It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2020, #9

It seems my last Reading diary post upset a few people. I’m not in the slightest bit bothered, of course, because those people are the selfsame ones whose opinions I said I didn’t care about and, er, it’s that which has upset them.

But back to the books. This post includes another Clarke Award nominee. I’m not sure if I’ll read the others. Two I would certainly like to, but there’s something about ebooks… well, I’m reluctant to buy them when they’re priced the same as the paperback edition. I mean, at least you get an object for that money with the paperback. As yet, the three nominees I’ve yet to read have not been on offer on Kindle. I may bite the bullet at some point, but when there’s so much else to read I’m not in a rush.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing quite a bit of comfort reading – mostly Georgette Heyer, er, when they’re available for 99p on Kindle; although I’m also enjoying novels by Alice Chetwynd Ley – which I don’t bother writing about here. Of the books I have written about below… One was a reread by a favourite writer, although I’ve no idea when I originally read it. One was by another favourite writer, but I found it bitter and disappointing. One is, as mentioned earlier, a Clarke nominee. One was by a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years but had never quite got around to (one of their novels looked interesting, but reviews were lukewarm). And one is another instalment in a series I’ve enjoyed, although I found this one a little disappointing.

Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados). This was a freebie, or rather a “BONUS BOOK!”, as a strip of paper tucked into the book informed me. I’d ordered a copy of And Go Like This by John Crowley from Small Beer Press (this was not the John Crowley first edition I accidentally ordered twice, by the way), and they included Redemption in Indigo free of charge. All of which is incidental. I was pleasantly surprised by Redemption in Indigo, although to be fair it has had mostly positive reviews. It’s not my favourite type of story – it is, in fact one I generally avoid. The book is structured as a tale told about a woman in a Senegalese-inspired fantasy world who leaves her husband, is gifted with the power of chaos, learns some important lessons at the hands of the god who previously held that power – as does he, of course – before giving the power back and finding contentment. The story is overtly told, and the identity of the narrator is part of the world-building. There’s nothing especially remarkable about either the story or the world-building. While the prose harkens back to older styles of story-telling, it’s a mode that’s been used quite a lot in fantasy fiction. Fortunately, Redemption in Indigo succeeds because it has bags of charm. Its story is not always nice – horrible things happen – but it feels pleasant, and it makes for an enjoyable read. This is a nice book, despite its plot, and the genre needs more of them.

The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R Delany (1962, USA). I know I’ve read this before – I’ve certainly had the Sphere paperback edition pictured for several decades – so it was probably back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And having now reread The Jewels of Aptor, nothing pinged any memories. Oh well. A poet and a sailor sign aboard an expedition to rescue the Goddess Argo’s sister from Aptor, a distant continent of horrors and monsters. They are joined by a four-armed boy who is telepathic. Once Geo and Orson and Snake have explored some of Aptor, it’s clear the continent was once technological and suffered an unspecified “atomic” disaster. Quite how this exists alongside a mediaeval style civilisation on Leptor, which is where Geo, Orson and the Goddess Argo are from, is never explained. Perversely, if the book has a flaw, it’s that it has too many explanations. Whenever something happens, Geo and Orson speculate on what it might mean, or what is being planned. Most of the time they’re wrong; most of the time, it reads more like the author is trying to figure out the plot. But for a work by a nineteen-year-old, this is a better novel than by some current authors twice Delany’s age when he wrote it. Yes, it’s an early work, and the plotting is a bit hit and miss, but the beginnings of the language are there, as is the singular approach to the genre. When I think about what Delany has written over the years… He was a genre stalwart and award winner but has since moved out to the edges of genre, and yet has continued to be one of the real innovators in science fiction, both as a writer and a critic, and more people in genre should pay attention to him.

The Doves of Venus, Olivia Manning (1955, UK). I’ve been a fan of Manning’s writing since reading her The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (they were adapted for television as Fortunes of War). Manning spent World War II outside the UK after her husband was first posted to Romania… followed by Greece, Egypt and Palestine. She then returned to England, where she remained until she died in 1980. And The Doves of Venus is clearly written by someone who had tasted better and now found the UK miserable and close-minded. I can sympathise. The book is set in the 1950s but is partly based on Manning’s own life in London during the 1930s. An eighteen-year-old young woman tries to make her own way in London. She meets a man, much older, whose wife has left him, and enters into an affair. Her lover’s wife comes back. She makes friends with a woman at work and they visit the friend’s rich uncle in the country. And so a small group of people sort of circle about each other, meeting up unexpectedly, some living hand-to-mouth, but others rich but parsimonious… and I suppose part of the problem with this novel is that its cast is too small for its story, and the way they keep on bumping into each other seems wildly implausible in a city the size of London. The protagonist, Elsie, is well-drawn and refreshingly independent, especially so given the period (and this was written in the 1950s too), although she’s woefully naive when it comes to her lover (albeit not entirely implausibly). But the 1930s casts a shadow over The Doves of Venus its purported setting can’t overcome. I’ve read other novels set in London during the 1930s, set in the same group of people to which Manning belonged, such as Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), and it bears more resemblance to The Doves of Venus than, say, many of the films I’ve watched that were set, and made, in 1950s Britain. There’s also that bitter air to the novel, the feeling of constraint and close-mindedness, that is hard to get past. Manning’s books apparently received mixed reviews on release, with The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy generally highly regarded and other books less so. I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring, even if it is variable, and the aforementioned trilogies certainly giver her a huge amount of credit. One for fans.

Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019, UK). I’ve now read half of this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. And… oh dear. One nominee is a space opera du jour, also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula (which it did not win), and spends more time on world-building and its protagonist’s love life than it does on plot or ideas. Another is a near-future B-movie, poorly-written hackwork filled with recycled tropes. And now, Cage of Souls… Tchaikovsky is scarily prolific, banging out novels in a range of genres and subgenres with inhuman rapidity. He previously won the Clarke in 2016 for Children of Time, and the BSFA Award this year for its sequel, Children of Ruin. I’ve read the first, but not the second. His other books have been fantasy or steampunk. Cage of Souls is, at least, quite well-written – certainly above average for the genre, but not really stand-out prose – but unfortunately it also reads like a novel Robert Silverberg could have written in the 1970s. It is bizarrely old-fashioned. It is set during the final days of Earth, when only a single city, Shadrapar, remains. So who the stranger in the line, “How can I describe to you, a stranger who will never know it, the place of my birth?”, is something of a mystery. The characters have mostly contemporary names, and are pretty much exclusively European. There are very few women in the cast, and they’re chiefly defined by their attractiveness. The words “man” and “mankind” are used to refer to humanity. And the plot assumes that after hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation, humanity will have regressed to something like late nineteenth-century USA, or, er, early twenty-first century USA. The narrator is sent to the Island, a prison located in the middle of distant swamp, where the inmates are treated worse than slaves, and could be killed by the guards for no reason – the Marshal even murders one of each new intake of prisoners simply to prove that he’s a hard bastard. I honestly thought we’d got this sort of nonsense out of our system. Yes, there’s all those self-published mil sf and space operas, but who takes them seriously? Except recently there have been announcements about new space operas by established writers, and it’s the same tired old genocide in space shit. Is it the times? The US and UK are currently led by half-witted corrupt incompetents who make Nero look “strong and stable”, and both have dismally failed to contain the pandemic, with catastrophic consequences… So the genre starts churning out mindless genocidal crap as some sort of antidote? Seriously? Sf is, I admit, a US mode of fiction, but we are under no obligation to accept uncritically its specifically American tenets. Having said that, it wasn’t until two thirds into this novel I realised Tchaikovsky was riffing off Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and while I have to applaud the ambition – and my feelings toward Wolfe’s fiction are conflicted – the comparison does Cage of Souls few favours. I looked at the full submissions list for the Clarke Award and it took me no more than five minutes to find a dozen books more interesting than those on the actual shortlist. I’ve not read much Tchaikovsky but I’d consider him a safe pair of hands – and he did win the BSFA Award this year – but I have to wonder why Cage of Souls was picked for the shortlist because it doesn’t feel at all like twenty-first century science fiction.

Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal (2014, USA). This is the fourth book in a, to date, five book series about a married pair of “glamourists” in the early eighteenth century. Or, in other words, Austen with magic. Or maybe Heyer. Except… while the husband’s patron is the Prince Regent, the tone doesn’t really match Heyer’s Regency novels. On the other hand, they’re lighter, and more overtly romantic, and less wittier, than Austen. Still, they’re fun. In this instalment, David and Jane Vincent are visiting Italy, chiefly to work with Venetian glassmakers. Their ship is attacked by corsairs while travelling from Trieste to Venice, but it all turns out to have been part of a scam to steal the pair’s secret of invisibility. Kowal manages a mostly English feel to her prose, although the level of emotion is obviously aimed at a contemporary US audience rather than a British one (and certainly not a UK audience of Austen’s or Heyer’s times). However, something about Valour and Vanity never quite gelled for me. Perhaps it was the fawning depiction of Byron, or the excessive interiority, or the overly-complicated convolutions of the plot, or the flatness of the supporting cast. Having said that, to get to book four before delivering a duff instalment is a notable achievement. I’m obviously going to pick up the final book, and I hope more will appear.


6 Comments

Books to look forward to

There have been a few posts on anticipated genre 2013 releases around and about the internet, but most have either been uncritically exclusive, or squeeing fannishly over volume umpteen in various piss-poor epic fantasy series. Which is not to say the outlook for 2013 is entirely glum. Yes, there will be the usual badly-written tomes of badly-mangled mediaevalish adventure, all of which are interchangeable: swords! rape! magic! feisty princesses! rape! war! rape! But there are one or two books upon which I have my beady eye…

January
ROBOTSAdam Robots, Adam Roberts
A collection of Mr Robot’s stories. Who could not want this? I’ve appeared in a couple of anthologies alongside Adam, which has sort of forced me to read his stories. But what I’ve read I have liked and thought very good, so I’d like to read more of them. I seem to react better to his short fiction than his novels. And, it has to be said, that is a pretty damn cool cover.

the-explorer-by-james-smytheThe Explorer, James Smythe
Astronauts are definitely in – what with Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine (see here) and Christian Kiefer’s The Infinite Tides last year. The Explorer looks pretty much like genre heartland, although it seems to be marketed on the edges of science fiction. Given my own fascination with astronauts – Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, ‘Faith’ (PDF), etc –  it’s certainly a book I plan to read.

February
bestofallpossibleworldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord
This has been getting lots of good press and looks like one of the year’s more interesting sf releases. I’m not sure the précis on Amazon makes it sound wholly appealing – remnants of the galaxy’s once ruling elite is short on women, and a civil servant must accompany one such male on his search for a mate – but it all depends who’s writing it…

disestablishmentThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann
I’ve been a big fan of Mann’s fiction for decades (oof, that makes me feel old) – see here – so I’ll buying this one in hardback the moment it is released. It will be Mann’s first book since 1996’s The Burning Forest, the final book in his A Land Fit for Heroes alternate history quartet. That’s quite a long silence – seventeen years. Alexander Jablokov spent a decade not writing before Brain Thief was published. I thought it very good, but it didn’t seem to do very well. Let’s hope Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise does better…

March
Life-after-life-cover-194x300Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I’ve not read any Atkinson, though I understand she’s quite good. I did watch the television series with Jason Isaacs, however (though, to be honest, it clashed with Scott & Bailey, which I thought much the better series). This book, about a person who serially reincarnates, sounds like it might be worth a go. I’ll wait for the paperback, though.

NecessaryIll-cvr-low-resNecessary Ill, Deb Taber
According to Suzy McKee Charnas, this novel “offers hopeful glimpses of alternatives to the current cultural barrage of post-Apocalyptic savagery and regression to warlordism”. Am sick to bloody death of post-apocalypse novels in which people turn into animals and only some warped version of right-wing US society offers hope or a way forward. So, want.

April
sereneinvasionThe Serene Invasion, Eric Brown
Eric has been churning out quality sf for more than two decades, and his novels and short fiction are always worth reading. It’s a shame his books seem to cause few, if any, ripples. Except, of course, he’s been shortlisted this year for the Philip K Dick – albeit bafflingly for Helix Wars, rather than the year before for The Kings of Eternity, which is by far the better book.

prophetofbonesProphet of Bones, Ted Kosmatka
To be honest, I’d sooner see a collection from Kosmatka. I’ve only read a handful of his short fiction, but what I’ve read I’ve thought very good – I even picked his ‘Divining Light’ for the Locus All-Centuries Short Fiction Poll. I’ve been meaning to pick up Kosmatka’s first novel, last year’s The Games, in paperback, and whether or not I get Prophet of Bones will depend on my reaction to that book.

June
shininggirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
I really liked Zoo City (see here), so I’m keen to read this one, even if the plot has been described as “The Time Traveler’s Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“. Ugh. But I trust Lauren to produce something good despite that. (Incidentally, it really annoys me they never bothered correcting the spelling mistake in the title of The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, it’s the american spelling; but I don’t live in the US, and we use British English here).)

The AdjacentThe Adjacent, Christopher Priest
I’m always late reading Priest’s novels, though I usually get there in the end. It’s useless speculating what it might be about, because Priest’s novels generally defy summary. This one is allegedly his “most complex yet”, although if anyone knows of a simple Priest novel I’ve yet to hear it. Santa brought me The Islanders for Christmas, so I’ll be reading that soon… two years after everyone else and a year after it won the BSFA Award…

July
Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley
The fourth book in McAuley’s hard sf nearish-future series. I really must read Gardens of the Sun

August
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
The second book of Poseidon’s Children and the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I liked the first book, I liked its optimism and its avoidance of sf’s usual panoply of magic bullshit technology. This one I will certainly be buying in hardback on its release.

September
Proxima, Stephen Baxter
There’d be something wrong if there wasn’t at least one Stephen Baxter novel out each year. It’s deep future sf, with humans living on a dead world orbiting Proxima Centauri, and all sounds very Baxterian.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts
A sequel to The Asylum’s “mockbuster” of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Sea by Adam Roberts has to be worth a go. Though, to be fair, I did think the ending to the film was pretty unequivocal – the Nautilus was destroyed by the nuclear warheads Nemo had planned to launch against the US, and everyone aboard, including Nemo, was killed. But I’m sure Adam will come up with some cunning trick to show how Nemo escaped death in a nuclear explosion at the very last second.

December
Equilateral-Kalfus-Ken-9781620400067Equilateral, Ken Kalfus
I saw mention of this on io9, and its description sounded interesting: British scientists at the turn of the century have come to believe there’s life on Mars, so they propose to build a massive triangle in the Egyptian desert. Yup, I’d read that. (io9 gives the publication date as April, but according to Amazon it’s December in the UK. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer than them, then.)

No doubt there will be more titles I want to read appearing throughout the year, but these are the only ones that have been announced so far that appeal to me. I’ll also probably end up reading other new books recommended to me but which, at first glance, I hadn’t thought worth trying, or hadn’t known about. So it goes.