the previous two-volume story, have been mysteriously blowing themselves up, killing millions of people. Caleb and Mezoke are on the alien space station of Tetsuam, trying to track down a clue to what is affecting the Neuronomes. This may be the start of a new story, but it makes little or no sense without knowledge of the earlier six volumes. Which are worth reading anyway. Good stuff.

The Rift, Nina Allan (2016, UK). There’s no doubt that Allan is one of the more interesting genre writers the UK has produced in the past few years. She came out of slipstream and dark fantasy and has moved into science fiction, and her beginnings very much flavour her stories. The Rift is only her second try at novel-length, and even then her first, The Race, felt more like three novellas badly welded together than it did a novel… which sort of makes The Rift Allan’s first successful attempt at novel-length fiction. Because the one thing The Rift is… is a much more coherent narrative than The Race. (To be fair, the lack of coherence was a feature of The Race‘s narrative, it just didn’t quite work for me.) The problem I have with The Rift, and it’s fairly minor, is that I can’t decide if it’s stunningly clever, or just very clever with accidental elements of stunning cleverness. Obviously, I’d like to believe the former, but I’m also all too aware of how writers can unwittingly include more in their fiction than they realise. The plot in a nutshell: Selena’s sister, Julie, disappeared twenty years ago, assumed to have been a victim of a serial killer caught at that time, but now she has re-appeared and claims to have spent much of the two decades on an alien world she accidentally reached through a “rift”. The alien world feels like something which might have been invented for a 1970s science fiction novel, internally rigorous but also strangely familiar. It didn’t help, for me, that some of the invented names sounded like places in Denmark (Nooraspoor = Nørreport?). The big question is: did Julie really spend her time there, or has she made it up? And The Rift refuses to commit to one or the other. Is Julie perhaps an imposter? The final section of the novel seems to suggest as much, but Serena refuses to believe it, on more than sufficient evidence. The beauty of The Rift is that refusal to commit. It’s a lovely piece of writing – but that’s not unexpected for Allan – but it’s also a coherent straight-through narrative, enlivened with a few tricks such as changes of tense or person or POV, and it’s because the story is a neat contained whole, so to speak, that the narrative’s refusal to commit to a truth is so striking. It’s a novel that stays with you, not just because of the story it tells but because of the way it tells its story. It is, without a doubt, Allan’s best work yet.

My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015, USA). I nominated this for a BSFA Award in 2016 based on a read of the first few chapters… but I never got around to finishing the book off. Which I have now done. And it deserved that nomination. Which, sadly, came to nothing anyway. Inspired by the sight of a mannequin’s head in a basket of tat at a flea market, Wosk began researching female automatons, both historical and fictional. But not just mechanical ones, or indeed magical ones from mythology. She discusses Eliza Doolittle, for example, as well as several early genre stories about mechanical women. The book then goes on to cover mechanical women in films of the 1920s and 1930s, then films and television of the decades following, before moving onto actual female robots. If you consider the robot trope in science fiction as a signifier for slavery, or for at the very least for “invisible” domestics, then it’s no great stretch to see artificial women as little more than a signifier for deep misogyny. Artificial women are, after all, above all biddable. They are the ultimate in male gaze, mirrors of the male gaze in fact; so it’s little wonder they’ve proven popular in genre. Of course, there are those examples which subvert the trope – at the end of Pygmalion, Eliza is her own woman and no longer Higgins’s toy; in Metropolis, the robot Maria is used to foment revolt among the workers; in Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, Ossi Oswalda’s impersonation of a doll sees her take control of the story… If there’s a weakness to My Fair Ladies, although it is a fascinating read, it’s that it doesn’t cover much written science fiction, covering only early genre stories and then films and television. When you consider the use of artificial women in written sf since WWII, and especially in the past couple of decades… the trope is even more pernicious, such as the title character of the awful The Windup Girl. There are no female Pinocchios. At least, there are none written by men. Madeline Ashby’s vN features a female robot as a protagonist, but she’s on the run after breaking free of her safety protocols. Jennifer Pelland’s Machine is a much more interesting work, although it is about a woman who has been decanted into a robot body while her human body is treated for a fatal condition. The treatment of artificial women in science fiction is, of course, a consequence of the treatment of women in science fiction – both in narratives and in the real world. And while women have always been writing science fiction, it’s a trope they’ve not typically made use of, and so it’s been developed almost exclusively by male writers. I would like to see that change.

Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I bought this when it was first published, so it’s taken me nearly eight years to get around to reading it. And I’m a big fan of Crowley’s writing. Oops. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Endless Things, which I bought in 2007, chiefly because I want to reread Ægypt (AKA The Solitudes), Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania first… But: Four Freedoms, which is entirely unrelated and not even genre. The title refers to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: 1 freedom of speech, 2 freedom of worship, 3 freedom from want, and 4 freedom from fear. It is is set during WWII and chiefly concerns people who work at an aircraft factory in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The bomber these people are building is the B-30 Pax, but it’s clearly an analogue of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which did not see service during WWII (but from 1949 to 1959, to be precise) and was one of the great Cold War bombers of the US. Only 384 were built, but the novel claims 500 of its “B-30″s were built. Crowley mentions in an afterword that he didn’t intentionally model the B-30 on the B-36 and only later discovered the Pax / Peacemaker synchronicity and that the B-36 had been damaged by a cyclone at Fort Worth echoing events in his novel. I believe him – you don’t put “wow synchronicity!” notes in your afterword unless that’s what they were. The actual story of Four Freedoms is that of female and disabled members of the US workforce during WWII. The novel focuses on the factory which builds the B-30, but tells the story of several characters, introducing them and then telling their back-story through flashback. It’s a beautiful piece of writing – effortlessly readable, effortlessly convincing. I had forgotten how good Crowley is. I really ought to get started on my read of Endless Things

Autumn, Ali Smith (2016, UK). This was my first Ali Smith. I know her name, of course, although she has appeared on my radar more often recently as her fiction of the last few years seems to be borderline genre. Or rather, is genre but not published as such. And Autumn seems to be a case in point. Although to be fair, had it been published as genre, it would have generated no end of complaints and killed Smith’s career as a genre writer. Happily, it was published as lit fic, and those of us not so tied to space opera, mil sf, grimdark, etc. we can read nothing else, can enjoy it as genre. The novel opens with a man on a beach who appears to be in some sort of afterlife, and then abruptly shifts to the life of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer. As a child she had made friends with her neighbour, an OAP called Daniel, who had been a songwriter. Years later, she discovers he is terminally ill and begins visiting him in his nursing home. At which point she realises that he is the only man she has ever loved, despite their great difference in ages, and that has affected all her relationships. The narrative bounces back and forth through time, telling each character’s story, and introducing Pauline Boty, a female British Pop artist, whose works and contributions have been criminally forgotten (in real life, that is). She was Daniel’s one great love, although she was married and did not return his feelings – but because of her, Daniel could not love Elisabeth. Much is made in reviews of the book’s post-Brexit setting, but to anyone who has lived in the North after a decade of the Tories’ criminal Austerity it seems pretty much what life in the UK is like now. I’m not sure about Smith’s prose. It seemed at first a little OTT, and some of the stream of consciousness sections seemed to serve little purpose. I’ll read more by Smith, I think, but I’m not about to dash out and read everything she has written.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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The night before Christmas

Well, not really, there’s a still a few nights to go, and not even Nordic countries give out presents this early. But there were a few recent additions to the book collection, and now is as good a time as any to document them.

A mix of old and new for the collection. John Crowley and M John Harrison are writers whose works I much admire, so Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr and You Should Come With Me Now were books I’d been looking forward to. The Gentleman’s Guide of Vice and Virtue I picked up after a conversation with Jeannette Ng at Sledge-lit. I’m not convinced it’s my thing, but we’ll see. Too Many Murderers is DG Compton in his first incarnation as a crime writer. These books are really hard to find, especially with dustjackets. And The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection… I stumbled across mention of the book somewhere, and it sounded really trashy and dated, so hey why not? And no, I paid nowhere near the price asked for Amazon.

Some more of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées. When I bought Deconstructing the Incal (see here), I realised I’d missed Final Incal. So I bought a copy. The Metabaron Book 1: The Anti-Baron and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman aren’t actually by Jodorowsky, although they’re based on his characters and he apparently had input into the story. The art in the first book is gorgeous, and appears to be CG; but in the second book it looks like rough sketches. There’s a third book due next year.

I forget why I started buying these Aircraft Since… books, but once I had a half a dozen it seemed the perfectly natural thing to do to carry on and complete the set. Hence Boulton Paul Aircraft Since 1915 and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920 Volume I and Volume II. I currently have 22 of them.

I wanted a copy of A Pictorial History of Diving the moment I stumbled across a copy on eBay. But it was over $100. So I kept an eye open, but in the end I had to source a reasonably-priced copy from abebooks.co.uk. I have quite a few of the Secret Projects book, but I missed several when they were originally published in the 2000s, like this one, American Secret Projects: Bombers, Attack and Antisubmarine Aircraft 1945 to 1979. The Lawrence Durrell chapbook is a signed limited chapbook from Tragara Press reprinting David Gascoyne’s obituary of Durrell from The Indpendent. Well, Durrell innit.


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Reading diary, #53

Apparently, I still read science fiction – or rather, most of my reading is still science fiction. Which is odd, given my opinion of the quality of much of it. But then two of the books below were rereads and by my favourite sf writer. Make of that what you will.

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991, UK). I’ve been meaning to reread this book, and its two sequels, for a long time, but in the continual chase to main a positive TBR balance (ie, reading more books than I buy) I usually don’t find time for rereads. But then I agreed to write something about Jones’s aliens for a critical work, not just because I welcomed the opportunity to write about Jones but also because it would force me to do that long-put-off reread. And so it did. And… White Queen was not only better than I’d remembered it, but also a good deal nastier than I’d remembered. True, I’m a different reader now than I was twenty-five years ago – who isn’t? – when I last read the book. I can see how some of the characterisation was of that time… but it does read differently now. The word “whore”, for example, is thrown around a lot more than you’d find in a novel of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The characterisation also seems not as I remember it – the aliens are better drawn than the humans, basically. Some time hence, a decade or two, aliens land secretly on Earth. These are the Aleutians, so called because of their original landing place. They resemble humans, but have no noses, a single gender, and bio-technology based on “wandering cells” from their own individual bodies. Johnny Guglioni is an engineer/journalist, or eejay, (one of the novel’s less impressive neologisms), who has been infected with a virus which can degrade coralin, the “living clay” on which all modern electronics are based. He becomes involved with the Aleutians through Clavel, one of the three Aleutian “captains”, in an invented African country. Braemar Wilson is a tabloid television journalist who thinks Earth cannot survive an encounter with superior aliens, and who seduces Johnny as a means of gaining access to Clavel. Then the Aleutians reveal themselves to what they think is the world government, an international conference on women’s rights taking place in Thailand… The Aleutians are one of sf’s great alien races without a doubt, thoroughly convincing with the minimum of hand-waving. And the novel has plenty of the latter, as the plot soon congregates around a FTL drive, or instantaneous transportation method, invented by eccentric engineered genius Peenemunde Buonarotti, and which features in later stories and novels set in the same universe, notably Spirit and the stories in The Buonarotti Quartet. It seems an odd hook on which to hang the narrative up to that point, although it does handily lead into Johnny’s Christ-like redemption – and I have to wonder if that was the point of it all. It was Jones’s ‘Forward Echoes’, published in an issue of Interzone in late 1990 which made me sit up and take notice of Jones’s fiction (perversely, a revised edition of the story, ‘Identifying the Object’, in a chapbook collection of the same title, doesn’t give me that same jolt), and ‘Forward Echoes’ is about the first contact with the Aleutians in an African country. White Queen is an extension of it… and yet it’s not my favourite Jones novel, which is Kairos. But rereading White Queen after so long reinforced my admiration of Jones’s prose and made me realise how very very good she is at depicting the alien (and, on reflection, that ties in quite well to the fracturing of reality which is one of the strengths of Kairos). Jones is one of my favourite writers, and still, to my mind, one of the best science fiction writers this country has produced. And being at an age when rereading old favourites  usually ends up poisoning the well of my childhood, it’s heartening– no, it’s a delight… to discover my appreciation of Jones’s writing not only remains undimmed but has probably been strengthened.

Totalitopia, John Crowley (2017, USA). A new collection by John Crowley! Time for celebration. Except, well, this is a collection of essays and columns and a couple of stories, plus an unpublished piece of fiction… although, to be fair, I’ll pretty much take any Crowley I can get. (And I wonder when the Incunabula anniversary edition of Little, Big is going to appear, it’s been going on a decade since I paid for it). There’s a review of Paul Park’s fiction, focusing on his Princess of Romania quartet and his last “novel”, All Those Vanished Engines. Much as I admire Crowley’s fiction, for me Park is the best sf novelist the US has produced – although Crowley is more than qualified to write about him. The fiction is a little too Americana for my tastes – much as I love All That Heaven Allows, fiction that evokes a similar atmosphere leaves me cold. The columns are good, and while their subjects may not necessarily appeal, they certainly act as good inspiration for pieces I want to write myself – I really must write something about why All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, for example; I mean, I listen to death metal, I write science fiction… and my favourite film is a 1950s melodrama. Go figure.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016, UK). This was the first of three books I took with me to Finland to read during the trip, and during whatever downtime I might have during Worldcon75. I pretty much finished the novel before the first day of the con was done. Which I suppose is a testament to its readability. I had high hopes for The Power. At one point, it seemed a serious contender for the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist this year, and while the Shadow Clarke Jury ended up split on the book, and it never even got a look in with the actual jury, it did sound interesting enough to be worth a punt. But, oh dear. The central premise is brilliant: young girls develop the ability to generate electricity like electric eels, and the scaffolding to back it up is well-built (Alderman namechecks Peter Watts in her acknowledgements). But this is then used in service to a feeble cross between a transatantlic thriller and a BBC euro-thriller plot. There are three main narratives: a young woman in the East End of London, who witnesses her mother’s brutal murder, and ends up taking over her father’s gangster empire; the ex-athlete trophy wife of the Moldovan president, who desposes him and turns her country into women’s state; and an American orphan, who proves have the strongest power of all, and who starts up a religion with herself in the Christ role. The entire book is framed as a novelisation of “historical events” written a millennia or so later in a world in which women are the dominant gender. It’s not very subtle. I enjoyed the book, but I found it disappointing as the three narratives were such obvious ways of treating the concept, and made it all feel more like a techno-thriller than a commentary on its premise. I gave the book away after I’d finished. I hope the person I gave it to is more impressed than I was.

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding (2009, UK). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was seen as an odd choice at the time. Having now read it, I’m even more mystified. It’s a steampunkish sf adventure story with 1970s sexual politics. And while one word in the preceding sentence qualifies it for the Clarke Award, the rest should have immediately disqualified it from the shortlist. The title refers to a semi-mythical town populated by pirates. Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a Millennium Falcon sort of equivalent in a world where there are powered aircraft who use an invented gas, aerium, to improve their lift. So they’re sort of a cross between zeppelins and aeroplanes, but are treated like steampunk spaceships. And it’s totally unconvincing. Then you have the crew, who are the usual bunch of RPG-session misfits (or Firefly-inspired character writing, which I guess is the same thing), who get inadvertently embroiled in a plot which reaches all the way up to the highest levels of society… Yawn. The book was, according to the author, written to be fun, which is fine in and of itself. But when the only two named female characters are a) undead and b) a ruthless pirate captain who turns out to be the jilted lover of the hero… Oh, and let’s not forget his current girlfriend, who’s been sent to a convent by her upper class father… All the other female characters are whores or nuns. Well, this is not a book that should have been published in the twenty-first century, never mind shortlisted for a major genre award. Seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? It’s not even like the plot is hugely original, as the way it unfolds is pretty much obvious from page one. Retribution Falls reads like a write-up of a dudebro session of a derivative RPG game. The genre is better than that, the Clarke is way better than that. Avoid.

Around the World in Eighty Days*, Jules Verne (1873, France). I have no idea if I’ve read this before – I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell since I’ve seen versions of the films enough times over the decades to know the story. Except, well, they’re not the story. I don’t think any of the movies I’ve seen – I can think of two, off the top of my head, one starring David Niven and the other Steve Coogan – are at all faithful to the book. Yes, Phineas Fogg accepts a challenge to travel around the world in eighty days. Yes, he thinks he’s failed, only to discover that by travelling east he has gained a day. Yes, he has adventures along the way, and even rescues a young woman who becomes his wife at the end of the book. But in the novel, he meets her in India, when he rescues her from suttee. And I don’t recall a Scotland Yard detective on Fogg’s trail for much of his travels – he believes Fogg stole £50,000 shortly before leaving London. And the final section, in which a desperate Fogg, Passepartout, Fix and Aouda race across the USA to catch a ship to Liverpool… the big set-piece is driving a train over a damaged bridge at high speed so the bridge doesn’t collapse under it. Much of the prose is larded with geography lessons, and while Verne’s didactism is one of the more charming aspects of his novels, here it seems overdone. True, I’m coming at the book more than a century later, as a member of a society considerably better-informed about world geography, and a highly-educated member of that society with an interest in other countries… So much of the exposition was superfluous as far as I was concerned. Further, Fogg’s characterisation as unemotional and po-faced hardly made him a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps Verne intended this so the reader would indeed think Fogg was the bank robber, but it only made him feel like he had zero depth. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced, from what I remember, that the film adaptations are especially superior. The book is, I suspect, the best version of the story. Which is a bit of a shame.

North Wind, Gwyneth Jones (1994, UK). I can’t remember if White Queen was initially presented as a standalone, I can’t remember when I first read White Queen if it was sold as the first book of a trilogy – although judging by the gap between it and North Wind, I suspect not. The story of North Wind opens a century later, long after all those mentioned in White Queen have died – although the Aleutians are, of course, serial reincarnators. Everyone now knows the Aleutians arrived in a generation ship – less of a hardship for serial reincarnators, obvs – and the events of White Queen have pretty much passed into legend, especially among the Aleutians, who remember it as a significant epic, The Grief of Clavel. The opening of North Wind turns the tables on White Queen, this time having a human rescue a naive Aleutian, rather than vice versa, when a backlash against the aliens takes place, and all but Bella, the “librarian”, among the Aleutians are killed in, again, Africa. Bella – “he” to himself and other Aleutians, but “she” to humans – is rescued by human Sidney Carton (the name explicitly taken from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). Since White Queen, Earth has been embroiled in several Gender Wars – the Women are not all women, the Men are not all men; reformers and traditionalist are mentioned throughout as better labels – and this has made things more difficult for the Aleutians, and the halfcastes, who are humans who surgically alter themselves to resemble Aleutians, and consider themselves reincarnations (of, obviously, cultural icons of Jones’s own formative years, like Jimi Hendrix, who is of course also heavily referenced in Jones’s Bold As Love novels). In North Wind, Carton’s rescue of Bella, and her/his subsequent escape from his “care”, eventually leads into a hunt for Buonarotti’s mythical FTL drive… I couldn’t honestly tell you if North Wind is better than White Queen. I suspect the distinction is irrelevant. White Queen is a more memorable narrative, but it has the advantage of kicking off the series. North Wind has a more coherent narrative – but one of the strengths of the series, novels and short stories, is that a lack of narrative coherence is a side-effect of FTL travel, or rather, the narrative deliberately obfuscates in order to evoke the experience of FTL travel. I had forgotten how good this trilogy was, so I’m grateful for being prompted into rereading them. I should reread them more often, regularly perhaps. On the other hand, I had forgotten how badly Gollancz had served these books with cover art. Jones has recently rereleased the novels herself on Kindle, and she may well have updated them. Which is really annoying, as I’m not a fan of ebooks and would much sooner read hardcopy, paperback or hardback. Next up, Phoenix Café, the original 1997 Gollancz hardback…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Expanding bookiverse

Things got a bit stressful a few weeks ago, so I coped by doing what I usually do in such situations: I buy more books. Also, there were a few authors with new books out that I wanted. So the collection has grown quite a bit this month…

I have absolute no idea why I bought Forever Amber. I recently watched the film adaptation by Otto Preminger (see here) and was not especially impressed. But when I looked up the book on Wikipedia and saw the lines, “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long”, I was intrigued enough to look for a copy on eBay. Where I found a hardback for £2. The Unburied was a lucky find – a signed first edition for a reasonable price. I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s books for years but only recently started collecting them.

Some new books: The 7th Function of Language, The Essex Serpent and The Power (not shown) I bought in Waterstone’s a few Saturdays ago, before meeting up with friends for the Sheffield SF & Fantasy Social. I took The Power with me to Helsinki to read during the trip, and gave it away when I’d finished it. Lust was from a large online retailer. I decided it was time to read another book by Elfriede Jelinek – I read her The Piano Teacher a couple of years ago, and thought it very good.

I signed up for The Blaft Anthology Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 3 on indiegogo back in June 2015. It only arrived last month. The rewards I signed up for included volumes 1 and 2, but reprints of Vol 1 have apparently been delayed so the publishers included Kumari Loves a  Monster as a “sorry, and please be patient”.

Xeelee: Endurance is a collection of stories originally published in 2015. This is the PS Publishing slipcased version, which was published only this year. The Massacre of Mankind, also by Baxter, is an official sequel to Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I’ve read several of Goss’s stories over the last few years, and was especially impressed by her ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ in 2014, so much so I nominated it for the BSFA Award… but it didn’t make the shortlist. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter sounds like more of the same.

New paperbacks by authors whose books I like and admire: John Crowley’s Totalitopia is more a collection of essays than anything else, The Rift is Nina Allan’s second novel (although I didn’t bother with the updated Titan Books version of The Race), Calling Major Tom is by a friend and has been getting good reviews, and The Switch, well, I’ve been buying and reading Justina Robson’s books right from the start, after being in a writing orbiter with her back in the 1990s.

The Gulag Archipelago – it’s only volume one, although it doesn’t say so – I found in a local charity shop. Cosmic Encounter I bought on eBay – it was very cheap, but the seller was a little optimistic in their description of its condition.

And last but not least, a pair of bandes dessinée: Orphan of the Stars is the seventeenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series (I was surprised to discover recently they’re publishing a novelisation of Luc Besson’s film adaptation; er, what?), and Fog over Tolbiac Bridge is the latest by Jacques Tardi to be published by Fantagraphics. I wrote about both of them here.


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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.


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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

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While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.