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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Reading diary 2020, #15

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot recently, and then I look at a list of what I’ve read recently and it doesn’t seem like very many books at all. There are some I’ve read which I don’t bother writing about, typically Heyer rereads, but during these dark Scandinavian winters I’d expected to be reading more than I am. Oh well.

Speaking of Heyer… I’m a little embarrassed at my choice of comfort reading. I find the books fun, but there’s so much wrong with them. The whole thing about “Quality”- which they really aren’t – being better than everyone else and not subject to the laws of the land to the same degree, and their marrying only in the same sector of society, which is why we have royalty with six fingers on each hand who drool all the time, not to mention the current UK government, who can’t muster a single working brain cell between the lot of them. Heyer is not political, but the society she depicts, and appears to promote, is vile. The women are always young, and the men a decade or more older. The plots are entertaining, and I won’t deny they’re reasonably accurate in their historical depictions, nor indeed that stories set among common folk would never fit the plots she devises – but we are better people than this and it feels like I’ve abandoned my principles a little because I read and enjoy these books.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939, USA). I’m not sure if I’ve read this book before. I know I’ve seen the film several times. Which meant some details were familiar but some weren’t and I couldn’t work out if I remembered them from the movie. The Big Sleep is Chandler’s first novel and its plot is as convoluted as any of the later ones, if not more so. Marlowe is hired to investigate a blackmail demand received by a wealthy retired general, but there proves to be more to the case. The general’s youngest daughter has been photographed nude, and the husband of the older daughter disappeared some weeks before and the general is keen to learn his whereabouts. The relationship between Marlowe and the older daughter generates sparks in the novel, but apparently Bogart and Bacall were much more so during the film shoot so they recut the movie to forefront their relationship at the expense of the plot. There are apparently two cuts of the film, one more faithful to the book, the other more of a Bogart-Bacall star vehicle. I’ve no idea which I’ve seen, the latter I suspect. The book at least has the canonical plot, and while it’s not Chandler’s best, it does demonstrate his style was pretty much fully formed from the start. It does not read like a novel written by someone finding their way.

Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK). This is the fourth book by Thorpe I’ve read, and I’ve decided he’s possibly a great unacclaimed, and perhaps even collectable, writer. He has received some acclaim, but I’m pretty sure he’s much better than a great many writers who have been more lauded. But this is not unusual. Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton, is remarkable, a gallop through the history of the eponymous village in numerous impressively-rendered voices. His short story collection, Shifts, I found more impressive in the variety of its voices than its stories. Hodd was a fascinating and clever take on the Robin Hood legend. And then we come to Still. Which is his second novel. (The bibliography on Wikpedia is a mess, as usual, giving his US publisher when he’s British and was first published in the UK… as usual). Still is an impressive achievement, a verbal narrative by a film director, a not entirely successful or famous one,  which maintains its voice for all 320 of its pages. Richard Thornby knows all the greats in mid-twentieth century Hollywood, and witnessed a great many of its events. The entire novel is told as if Thornby is doing a podcast, or something, about his career, which makes the title a joke on the book’s contents. It’s pretty clear from what I’ve read so far that Thorpe’s strength is his ability to do voices, but he is so much better at it than most other contemporary writers I can name. For me, voice is an important element of prose, tied in with rigour and verisimilitude, that lifts one work of fiction above another. Thorpe’s books are difficult reads and I’ve been slow to appreciate precisely how good he is, but my appreciation of his works has definitely increased in the last few years.

World Engines: Creator, Stephen Baxter (2020, UK). The sequel to, of course, World Engines: Destroyer. Baxter, I’ve found, is good at starting series, but not so good at continuing them. And this duology suffers from the same problem. Having said that, the first book did feel like an off-cut from another project… Reid Malenfant, or rather, a Reid Malenfant, is defrosted in the twenty-third century after an unexpected SOS from his ex-wife sent from Phobos. Except she vanished centuries before. It turns out Phobos is some sort of portal to alternate universes. Malenfant and crew meet up with a spaceship from a triumphant British Empire – it’s not all ripe gammon, however, as Baxter does indeed critique colonialism, although it’s a very middle-class English take – and, anyway, they bounce through several universes, puzzle out the secret of the portal and… it’s a bit, well, weak. Baxter, as usual, fluffs the dismount. The final third of World Engines: Creator is pretty much entirely exposition, and it doesn’t really tally up with the preceding plot. There are plenty of good ideas in here, more than most sf writers can manage in an entire career, but Baxter fluffs half of them, and pulls his trilogy back into a duology with an info-dump. Having said all that, this is Baxter as Baxter does – if you know, and like, his work, you’ll get exactly what you expect; if you’re looking for a more rounded exploration of the ideas its presents, this is not the author for you.

Son of Man, Robert Silverberg (1971, USA). I fancied reading something old school, saw this mentioned somewhere and it sounded intriguing, and it was very cheap. I wish I’d never bothered. A man contemporary to the time of writing wake sup in the far future, and has various encounters – most of which are sexual, although, to be fair, there is a lot of genderfluidity – with denizens of that age and earlier. The Time Machine this is not. In parts, it reads like a writing exercise, Silverberg using his thesaurus with a vengeance, albeit not abusing it as Fanthorpe did; but, all the same, it’s still a novel desperately in search of a story. I can’t decide if the book reads like a novel written to fulfil a contract or a book written as an experiment in style and content. The fact it fails so dismally on the latter suggests the former, but then it was published in 1971, so perhaps it was intended as a literary experiment. Still, no matter how you look at it, Son of Man is an historical document that’s best forgotten. Much as I admire SF Gateway for making older works of science fiction available, there are some that are perhaps better not re-issued, and this would be one of them.

The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK). This is the third book in a series which hadn’t been planned. The first book, The Green Man’s Heir, was, I believe, a one-off, but proved so successful McKenna dug out an old project and rewrote it to provide a sequel, The Green Man’s Foe. Which did equally well. And with good reason. These are fun, well-crafted urban fantasy novels, more Mythago Wood than fang-banger, which is a decided advantage. In this novel, written from scratch as part of the series – and I’m not alone in hoping there are more – has narrator Dan Mackmain, son of a dryad, in the Fens, preventing a nasty piece of work from using John Dee’s crystal ball, as used by Edward Kelley, for nefarious – and, it has to be said, petty – purposes, which unfortunately are having an adverse effect on the various folklore creatures of the Fens. So not only do we have local English mythology, and Mackmain’s life as revealed in earlier instalments, but also John Dee and his alchemy. It’s a clever mix, and it works extremely well. I thought this a much better book than the preceding volume, and its combination of modern life, English folklore and Elizabethan occultism worked perfectly. Given The Green Man’s Foe was nominated for awards, then this one deserves to win them.


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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


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Reading diary 2020, #6

You know that thing where you accidentally scheduled a post, even though you hadn’t finished writing it? I seem to have done that with this Reading diary, which is why it briefly appeared a couple of weeks ago. And then I sort of forgot to go back to it and finish it off, so the blog went into an unplanned hiatus for a few weeks. I think after two months of working from home, it’s starting to wear me down. I’m looking forward to getting back into the office.

The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK). Well, this didn’t go where I where I expected it to. Adam Roberts is an excellent person, and probably the best genre critic currently active in the UK, and while he writes enormously clever science fiction it is not always to my taste. But The Real-Town Murders has a heroine called Alma and is all about Hitchcock, and I’ve been a huge Hitchcock fan for many, many years, so this was a book I wanted to read. And yes, it starts out like a locked-room mystery, not that Hitchcock made many locked-room mysteries – maybe in Alfred Hitchcock Presents?- but The Real-Town Murders then goes off down a completely different path, which resulted in a very different novel to what I had been expecting to read. Alma is a private detective in a UK where most of the population live in a virtual world and rarely experience “the Real”. A bit like now, I expect. Except for the virtual world. She is called in to solve how a dead body appeared in the boot of a car at an automated factory even though there is complete footage of the car being made and at no time could a body have been placed in it. Alma is led to believe this may have been accomplished by teleportation. And if teleportation were real, then people might start returning to the Real because travel will have become as trivial there as it is in the virtual world. Except, it’s not teleportation (the solution is not hard to figure out, to be honest). And Alma finds herself being harassed by various arms of the government’s security services, which jeopardises the life of her partner, who had been infected with a hacked disease linked to Alma’s DNA and only Alma can prepare a a treatment when the disease threatens to kill her partner every four hours or so. So, not really a murder-mystery. And the plot makes so many swerves, despite being essentially a fugitive story, that at times it’s in danger of burying its ideas. Nonetheless, I liked it. There is apparently a sequel.

A Very British History, Paul J McAuley (2013, UK). It’s almost certainly the case McAuley is one of the best hard sf writers the UK has produced, and yet I find it difficult to connect with his fiction. He should be a favourite author, he writes precisely down the line I appreciate most in the genre. But many of his novels have left me cold, and I can’t work out quite why I finish his books more annoyed than satisfied. This collection, which was, and still is, free on Kindle, although I’d apparently bought the signed limited edition when it was launched at an Eastercon, which is of course currently in storage, the book that is, was I thought a perfect way to explore McAuley’s fiction and perhaps understand why I didn’t connect with it. A Very British History is subtitled “The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985 – 2012, so it’s an excellent career retrospective. And the one thing the collection really displays is that McAuley writes to market. Perhaps that’s too severe a way to describe it. It’s more that he writes the sort of science fiction, mostly of the hard variety, that is fashionable at the time of writing. He cuts his cloth to suit what seems to be the “in” thing. He writes with a distinctive voice, and his prose is never less than good, but in the space of half a dozen stories, or novels, his readers can be bounced from far future sf set aboard a vast unimaginably old artefact to neoliberal capitalism in near-future space to cyberpunk-recast-as-fairytale. The reason I don’t connect with McAuley’s fiction, it seems, is because I can’t determine an identity behind it. It sounds like the harshest of criticisms, and I apologise, but it’s not. If you read three unrelated McAuley novels in a row, it would be like reading three novels by three different – but similar – authors in a row. It’s a good trick, and it has resulted in some excellent science fiction, but it doesn’t work for me. One thing notable about the stories in this collection, a consequence of the twenty-six years they cover, is that while some of the sensibilities embedded in them have not aged well (although better than many of McAuley’s contemporaries), the science fiction in the stories has remained timeless. McAuley has been praised throughout his career for ideas and his ability to present them, and it’s true they’re a major factor in the appeal of his fiction. But that lack of consistency of identity behind his work has always proven a stumbling block for me.

Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK). Adams is best-known for Watership Down, an excellent novel about rabbits. Two years after that book’s massive success, he published a… straight-up fantasy novel. It wasn’t published as such, of course. If anything, Penguin tried hard to pretend Adams had pretty much invented fantasy with their marketing for the novel. But Shardik is set in an invented land, at a technology level not far above Bronze Age, and is about a giant bear considered to be a god, or an avatar of a god, by a race of people. So it’s basically a fantasy novel. It just happens to be better written than is typical for genre fiction. The title refers to an ancient god of the Ortelgans, personified as a giant bear, who was kept on an island inhabited by priestesses. But the empire fell, the capital Bekla was conquered, and a new empire rose in its place. Shardik died and did not reappear. Generations later, a giant bear appears on the island the Ortelgans, now simple hunter folk, settled on after the fall of their empire. And they see it as the second coming of their god, and use it to take back Bekla and re-establish their empire. But they are not the people they once were. The novel mostly concerns Kelderek, the hunter who discovers Shardik, becomes his priest, and then the priest-king of Bekla. But it’s an empire doomed to failure, and Shardik escapes after an attempt on its life. Kelderek goes after him, and the two travel about the country – there’s a handy map, of course – both sinking further and further from what they were as the book progresses. Kelderek encounters enemies he made while priest-king, and evil people he helped create. It’s all a bit grim, and Adams has this weird trick of referencing culture that would be known to a well-educated Brit in the 1970s, which does sort of kill the immersion. You do not, after all, except to see a mention of Shakespeare in a secondary-world fantasy novel. I suspect I wanted to like Shardik more than I did. It felt like it didn’t try hard enough to be a fantasy, even though the world-building was generally good. The quality of the prose, however, was a definite bonus.

The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK). I read The Green Man’s Heir last year and enjoyed it very much. To be honest, I’d been wanting to read some of McKenna’s fantasy for many years but had never got around to it. The Green Man’s Heir was on offer at the time I bought it, and while I’m no fan of urban fantasy I’d certainly enjoyed its Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders story. The book proved successful enough to warrant a sequel (which has been nominated for the BSFA Award, but lost out to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which is also a sequel, as indeed was every book on the shortlist.). In an afterword, McKenna writes that The Green Man’s Foe had originally been a completely unrelated story, but had never been finished. But the story proved ideal as a sequel for The Green Man’s Heir, so she rewrote it as such. In this novel, carpenter and son of a dryad Daniel Mackmain is asked to project manage the conversion of an old mansion into a boutique hotel – because there is something weird going on in the attached woodland, and it may be tied in with the house’s history and its link to early twentieth-century British occultism. McKenna introduces a cast of believable and appealing characters, and lets her mystery develop over the length of the novel. There are some odd tonal changes as the story develops – is it a ghost story, an occult story, or does it all plug into the mythology developed in the first book? The answer is, well, all three, and the three aspects at times interfere with each other. It’s also much more Midsomar than the first book, although that is almost certainly a consequence of its location, a Cotswold village. And at times it felt a bit like a British detective series from the 1980s. But they’re minor quibbles. This is entertaining stuff, put together by someone who knows what they’re doing. The cast are likeable, the mythology works, and it all feels like a series with legs. More, please.

Billie’s Kiss, Elizabeth Knox (2002, New Zealand). I think this was on offer, but I’m not entirely sure what it was about the blurb which persuaded me to buy the book and read it. Something about “an Edwardian twist on The Tempest”, and a feeling the novel was sort of magical realism set some 100 years ago in the Shetlands. I knew nothing about the author, or even her most famous book, The Vinter’s Luck. Having now read Billie’s Kiss I can say many of the things its blurb promised it is not, although that does not make it a bad novel. Billie lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is illiterate (actually dyslexic), a bit of a free spirit, and has been unable to find a situation of her own. Her brother-in-law is hired by a soap magnate, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns one of the Shetland islands, to catalogue the book collection in his castle there. Billie accompanies the couple. As the ferry approaches the island’s jetty, something in the hold explodes and the ship sinks, filling fifteen people. The magnate’s brother-in-law, Murdo Hesketh, a half-Swede who had served with the army in Stockholm but now works on the island, decides to investigate. This is by no means a murder-mystery. It’s the story of the Hallowhulme and Hesketh families, and the story of Billie, an innocent who gets caught up in pretty much everything that’s going on. It’s not an easy plot to summarise, and probably not worth the effort of doing so. Despite not being the book I was expecting it to be, I enjoyed Billie’s Kiss. The prose was generally good, if a little over-wrought in places, as indeed were some of the characters, and one or two of them tended a little toward pantomime. But it handled its time and place well, and Billie proved an interesting protagonist. Worth reading.


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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The BSFA Award

I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association since the late 1980s, and attending Eastercons, on and off, since 1990. So the BSFA Award is the one genre award I’ve been most involved with as a voter. They’ve changed its workings over the years and, to be honest, I’ve yet to be convinced the current system works all that well. But then I’m not convinced popular vote awards are especially useful. I think the British Fantasy Society has it almost right – a popular vote to pick the shortlists, and then a jury to decide on the winner (and they can pull in an extra nominee if they feel a work deserves it). On the other hand, The BFS Awards have way too many categories. At least the BSFA Award keeps it nice and simple: best novel (published in the UK), best “shorter fiction” (novellas to flash fiction, published anywhere), best non-fiction (from blog posts to academic tomes, published anywhere) and best artwork (no geographic restriction either). This year, the shortlists look as follows:

Best Novel

I’ve read the first two, and in fact nominated them for the longlist. The Charnock was initially ruled ineligible as 47North is Amazon’s publishing imprint, but I argued the point on Twitter and the committee decided 47North was actually transatlantic and so the book qualified after all. I’m pleased about that. I’m in no rush to read the Leckie, as it’s apparently more of the same. The Hamid is a surprise. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker, and I’ve not heard anyone in sf circles talking about it on social media. I guesss I’ll have to get me a copy.

Best Shorter Fiction

I’ve read the Charnock, and I thought it very good. There’s nothing from Interzone here, which is a surprise… Or maybe not. The most active voters these days seem to be those who use social media, and both Strange Horizons and tor.com are popular among them – but not Interzone, which is old school tech, ie paper. The Thompson I’ve seen praised a lot. The others I’ve heard nothing about.

Best Non-Fiction

I like the grab-bag nature of this category, but it can end up a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. Here we have a book of criticism, two series of blog posts, a critical article in a book and a review in an online magazine. I’ve read the Banks book, and it’s very good (I might well have nominated it for the long list; I don’t remember). Adam Roberts is a frighteningly intelligent and witty critic (and writer), but to be honest I really couldn’t give a shit about HG Wells and all the books he wrote. I followed the Shadow Clarke (and was much amused at US fans’ mystification at the concept of a shadow jury), and I plan to follow it again this year. The final nominee… well, the only article published by Strange Horizons that I’ve seen mentioned several times is ‘Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift’ by Erin Horáková, so I’d have thought that more likely to have been chosen. I’ve not read the Ghosh book reviewed by Singh – my mother is a big fan of Ghosh’s fiction, but the only novel by him I’ve read is his 1996 Clarke Award winner The Calcutta Chromosome – but Singh’s review does look like an excellent piece of criticism.

Best Artwork

  • Geneva Benton: Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)
  • Jim Burns: cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
  • Galen Dara: illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)
  • Chris Moore: cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
  • Victo Ngai: illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)
  • Marcin Wolski: cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

There’s not much you can say about Best Artwork – you either like the nominated piece, or you don’t. But another Jim Burns cover for an Ian Whates novel? Really? Burns does great work, he’s one of the best genre cover artists this country has produced, but I’d sooner see more adventurous art in this category. We also have a short story, and the art illustrating it, on two shortlists. It’s a lovely piece of art, but… I have a lot of trouble myself thinking of candidates to nominate for this category, so I guess it’s unsurprising the people who voted for a story would also vote for its accompanying art. And voting on the long list requires hunting down each piece in order to decide whether or not it’s worth a vote… Perhaps in future, the BSFA can provide a page with thumbnails of all the longlisted art?

So there you have it… Four shortlists, the winners to be decided at Follycon in Harrogate at the beginning of April. I’m going to have a go at calling the winners. I think The Rift will take best novel, Greg Egan best short fiction, the Shadow Clarke jury best non-fiction, and… okay, I’ve no idea who’ll win Best Artwork. Probably Jim Burns. Again.