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Reading diary 2018, #16

The big work project is over! Hurrah! After two and a half years! It went live on 1st September, and while there’s been some clean-up going on, and I’ve been helping out, life work-wise for me is pretty much back to what it was before. Which, hopefully, means writing again. And reading more. It’s going to take a while to renew old habits, and lose new habits, like watching films all the time… But I’m hopeful that by the end of October my reading will have picked up. Meanwhile, a recent trip to Denmark gave me some good reading time and I polished off three books in six days…

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Jacques Tardi (2012, France). One day, I will work out why I continue to buy bandes dessinées in English when I’m perfectly capable of reading them in (my schoolboy) French (with, I admit, the help of a dictionary). I mean, given the choice between men-in-tights superhero shenanigans out of the US and French sf comics, I know which I hugely prefer. And, okay, Tardi tends not to write genre, and I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is actually biography, that of his own father, with some incidents from the life of the father of his wife, the singer Dominique Grange. Buying it in French would at least allow me to keep up to date with some of my favourite series, especially those whose publication history in English has been erratic at best. They’d probably be cheaper too. Anyway, I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover. Tardi’s father served in tanks in the French Army during WWII, was captured early and spent pretty much the entire war in a prisoner of war camp. One thing the story illustrates is the stark difference between the treatment of French and British POWs and American POWs. We’ve all seen the movies and the cheap sitcoms, and POWs breaking out of their camps… but the French were so under-fed and mistreated they’d never have succeeded had they escaped. And, of course, once back home they were likely to be immediately reported to the occupying Germans… Recommended.

Author’s Choice Monthly 16: State of Grace, Kate Wilhelm (1991, USA). I’ve never been that much of a fan of Wilhelm’s fiction. She’s not a writer whose books I seek out. But I’ve found her novels to be generally good and worth reading, and I’ve no doubt about her stature in the genre (ie, it should be much higher). Not all of her work has been worthy of note but she’s generally produced stuff at a slight angle to what everyone else was doing and her prose was above average. I’m not sure this collection, selected by Wilhelm herself, according to some agenda which is not immediately obvious, does her reputation any favours. It contains half a dozen stories, and Wilhelm provides an intro to each which sort of acts as a very loose framing device. ‘The Book of Ylin’ uses spelling rules for some words based on English’s weirder bits of orthography, as illustrated by Shaw’s famous “ghoti”, which makes reading it a chore until it suddenly clicks, and then you wonder why Wilhelm bothered as it’s not a very amusing conceit. ‘The Downstairs’ Room’ reads like a reworking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but doesn’t add anything to the original. There’s a welcome element of domesticity to the stories, something science fiction doesn’t cover very often, although Wilhelm has mined the territory in some of her novels. The stories stretch from 1963 to 1988, and there’s an impressive consistency to them. True, the earliest story, ‘Jenny with Wings’, is the least satisfactory, but then it doesn’t seem to do much and the resolution feels a little juvenile. One for fans.

Obelisk, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I continue to buy Stephen Baxter books and I’m not really sure why. Oh I know what I’m getting when I start to read one, which is, I suppose, a good enough reason for many to continue to read an author… But I like to be surprised– no, impressed… And that’s only going to happen if an author writes something so much better than they have done in the past, or a writer new to me writes something so much more, well, impressive than I had expected. Cf William Faulkner (see here). Baxter sometime does impress, but all too often his fiction reads a bit juvenile. At short lengths, he’s less likely to fall into that trap, so a collection like Obelisk should prove a more satisfactory read… But at novel length, especially when opening a series, such as the novel Coalescent, the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, he seems to shine, only for it all to descend into YA-like science fiction that just happens to throw around big ideas. And that, in microcosm, is sort of what happens in Obelisk. There are lots of fascinating ideas in the stories in the book, but there are some that read like YA, the opening story, ‘On Chryse Plain’, being a good example. It’s one of four stories, including the title story, set in the universe of ProximaUltima (see here and here), although to be honest I couldn’t really tell. Other stories are grouped as “Other Yesterdays”, “Other Todays” and “Other Tomorrows”. All but two were previously published. Two weeks after I finished the book, I’m having trouble remembering the individual stories – although Baxter has certainly written short fiction that stands out… There just aren’t any here. One for fans, I suspect.

Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK). I took this with me to read on my trip to Denmark and pretty much polished it off during the journey there. It was a much easier read than I’d expected, a very easy read, in fact, so much so I kept on thinking throughout that Spufford had attempted to write something like Golding’s Rites of Passage (see here) but hadn’t quite managed to nail down eighteenth-century prose, resulting in a much more readable prose style. Not, I  hasten to add, that I’m an expert on eighteenth-century prose, or indeed have read any books written during that century, like Gulliver’s Travels or Pamela. But Golding’s novel seems more, well, authentic than this one, although Spufford’s representation of life in 1746 New York is thoroughly convincing. A young man called Smith arrives in New-York (as it’s given throughout the novel) with a promissory note for £1000, effectively a banker’s draft, and an enormous sum in those days. He hands it over to a local merchant but is told it will take sixty days for the merchant to get together the money. So Smith has to hang around until then. He refuses to explain who he is, or what the money is for; which means most think he is a con artist and there will be no supporting credentials on the next ship. Which there isn’t. So he’s arrested. But then it turns up on the ship after that, so it seems he really does have £1000. Meanwhile, everyone has been speculating about what he is – he knows a lot about the theatre, so perhaps he’s an actor – and he’s fallen in with the governor’s private secretary, a gay man his own age, and started courting the merchant’s oldest and very prickly daughter. Spufford keeps the speculation on Smith’s identity and purpose going throughout the novel, which is an impressive achievement. But the real stand-out in the book is New-York of 1746, which feels like a living, breathing place, which, er, obviously it was. The plot is all that you would expect of a novel set then, all setbacks and set-pieces, hearts won, enemies made, lessons learned… The final revelation, when it comes, is a surprise but the foundation for it is plain to see in hindsight. I don’t think Golden Hill will make my best of the year top five but it certainly deserves an honourable mention. Recommended.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995, USA). I first read Chabon when his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was nominated for a sf award, but I think I might have seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys before that. What am I saying? I have spreadsheets containing this information. I can check… So: I watched Wonder Boys on 4 June 2001 and read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on 15 March 2008. I did indeed watch the film before reading any of Chabon’s novels. Anyway, having now read Wonder Boys, I want to rewatch the film. Argh. The one thing that struck while reading the book was that most of the film’s cast had been badly-chosen. The narrator is a failed writer of GRRM-proportions who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh university. He was played by Michael Douglas. His gay agent was played by Robert Downey Jr. And troubled student James Leer was played by Tobey Maguire. None of them really fit the characters has portrayed in the novel. Which is basically about a weekend at the university during a writing festival, in which the narrator’s wife leaves him, his lover, the chancellor, tells him she’s pregnant, Leer steals the chancellor’s husband’s prize possession, a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe and shoots their dog, and… well, shit happens, in that sort of slowly inevitable One Foot in the Grave way that ends up in farce. And overshadowing it all is the narrator’s current WIP, which shares the novel’s title, and which he has been working on for seven years, has grown to gargantuan proportions and he will likely never ever finish. Literary professors/authors whose lives are slowly, and comically, unravelling is pretty much a genre on its own, and is seen by many as emblematic of literary fiction as a whole. I disagree, of course. The only people who think lit fic is all middle-class professors lusting after nubile students, disappearing into a bottle, failing to finish their magnum opus, etc, are the people who generally only read genre and almost certainly have not read widely in literary fiction/literature. I’m still not sure what to make of Chabon’s work – this novel is a bit of a bloated cliché and he has a tendency to drop the odd bit of over-writing into his prose, but there’s a curious personality that shines through, one that’s keen to experiment with the stories he tells, and there’s something very likable about that.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955, USA). Just about every US science fiction writer has had a go at a post-apocalypse novel – and if it was during the first 75 years of last century, it was usually a post-nuclear holocaust novel. Several of the better ones have been by women writers, although, as is usually the case, the ones by male writers – Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz – have been more celebrated. But with Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, you have two of the best American post-nuclear war sf novels written in the first half(-ish) of last century. They should be the ones that are celebrated, not Stewart or Miller. But, no matter, we know sf is male-centric, and though we do our best to show this is a false picture, women writers have been immensely successful in genre fiction the last couple of years and that tends to overshadow the achievements of women genre writers of last century. Which it should not. In The Long Tomorrow, the US has turned Mennonite after a nuclear war, and an amendment to the constitution bans towns and villages over a certain size. Cities, you see, make good targets. Of course, the rest of the world has also probably devolved to an agrarian early twentieth-century society, so who’s going to attack the US? But never mind. Len and Esau are curious teenagers in a small New Mennonite farming community, who dream of bigger things, particularly Bartorstown, a mythical town of high tech. After witnessing the stoning of a man linked with Bartorstown, they run away. And end up at the town of Refuge, where they come into conflict with some of the townsfolk because they’re start working for a trader who wants to build an extra warehouse, which will break the aforementioned amendment. This is exacerbated by a rival town across the river which is taking advantage of Refuge’s inability to grow. And then farmers descend on Refuge and put warehouses to the torch, but Len and Esau manage to escape, with the help of an old friend who proves to be from Bartorstown… There’s nothing new in the future US Brackett depicts, drawing as it does on pretty much the entire history of American literature; but the events in Refuge are unexpected, and the arguments against holding back progress, while characteristically American, are handled well. The two leads are typical for sixty year old American sf – ie, white males from comfortable backgrounds – and in fact I don’t recall any POC being mentioned anywhere in the novel. I’m a bigger fan of Brackett’s planetary romances than I am her straight-up sf, although The Long Tomorrow was better than I’d expected. It’s now in the SF Masterworks series.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Books fall

To Brits, the American English for autumn, fall, doesn’t really capture the season – “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and all that – which is silly as it’s a contraction of “leaf fall”, which was the more common name for autumn in sixteenth-century England. Also, it should be pointed out that dropping books is likely to damage them, and I would never do that (if someone broke the spine of a book I’d lent them, I would break their fingers). Anyway, the following books metaphorically fell into my collection…

The Day of the Triffids was given to me by a friend, Ole. He told me he’d accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. Author’s Choice Monthly 15 and Author’s Choice Monthly 16 makes the complete set a little bit nearer.

Some new hardbacks and, er, Oscar, who was determined to be involved. Obelisk is a collection from last year, and Xeelee Redemption is the latest book in the extended and drawn-out series which, I think, made its first appearance back in the late 1980s in an issue of Dream Magazine (a UK small press magazine from that period). Spring Tide is a collection, and America City is a novel. I don’t actually know anything about either of them, but Chris Beckett is an excellent writer and I’ve known him for a decade or more. I enjoyed Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, which is a bit of an unwieldy title, is the sequel.

Three favourite writers and a review copy from Interzone. Guess which is which… Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle is an excellent series about first contact, and her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is one of the best short stories the genre has produced. I’m looking forward to reading Chercher La Femme. Varley was one of those writers whose novels and stories I loved back in my late teens. I still have a lot of fondness for The Ophiuchi Hotline. He returned to his Eight Worlds universe for two novels in the 1990s. Irontown Blues, a second return to that universe, has been promised for years, so it’s good to see it finally appear. Thoreau’s Microscope is a collection in PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series (see here). And Liminal, I reviewed for Interzone.

I’ve been working my way – slowly – through Snow’s Strangers and Brothers eleven-book series. Corridors of Power is the ninth book, and Last Things the eleventh. I’ve yet to find a copy of the tenth novel, The Sleep of Reason – or rather, I’ve yet to find a Penguin paperback copy of the novel that matches the ones I own. Bah. As I Lay Dying I bought after being hugely impressed by The Sound and the Fury, my first Faulkner, which I read a few months ago (see here). And yes, it matches the two Penguin Faulkner paperbacks I own (cover art by André François; he apparently designed six of them).

In hindsight, I should have put Without a Summer up with the Duchamp, Varley and Lewis as it’s more genre than Blumlein’s Thoreau’s Microscope, but never mind. It’s the third book in the series and I enjoyed the previous two. Irma Voth I added to my wishlist after watching, and being impressed by, Silent Light (see here). Toews starred in that film and the novel is a fictional adaptation of her experiences. Spring Snow I also bought after watching a film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. An excellent film (see here).

Oscar had to get into the act again. He’s standing on Apollo, a graphic novel adaptation of the Apollo 11 mission by three Brits. I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is the latest Tardi release by Fantagraphics. I’ve been collecting them as they’re published. I really ought to get the original French ones, of course.


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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Reading diary, #7

Another catch-up on what I’ve been reading of late, before this blog turns entirely into a film blog or promotional posts for All That Outer Space Allows or A Prospect of War (damn, I went and mentioned them, damn). Er, anyway, I do still read books and here are some of them.

realspacecowboysThe Real Space Cowboys, Ed Buckbee, with Wally Schirra (2005). I picked up a signed copy of this a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. It’s pretty much a hagiography of the Mercury Seven, based chiefly on conversations and interviews with them in years prior to publication (many of them had died before this book was published – Grissom in 1967, Slayton in 1993, Shepard in 1998 and Cooper in 2004). Nonetheless, it’s well-presented – which Apogee Books are generally good at, even if sometimes their editing leaves a little to be desired – and makes for an interesting read. Buckbee started out in NASA public affairs, before becoming director of the US Space & Rocket Center and then US Space Camp. He knew all the astronauts personally, and much of the book is presented as a conversation among the Mercury 7. Not a bad read.

StainedStained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer (1969). Bulmer was a prolific sf author with, according to Wikipedia, over 160 novels published under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. The reason for that huge output is because Bulmer was a complete hack. As is evidenced in Stained-Glass World. It’s a bit of a tired set-up, workers living in a lawless urban wasteland a century or more after society has collapsed, the rich living it up in their glass towers and enjoying a life of drugs and debauchery, and somewhere in the background is a police state but there’s little in the book to support it, or indeed the entire world as presented. The plot is thin at best, and somewhat confused – there’s a group of “Uppers” down among the workers, hunting for “Joy Juice”, which is apparently extracted from workers under the influence of another drug. None of this makes sense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of description of urban decay and ruins, and some especially dumb future slang (a Bulmer speciality, I suspect). Avoid.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I saw the Visconti film adaptation of this back in October 2013, and liked it enough to think it worth reading the novel on which it was based. Which is, according to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature”. The story takes place in the 1860s on Sicily, during the unification of Italy. It’s about the Salina family, particularly the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, who represents the old order, and his nephew and putative heir, Prince Tancredi, who first joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts and then the army of the king of Sardinia (who goes onto become king of Italy). While the family is holidaying in their palace at Donnafugata, Tancredi meets Angelica, daughter of the local mayor (a successful and corrupt local landowner), and marries her. When Fabrizio is asked to join the new kingdom’s senate, he refuses and recommends the mayor, as he considers him more in tune with the coming times. There’s a Lawrentian atmosphere to much of The Leopard – especially when Prince Fabrizio goes hunting while at Donnafugata – but it’s also a much more political novel than anything Lawrence wrote. Now I want to watch the film again.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). According to an accompanying press release, David Hartwell of Tor approached Gilman and “asked her to write a science fiction novel based on [my] enthusiasm for her short fiction”. Which does make you wonder why Gilman’s excellent fantasy duology, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, were published by ChiZine. Still, self-serving promotional press release aside, Dark Orbit is a short-ish sf novel set in Gilman’s Twenty Planets – as are some of her novellas, such as ‘Arkfall’ and ‘The Ice Owl’ – and I read it to review for Interzone. On the whole, I liked it, and it did some interesting and clever things… but I didn’t think it quite as successful as the aforementioned fantasy novels.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998). This is the second book of Matthews’s Jursidiction series, and while it didn’t read as well this time around as I remembered, it’s still part of a superior sf series. I used to buy Matthews’s books as soon as they were published. It’s a shame her career seems to have gone down the toilet. I reviewed the book on SF Mistressworks here.

stalinsgoldStalin’s Gold, Barrie Penrose (1982). In 1942, HMS Edinburgh sank in the Barents Sea after being attacked by German warships. She was part of a convoy which had delivered munitions to Murmansk for the Russians, and was carrying back five tons of gold bullion in payment. For fifty years, the wreck – and the gold – sat in 800 feet of Arctic water, too deep for anyone to salvage. But, by the late 1970s, thanks to North Sea oil, the technology existed to recover the bullion. This is the book of the successful expedition to retrieve it. A Keighley-based salvor put together a consortium with sufficient cash and resources to get the contract from the Ministry of Defence to recover the gold. What distinguished his proposal from others was that he planned to use saturation divers, rather than explosives and submersibles. Given that the MoD had designated the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh a war grave, it gave him the advantage (as did a mole he had in the ministry). An Aberdeen-based diving company, Wharton-Williams, provided the divers and equipment, a German shipping company, OSA, provided the ship, and Decca Racal provided the navigation and sensing gear. The consortium would get to keep 45% of the gold, the British govenment would take 37% and the Soviet government 13% (the Russians also had a pair of observers onboard). Penrose spends a third of the book describing the convoy and ensuing battle during which HMS Edinburgh sank. The remainder of the book focuses more on the Yorkshireman, Jessop, and is light on the technical aspects of the salvage. The writing is also pretty poor. There is, in fact, a British television documentary on the whole thing, “Gold from the Deep”, and some of the quotes Penrose uses seem to have been lifted straight from it (the documentary is available on Youtube here – a poor quality transfer, though).

islanddrmoreauThe Island Of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896). Although Wells wrote over fifty novels, most people likely only know him for four – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and this one, The Island Of Dr Moreau. The edition I read was, as pictured, the SF Masterwork hardback – and it took me less than half a page to spot the introduction was by Adam Roberts. Anyway, the story is relatively straightforward – the narrator’s ship collides with a derelict (until the twentieth century, derelicts were surprisingly common, with several hundred floating around the world’s oceans and seas). The narrator is the only survivor and is picked up by a ship delivering animals to an unnamed island. Also aboard this ship is a man called Montgomery, who lives on the island as assistant to a scientist with a shady past, Moreau. The ship dumps the narrator, Prendrick, on the island with Montgomery, and so Prendrick learns of Moreau’s experiments on animals, making them into “Beast Men”. It’s all a bit handwavey – there’s no explanation of how the Beast Men are made intelligent enough to speak or overcome their animal natures. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong – coincidentally while Prendrick is there, and coincidentally, he’s the only survivor. To be honest, I thought Wells laid it all on a bit thick. Prendrick’s outrage and horror crops up on almost every page, and the Beast Men don’t feel especially nuanced. Not Wells’ best, although the central premise is certainly memorable.

val9Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, Jean-Claude Mezières & Pierre Christin (1980). This is book eight in the long-running Valerian and Laureline (Valèrian, Agent Spatio-Temporel) series. It is also a pretty smart piece of work… which is more than you can say for most science fiction comics. Valerian is in 1980s Paris investigating some strange manifestations, while Laureline is in the Cassiopeia constellation looking into the possible source of the phenomena. The two communicate telepathically, and share their findings… but this is the first of a two-parter so what they find doesn’t really help explain what’s happening. However, where Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia is particularly good is in the noir-ish feel to Valerian’s investigation in Paris. It’s especially effective when contrasted with Laureline’s adventures on alien worlds. It’s hard to believe this is thirty-five years old. I can’t think of a UK or US sf comic from the same period of comparable quality – not even 2000AD back then was as good as this.

septimusThe Septimus Wave, Jean Dufaux, Antoine Aubin & Étienne Schréder (2013). And this is the twentieth book in the also long-running Blake and Mortimer series. Although linked with Hergé’s Tintin – the first Blake and Mortimer story appeared in the Tintin Magazine, and the comic uses a similar ligne claire style – series creator Edgar P Jacobs chose not to prevent its continuation after his death. He died in 1987, and only actually wrote and drew half a dozen of the Blake and Mortimer books. The series was restarted in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. The Septimus Wave is a sequel to an earlier Jacobs title, The Yellow “M”, in which evil scientist Septimus brainwashes series villain Colonel Olrik into committing a series of crimes. But Septimus is now dead, and Mortimer is experimenting with Septimus’s equipment – except he’s not the only one. And there’s something else riding piggyback on Septimus’s “Mega Wave” generated by Mortimer and the others. Apparently, some of the post-Jacobs entries in the series have upset fans by being a bit too clever or something, and while The Septimus Wave is by no means the best of the new Blake and Mortimers I do like the fact they’re a bit more sophisticated than Jacobs’ own stories.

hewhoHe Who Shapes / The Infinity Box, Roger Zelazny / Kate Wilhelm (1965/1971). The Zelazny won the Nebula for best novella, and I’d like to say I’m mystified as to why – but this is a science fiction award from the mid-1960s, so perhaps complaints about quality are beside the point. And, well, it’s by Zelazny, who is allegedly one of the genre’s great prose stylists… But there’s fuck-all evidence of it in ‘He Who Shapes’, just a piece of sixties sexism tricked out with some handwavey conceit. Everyone smokes like chimneys and what little non-central-conceit extrapolation is weirdly limited – computer-driven cars! huge skyscrapers! suicide epidemic! Anyway, Render is a Shaper (spot the cunning pun there? My aching sides), which means he can therapeutically direct patient’s dreams undercarefully-controlled conditions. But then a woman blind from birth who is already qualified as a psychiatrist asks Render to help her become a Shaper. He initially refuses, but then agrees to use his talents to help her acclimatise herself to “sight” – or rather, what she would “see” in the dreams she would be directing should she become a Shaper. Nonsense. And Render starts to fancy her, and so finds himself trapped in one of her dreams. Rubbish. ‘The Infinity Box’ is even weirder, and seems to spend much of its length in search of a plot. A widow moves into a neighbours’ house while they’re on holiday, and the narrator finds himself drawn to her, so much so he begins to experiencing what she is experiencing, and even manages to briefly control her. It also turns out the woman is a photographer and sees the world very differently to everyone else – she can see the entire lifetime of everything she looks at. While nicely written, and Wilhelm handles the narrator’s relationship with his wife well, the two elements of the plot don’t actually fit together, and the implausibility of both badly affects the story’s credibility. There are two possibly good stories here but Wilhelm managed to produce a single confused one out of them.

projectsealabProject SEALAB, Terry Shannon & Charles Payzant (1966). A lucky find on eBay. At the time this was written and published, SEALAB III had yet to take place, so the book ends on an optimistic note… Which is unfortunate as SEALAB III was a disaster – while struggling to fix a leak in the habitat, which was on the ocean bottom 600 feet deep, prior to occupying it, one of the divers died, possibly as a result of sabotage. It was enough to stop the programme. And this despite SEALABs I and II being very successful (and Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter was involved with the second one). Project SEALAB is a somewhat simplistic run-through of the two habitats (well, it is a “junior” book), but it’s copiously illustrated with photographs, which is pretty cool. Incidentally, there are a pair of US Navy films on the two projects, and they’re available online – SEALAB I here and SEALAB II here.


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May book haul

Not too many this month, so I appear to be getting my habit a little under control. More work still needed, however. On the plus-side, it’s getting harder to find irresistible bargains on eBay; on the other hand, it’s getting easier to find obscure books that look interesting…

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Three first editions. Amritvela is actually signed and was a couple of quid on eBay. It’s not sf, but I need to read more world fiction anyway. The Zanzibar Cat is Russ’s first collection. Arabian Nights and Days was given me by my mother. I’ve read several books by Mahfouz, and I have a couple more on the TBR. But I’ve yet to read his Cairo trilogy, as the only copies I have of it are in Arabic. That’s a project for one year – get my Arabic up to scratch so I can read them…

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The Novel To-day was a lucky (and cheap) find on eBay. It goes in the Anthony Burgess collection. Exploring the Deep was also from eBay (and also cheap), and is a pretty good overview of its topic. Useful research material, should I ever decide to write some hyperbaric sf…

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A pair of Tor doubles – No 12 He Who Shapes/The Infinity Box by Roger Zelazny and Kate Wilhelm, and No 15 The Last Castle/Nightwings by Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. I started collecting these after a bunch of them appeared in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi, and over the years I’ve managed to find 28 of the 36 Tor published. Some of them are quite good, but many are rubbish. The Invincible is more Lem. The Leopard and My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family were bought as a birthday present.

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For The Women’s Press sf collection – Across The Acheron I found on eBay, but Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Women as Demons, A Door into Ocean, The Judas Rose and The New Gulliver were all from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books.  I recently updated the list of The Women’s Press sf titles on the SF Mistressworks site – see here.