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Reading diary 2021, #1

In 2020, I read 105 books by 75 authors. Seventeen of them were rereads. Forty-five percent were science fiction, thirteen percent were fantasy, and nine percent were mainstream. Just over half (52%) were by male writers and 38% by women writers. The remainder were either non-fiction, graphic novels or had more than one author. I apparently didn’t read any anthologies. The authors were from the UK, US, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, France, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia and Sweden.

Some of the books below I finished last year. Some of them I read this year. Usually, during the Christmas holiday I read a book a day but, thanks to the pandemic, I spent Christmas on my own and didn’t feel much like picking up a book. It wasn’t until the second week of January, which I’d booked as holiday, that I started reading again… and I managed six books over ten days… And I seem to be maintaining that reading pace.

London Rules, Mick Herron (2018, UK). The fifth book of the Herron’s soon-to-be-televised Slough House / Jackson Lamb series, and it’s more of the same – offensive incompetents who manage to out-perform the best of MI5, chiefly, we are supposed to believe, because Lamb’s leadership is not hamstrung by all the politicking that goes on among the organisation’s upper echelons. A series of weirdly ineffective terrorist attacks persuade the Slow Horses that some unknown actor is following a playbook put together by the British government in the 1920s to destabilise nations which either threaten the British Empire or need a little persuading in order to “join” the British Empire. The whole thing is intended to embarrass HMG, but, of course, the current shower of shits in charge of the UK have proven HMG is immune to embarrassment – and indeed that neither blatant corruption nor outright lying to the public is unacceptable, never mind  indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, through their policies before and the pandemic now. Herron’s thinly-disguised caricatures of UK political figures are more annoying than amusing. It all seems very middle-class – the nudge-nudge-wink-wink offensiveness, the cynical acceptance of injustice, the commentary-free amorality… Still, only one more to go.

The Kon-Tiki Quartet 4: Iterations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2020, UK). The final novella and the story comes full circle, in a number of ways. Earth has sent a ship containing copies of the personalities of the scientists who worked on the project to colonise an exoplanet . They’re decanted into bodies created by “somatic printers” on arrival. The protagonist discovers that the local fauna produce a substance which, when processed, allows humans to read each other minds. This is liable to change human society on the exoplanet. Unfortunately, a group of militant eco-terrorists have infiltrated the colony and attempt to seize control. Their coup fails, but another set of copies of them heads back to Earth, which has suffered climate crash. This fourth book starts as the bad guys and good guys arrive in orbit about Earth. Both descend to the surface, to Norfolk, where the original starship was launched 200 years previously. In the two centuries since launch, Earth has regressed, with people barely capable of speech enslaved by “Long People”, who prove to be the original eco-terrorists who have stretched their lifetimes by printing new bodies for themselves when the old ones run down. But the printers too are running down, and each new generation of printed body suffers from “transcription errors”. This is solid science fiction of a sort that’s been around since the 1970s. The villains are perhaps a bit pantomime, but it makes a nice change that the protagonists are just plain ordinary and it’s not the universe at stake.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – The Martian Menace, Eric Brown (2020, UK). Apparently, there are several of these The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes novels published by Titan Books. I’m not a Holmes fan, but Eric is a friend of many, many years and I do like his books. The Martian Menace is an expansion of a novella, The Martian Simulacra, published back in 2018 by NewCon Press. In that novella, a mashup of Doyle and Wells, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are flown to Mars to solve the murder of an important Martian philosopher. But it’s all a ruse, as the Martians are replacing important individuals (only the British ones are named, of course, as this is Edwardian fiction; much like in US genre fiction) and replacing them with robots indistinguishable from the originals. But Holmes and Watson escape this fate with the help of an enterprising young woman from the resistance (comprised of humans wise to the Martians’ plans and the Martian enemies of those Martians who have been welcomed on Earth). The Martian Menace takes this story, and then does something very clever with it. Dragging Moriarty into the story is perhaps a no-brainer. Brown positions Moriarty as the architect of the Martians’ plot, but only by creating a multitude of simulacra of him… and it is the fate of the original Moriarty which proves to be the driver behind the plot of the novel and the enabler of its resolution. Reading this novel was an odd experience. It was as if the novella were two-dimensional, and the novel suddenly added a third dimension. Perhaps read from fresh, without knowledge of the novella, The Martian Menace would read as an inventive take on Sherlock Holmes meets Wells’ Martians. But having, read the novella, the novel went from the familiar to a quite unexpected place. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The Stone Sky, NK Jemisin (2017, USA). The final novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, each book of which won the Hugo Award for best novel in three successive years. The first, The Fifth Season, was a worthy winner, but I’m not so convinced books two and three were. To be fair, neither 2017 nor 2018 had particularly good shortlists. There were perhaps a couple of books more deserving on the 2018 shortlist, but the 2017 one was pretty awful. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The Broken Earth trilogy is a good trilogy, and while the second book, The Obelisk Gate, does the usual treading water thing, The Stone Sky is very much a conclusion, and actually takes the story in a direction not hinted at in earlier volumes. It also deliberately positions itself as far-future science fiction, while still presenting its ideas as fantasy tropes. In hindsight, I suspect the trilogy is a good candidate as a future genre classic. It does interesting things with narrative in the first book, the worldbuilding is excellent, it makes a series of important points about race and slavery, and it manages to build up to a big, if not entirely plausible, idea that provides a fitting capstone. Essun, and her daughter Nassun, both powerful orogenes who can control the obelisks, make their way independently to Corepoint, a research station/city in the middle of the ocean on the other side of the planet to the Stillness. Both have the same aim – stopping the cycle of seasons (by returning the Moon to its orbit) – although at the prompting of different factions of stone eaters. A narrative thread set in the past reveals the origin of both the obelisks and the stone eaters. It’s all fascinating stuff, and if the villain of the piece, as revealed in the final chapters, takes a bit of swallowing, there’s no denying Jemisin’s ambition. And, to be fair, she nails it. I still don’t think all three books deserved to win a Hugo, but I do think the trilogy belongs in the “canon” of great sf works.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (1962, USA). A US classic, I’m told, but other than the title, I knew nothing about it. A copy popped up for 99p on Kindle, so I thought it worth a go. The novel opens with the sort of declarative introduction used by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, a US literary technique, I think – in which the novel’s narrator reveals she is eighteen, has a somewhat warped view of the world, is despised by the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, and resides alone with her older sister in a large house on the outskirts. It’s gradually disclosed the family were poisoned some years previously, and the older of the two women was charged but then acquitted. A male cousin comes to visit, and gradually takes over the women’s lives, incurring the resentment of the younger. And eventually changing their situation profoundly, although perhaps not in the way he wanted. Is it a classic? I’m not sure… The central twist is obvious a handful pf pages in, and doesn’t really add much to the narrative. The narrator’s worldview is… individual. But the book still feels it belongs on a straight line from Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger’s novel is not a book I hold in high regard. I suspect it’s a novel I simply don’t have the cultural baggage to fully appreciate – which is something a lot of US critics and commentators should acknowledge, particularly in genre, as they seem to think the entire planet shares their worldview, sensibilities and culture. I may share a language with US citizens, but that’s all I share.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951, UK). This is one of those books  where one element of the story has entered public consciousness and actually drowned out the actual, well, story of the book. So everyone knows about the triffids, ambulatory plants which can kill by means of a whip-like stinger. Most people who haven’t read the book probably assume the triffids are alien, but the book actually suggests they were created in a Soviet laboratory. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations of the novel, and I had still forgotten that the entire plot, and menace of the triffids, is predicated on a global outbreak of blindness, caused by lights in the night sky (conveniently forgetting that half the planet would not be in darkness), initially blamed on a comet, but later implied it might have a human technological cause. The protagonist is not blinded because he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged, and the story is basically his survival story, along with the other few who were not blinded, and the various factions the sighted people have separated into. And all the while avoiding the triffids. I did at first wonder why the two things – blindness and triffids – when one or the other on their own would have provided sufficient drama. But the triffids are too easy to avoid by sighted people, and blindness alone wasn’t enough to cause human civilisation to collapse in such a short time-frame. The Day of the Triffids is definitely a book of its time – not just the sexism, but the comfortable middle-classness (so much so, one character in the book can “translate” from working-class to middle-class; this is, I hasten to add, British class, not American, and the two are not the same), and the relative ease with which the survivors manage to build sustainable communities. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it condemnation of fascism, but this novel, like many of Wyndham’s novels, is a pretty good example of a “comfortable catastrophe”.  I enjoyed it, but it was a much lighter read than I’d expected, and it’s certainly a well-known historical sf novel… but one for those eager to explore the history of the genre, including those novels some would have you believe are not genre…


Reading diary 2019, #10

I really should read more classic literature as I seem to be spending most of my time reading science fiction and a lot of it has been pretty shit. But, well, I’m a sf fan, and sf gives me something classic literature does not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give me good writing. And all too often it doesn’t even give me good science fiction. Sf that’s well put together is getting harder to find – because that’s not a commercial quality and it is commercial qualities which determine whether a) books are published, and b) they are successful and so everyone talks about them and they’re easily available. Back in the day, when the NBA existed, editors could curate their lists, and publish books that might not sell many copies but were actually good. Now they have to chase the the bottom line. This is not a change for the better. It’s like privatisation: it never fucking works. Still, it makes the rentiers happy – and that’s basically what society apparently exists to do, so there you go.

Splintered Suns, Michael Cobley (2018, UK). Mike is a mate of many years, decades even, and I’ve followed his career from the beginning. Unfortunately – if that’s the right word – he’s a better writer than his books would suggest. Partly this is because he’s determined to write commercial genre fiction – fantasy initially, now space opera – and in order to get work accepted by publishers, he’s had to work within those constraints. With his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, he wrote a smart British space opera, based a little too obviously on the works of Iain Banks – which is hardly a crime – but with enough invention to hold its own. And if the descriptive prose and characterisation were a cut above what were typical for the sub-genre, well, that was all to the good. But these pendants to that series – Ancestral Machines (2016) and Splintered Suns – on the one hand haven’t done the trilogy any favours, but on the other are likely to have introduced new readers to the series. They’re weaker books – or rather, they’re lighter books, lacking the heft of the trilogy, with more adventure-oriented plots, explicitly so in Splintered Suns. Both make extensive use of a Big Dumb Object, but Splintered Suns is the more inventive of the two. And its plot is better suited to its cast. Who are the misfit crew of a trading ship which is often involved in less than legit business. And who remain still mostly irritating – especially the captain of the Scarabus, Brannan Pyke – and had they been players in a RPG the GM would have lied about their dice rolls very quickly to ensure they were killed off… Totally unfair, of course, as space operas like Splintered Suns are just as much about their cast as they are their setting. The plot, however… Not only do you have the crew of the Scarabus trying to track down a legendary two million year old giant spaceship, and when they find it they have to navigate a shifting set of time streams and alternate realities to do the space opera maguffin thing, meanwhile there are a set of copies of the crew stuck in a VR fantasy RPG who have to work their way up the levels to kaibosh the space opera maguffin from within. Cobley manages his cross-cut plots with impressive aplomb, although the dialogue does occasionally drift towards parody. Splintered Suns is, as I said, a better book than its predecessor, and it certainly demonstrates there are many stories to be told in the Humanity’s Fire universe.

Ecce & Old Earth, Jack Vance (1991, USA). I used to think Vance was great, one of the actual real great writers of science fiction, although these days that label seems to be handed out to books on a daily basis. Then I sort of went off Vance – the plots often seemed the same, the prose was variable, the invention a little too obviously copying from earlier works… There are great Vance works, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. I still like the Alastor Cluster books, but the Demon Princes series is badly plotted. Happily, Ecce & Old Earth, the second book in the Cadwal Chronicles, a part of the Gaean Reach loose series, is good. It’s also late Vance, from a time when he was no longer at his prime… or so I had thought, except… I really enjoyed the first book of the trilogy, Araminta Station (see here), and thought it read like Vance on form. Happily, the same is true of Ecce & Old Earth. The plotting is not quite as solid, and the invention does not spark as much, but both seem more than suitable for the story. The world of Cadwal is protected by a charter held by the Naturalists’ Society, but the society is moribund and it seems the charter may have been sold decades before by an unscrupulous secretary. The plot of Ecce & Old Earth is compared by its characters to a ladder – one character starts from the bottom, the other from the top, both hope to discover who currently owns the charter and so safeguard Cadwal’s future. Most of the novel takes place on Earth, and Vance’s inventiveness fails him to some extent as he present Earth towns pretty much as they were at the time of writing (or at least some romanticised version of them from the time of writing). But then Vance was always one for recycling the real world, and even then he manages to give the quotidian a touch of the alien. But you read Vance for the prose style, not for the plotting, and Ecce & Old Earth is Vance in fine voice. And the wit seems a little funnier than I remember from other series. The Cadwal Chronicles have rekindled my respect for Vance’s works. I’ve already bought an ebook copy of Throy so I can complete the trilogy.

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (2016, USA). This was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2017, and its sequel in the year following, and the third book of the trilogy this year… so this is science fiction which is highly regarded by that small section of fandom which votes for the Hugo. I wasn’t planning to bother reading the trilogy – I’d bounced out of Lee’s short fiction enough times that trying it at novel-length didn’t appeal at all. But I was given a copy of the third book as part of this year’s Hugo Voters Pack (but not the first two books, even though the Machineries of Empire trilogy was nominated for Best Series), and the first book went on sale at 99p, so… Ah, why the fuck did I bother? This is pretty much fantasy with a spaceship on the cover. Also, it’s not very good, certainly not worthy of a Hugo nomination. In the space opera universe of the series – and assorted short stories, now collected – humanity has split into a variety of factions, six of them in fact, the “Hexarchate”, and they all make use of a specific calendar and “calendrical mathematics” to magically generate things like FTL or exotic weapons. Imposing this calendar is what allows the Hexarchate to maintain control. Except when one of its core fortresses decides to use a heretical calendar, and introduce democracy, so jeopardising the existence of the Hexarchate. Which responds by bonding the mind of the Hexarchate’s most successful general, a criminal psychopath whose mind is held in secure stasis, with that of a mathematically-gifted Kel (ie, military) officer. And the pair of them are charged with taking the fortress from the rebels. Most reviews I’ve read have praised this book’s worldbuilding, and the density of it, but it’s meretricious nonsense. The whole calendrical thing is no different to a RPG magic system. The plot of Ninefox Gambit consists chiefly of the two protagonists lecturing each other. And the whole thing exhibits the sort of mindless brutality and callousness at which even sociopaths would blanch. A calendar that requires ritual torture as reinforcement? Sounds a bit fascist. The Kel have “formation instinct”, which is where the individual Kel are neurologically programmed to obey orders. Sounds a bit fascist. There used to be seven factions, but one of them rebelled so the other six committed genocide. Sounds a bit fascist. It transpires the psychopath general objected to this and felt the Hexarchate – the Heptarchate as was – might not be such a good thing. So, Ninefox Gambit suggests towards its end, and the blurbs of the two sequels suggest it’s the story arc of all three books, he chose to do something about this. But the only way he could live long enough to bring down the Hexarchate was to be put in stasis as a criminal. So he commits a huge massacre. WTF? Not even the most cynical Jesuit could rationalise that means as justifying the ends. It would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on London to bring down Boris Johnson’s government and then writing it up as if the bomber were a hero. Welcome to US space opera. Abu Ghraib means nothing; Gitmo means nothing. With a total lack of irony or reflection, US space operas are willing to bake into their worlds the sort of shit George W Bush was happy to sign off on, even if as individuals they are committed to opposing neocon politics. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to them is that putting shit like that in sf novels only helps normalise it. They need to take responsibility for the worlds they build. I don’t care what the politics of the writer may be, but if they’re writing Nazis in space then their book is no different to anything written by an actual Nazi. It’s one thing to present bad ideas and then argue against them, but space opera doesn’t do that. It presents them as normal. And that is more damaging. To read the works of an author who is explicitly not fascist but whose works embody concepts that are fascist is… exactly the same as reading the works of a fascist. No art is created in a vacuum; no art is consumed in a vacuum. You cannot separate the art from the artist. You should not give a free pass to those creators whose personal politics you approve but whose works contain politics you do not approve… without commentary. The Machineries of Empire trilogy, which renders fantasy as space opera, normalises a level of brutality which differs from grimdark only in the gruesome destructiveness of its invented arsenal. And people nominate this for awards! Had Ninefox Gambit been brilliantly written, had it provided a morally-balanced commentary on its worldbuilding, then perhaps it might have been worthy of nomination. It is, and does, neither. The prose is about average for genre writing, the commentary is focused almost exclusively on the characters within their world. The whole idea of democracy being a bad thing is a wink at the reader – or rather, a knowing nod at what the author imagines is an enlightened reader. If there’s one thing the Sad Puppies debacle has taught us, it’s that not all sf readers are enlightened. Not on a literary level, not on a political level, not on an intellectual level. Indeed, some of them actively reject being enlightened, particularly on an intellectual level. The Sad Puppies were defeated and I am glad of that, but I do worry that science fiction learned nothing from the skirmish. It was presented as a battle for the heart and soul of science fiction, but it looks very much like it was a fight between authors who held different personal politics but were happy to write down exactly the same political line in their sf stories. A hollow victory indeed.

Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK) and Kon-Tiki 3: Insights, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2019, UK). Both authors are friends. I’ve known them for many years, and their fiction has always struck me as good, but it never seems to garner the acclaim needed to raise their profiles. They’re craftsmen – what they write is well-written; but sometimes it lacks that additional inventiveness required to bounce it to the next level – and when it does, it doesn’t matter because they’re boringly ordinary people with very low, if not zero, online presences. PS Publishing have regularly published Brown’s novels and collections, as well as the novellas he’s written in collaboration with Brooke (and they’ve been collaborating, every now and again, for at least thirty years). The Kon-Tiki Quartet is about the colonisation of an earth-like exoplanet by an Earth very close to catastrophic failure from climate crash. The gimmick here is that copies of the colonists are sent and “printed” on arrival. Leaving the originals behind in. In Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, the colonisation ship arrives at “Newhaven”, only to discover it was beaten there by a more efficient vessel. And so the crew – or rather, the handful the story concerns – discover they have copies of themselves, with different histories. If that isn’t enough, one of them has been researching the local fauna and discovered it has a form of hormonal telepathy which is compatible with human chemistry. And so an unregulated experiment becomes the means to untangle a love triangle, and some of its nasty secrets, including the murder which formed the plot of the first book of the quartet, while also presenting a magic bullet that will present all future human interactions in a different light. Which, unfortunately, certain movers and shakers on Newhaven have a problem with in Kon-Tiki 3: Insights. Because they have plans for Newhaven, which they intend to take back to Earth, and if everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts, experience their actual being, then not only are their plans jeopardised but their entire lives are rendered useless. And they don’t want that. Which does, unfortunately, give the novella more of a thriller plot – albeit on an alien world – than a science fiction plot. And the central premise, that people might be “printed” into bodies other than copies of their originals, is not really explored, other than as an enabler for infiltration of government offices. In many respects, the Kon-Tiki Quartet is almost the dictionary definition of traditional sf: it’s ideas-based, and carefully worked out and well-presented… but it’s also Eurocentric, with a cast of almost entirely white people, and concerns that apply chiefly to them. This is hardly unexpected, given the authors’ backgrounds. But a series about a project to safeguard humanity by settling an exoplanet you would expect to mention more races and cultures. Of course, this is all a bit Scylla and Charybdis – which is more damaging to the reputations of the authors, the lack, or including it and not getting it right enough for some readers? Given the authors’ lack of online presence, it hardly matters. What happens on Twitter only really matters to people on Twitter. I feel like I’m damning the Kon-Tiki Quartet with faint praise, when if in fact it’s a well-constructed series of four novellas (well, three to date) that occupies the heartland of Atlantic, albeit more UK than US, science fiction. It does what it does with a degree of accomplishment you’d expect of its authors. It may well be a shame neither are not better-known, either side of the Atlantic, but, to be honest, this is not the work to do that. One for fans – but I do recommend becoming a fan of both authors.

The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan (1991, USA). The reread continues, and most of the time I have to wonder why I’m bothering… The story arc is still bouncing around, trying to work out what length the series will finally be (and even then, Jordan had pretty much no clue right up until his death), most of the characters continue to be very irritating – or rather, Jordan’s repetitive way of presenting them is hugely annoying – but the worldbuilding, despite being somewhat identikit fantasy, is starting to come together. After the big battle which ended the previous book, and actually resolved very little, book three seems to be mostly explanations of what might happen. Rand al’Thor has declared himself as the Dragon Reborn, and is afraid he’ll go mad from channelling the One Power (as has every other bloke who could since the Age of Legends). But he’s determined not to be controlled by the Aes Sedai, or rather the small group of Aes Sedai who actually believe he is the Dragon Reborn. So he’s run away to Tear, partly driven by bad dreams and partly by the onset of madness caused by using the Source. The three young women, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve, are on their own adventure – approved this time – to find the escaped Black Ajah, who have gone to ground in Tear. Moiraine, Lan, Loial and Perrin are hot on Rand’s tail, but having adventures on their own. And Mat, cured by the Aes Sedai, has been sent to Caemlyn to deliver a letter to the queen, but then heads for Tear after overhearing a plot to murder Elayne… In other words, the plot is eighty percent travelogue, with plenty of history lessons, before everything comes to an explosive head in Tear in the final chapter. Nynaeve’s constant tugging of her braid is getting really fucking annoying. Rand is pretty much a blank, chiefly because his viewpoint appears very little – amusingly, the Wikipedia describes The Dragon Reborn as “unique at the time” in the series because of this. It’s the third book in the series, FFS. Anyway, The Dragon Reborn is a definite improvement on the preceding two books, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I can see why people became invested in the Wheel of Time as this is the first book of the series which actually feels like part of a series. And that’s not just because the end clearly slingshots into the next book. It’s like the setting is starting to develop a third dimension. That doesn’t stop it from being 75% identikit, but it’s like that tilt-shift thing where a flat backdrop sort of refocuses and… Hmm, isn’t that effect used in the opening credit sequence of Game of Thrones? Anyway, next up: The Shadow Rising. Although I think I will continue with my Dune reread before tackling it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135

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Reading diary 2018, #15

I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (although his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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It’s been over 100 days since my last…

There are probably people somewhere on this planet who believe that if you read too many books, you’ll go to Hell. Or maybe it’s just if you read the wrong sort of books. You know, ones with talking rabbits in them or some such. Being a complete atheist, I have no such fears on that score. Anyway, it’s been almost a quarter of a year since I last did a book haul post, and as you can see below the collection has grown somewhat in the interim. Some books were purchased purely for research purposes (honest), and some of them will be paying only a short visit as they go straight back to the charity shop once I’ve read them. And despite the latter category taking up more and more of my reading, the number of books in the house still seems to keep on rising. It’s a puzzle.

Books for research and for the space collection. Space Odyssey and Space Odyssey Mission Report were published to accompany the excellent BBC mockumentary of the same title. I bought them cheap on eBay to help with the Apollo Quartet. Promised the Moon is also for research, but specifically for the third book of the Apollo Quartet, And Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I’ve had a copy of Virtual Apollo for several years, but Virtual LM went out of print very quickly and was almost impossible to find. And then just recently new copies started to pop up in various places for £20. So I snapped one up. (I see there is currently a single used copy for sale on Amazon for… £1,965.00!) Countdown joins the astronaut bios section of the Space Books collection. And Caper at Canaveral! is also research; er, honest. I saw it on eBay and couldn’t resist it. I shall, of course, review it once I’ve read it.

Two more additions to the SF Masterworks collection: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which I must admit to not having an especially high opinion of; and Odd John, which I’ve never read. Extreme Architecture I bought a) because it looked really interesting, and b) as research for the Apollo Quartet. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind I stumbled across after reading Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces (see here) and finding its central premise fascinating.

Some books by women sf writers. The Kindly Ones (a popular book title, I have three with it), Carmen Dog and New Eves will all be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Principles of Angels I’ll review for Daughters of Prometheus.

First editions: Empty Space by M John Harrison, The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson, and – takes a deep breath – Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil by DG Compton. I reviewed that last many years ago under its alternate – and considerably shorter – title of Chronocules – see here.

Like many sf readers, I also enjoy a good crime novel on occasion. I read crime fiction less than I used to, however, much preferring literary or British postwar fiction these days. All three of the above authors I have read before in the past, but not those particular titles.

And speaking of science fiction… I’ve been meaning for ages to complete Benford’s quartet of Galactic Centre novels. I’ve had the first two for years – Great Sky River and Tides of Light – but recently bought the third, Furious Gulf. Once I have the fourth book, Sailing Bright Eternity, I may actually get around to reading them. Bug Jack Barron I found in a charity shop. Three Parts Dead I reviewed for Interzone. Yes, I know, an urban fantasy. You shall have to wait until the next issue to find out what I thought of it. Alt.Human is Keith Brooke’s latest. Wolfsangel I bought at Edge-Lit in July, and Mark signed it for me. Swiftly is from – cough cough – a charity shop, and Adam sent me the copy of Jack Glass (which he also signed; I shall treasure it, of course).

The Sensationist is the only book by the excellent Palliser I’ve yet to read. I like Liz Jensen’s novels, so I grab then whenever I see them in charity shops… as I did The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. The Piano Teacher and Jamilia are for my world fiction reading challenge – see here for my thoughts on the former. I became a fan of David Lodge’s novels when I was living in the UAE, and A Man of Parts was a fortuitous charity shop find. The Fear Index is a bit of light reading.

The Cleft and The Weight of Numbers I found in charity shops. For Your Eyes Only and Invisible Cities were swaps from I’ve read the Fleming – it is, of course, terrible, and some of the stories reach new depths in chauvinism.


Looking ahead

This year is almost over, but what will the new year bring? I already have more than a dozen titles from 2012 on my wish list. They are (in alphabetical order by surname of author):