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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reading diary 2020, #7

I used to be quite disciplined about making time to read, but since I’ve been working from home I’ve been finding it harder. Some books are easier to read than others, of course, and if I limited myself to those I might perhaps get more reading done. But I like difficult books, and I find them more rewarding to read. I just need to be a bit more, well, disciplined about making time to read them…

Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990, USA). This is the second book in the Arbai trilogy, although it might as well be a standalone as knowledge of the previous book, Grass, is not needed, and any references to it in this one barely affect your understanding of the story. I’m not entirely sure when it takes place – clues seem to suggest several thousand years after the events of Grass, although human society seems pretty much unchanged. Which is part of the problem. Tepper’s targets are plain – abundantly so – which means the societies she depicts have to hew closely to present day ones, or rather ones derived from those extant at the time of writing. And Tepper was never afraid to push something into implausibility in order to make a point. So, on the one hand, we have the peaceful agrarian settlements of Hobbs Land, who have found themselves building temples to alien gods (actually some sort of alien fungus), but since it makes them happy and productive, where’s the harm in it? Meanwhile the patriarchal sexist slave-owning violent (seriously, they couldn’t be made more worse) Voorstodders, inhabitants of a region on another planet of the system, have triggered the final stages of their plan to attain apotheosis by killing all the unbelievers. Tepper was not one for subtlety and there’s certainly an argument the sf audience is incapable of processing subtlety – just look at the current crop of genre award winners… For me, Tepper’s novel are like a brick in the face, but I’d sooner there were writers like her than the books appearing on award shortlists these days. I plan to read more Tepper. You should too.

Panic Room, Robert Goddard (2018, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s thrillers since stumbling across one of his books in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. They’re easy reads, and generally quite entertaining – although there’s always something about them that never quite fits together, as if they’re 90% of a well-plotted thriller. In this one, a newly-fired high-end estate agent is hired by his lawyer ex-wife to do a valuation on a billionaire’s retreat in Cornwall. He finds evidence in the house of a panic room, but it’s sealed. This somehow catapults him into a conspiracy involving the billionaire’s theft of huge amounts of money from the US corporation which bought his company, some secret project that has been running for years out of Switzerland, and the suspicious death by drowning of a teenage boy decades before… Goddard keeps the mystery going quite entertainingly for three-quarters of the book, but his resolution spirals off into the sort of science fiction no self-respecting sf author would use. Still, it’s a Goddard novel, you should know what you’re getting when you open the book.

A Sea-Grape Tree, Rosamond Lehmann (1976, UK). I’ve been meaning to try something by Lehmann for several years as she’s one of the more prominent British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. (She was also an anti-fascist.) I’m a big fan of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, who were active from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and Lehmann’s career covered pretty much the same period. But she also had a twenty-year hiatus between 1953 and 1976, and A Sea-Grape Tree was her first novel after that – and by all accounts something of a change of style, despite making use of characters from earlier novels… So perhaps it wasn’t the best book to choose as an introduction to Lehmann’s works. On the other hand, it was on offer. The novel takes place among the British expat community on a Caribbean island – and I use the term “expat” deliberately. I am myself a migrant, although I grew up as an expat. To me, the difference is plain: a migrant integrates, an expat does not. In A Sea-Grape Tree, it is the 1930s and a woman has recently arrived on the island and been accepted into the expat community there. It turns out someone she knew earlier in her life – the details of which are the subject of an earlier Lehmann novel – endear her further to the local expat community. This is a novel about larger-than-life characters and their interactions within a constrained community. It feels… weirdly like it was written at the time it is set, rather than 40 years later. I’ve no idea what to make of it, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be a complete change of style for Lehmann. I suspect I’ll have to read more by her. There were a number of British women writers active in the first half of last century who also agitated for women’s rights and/or against fascism, and how many present day writers can say the same? There’s a heritage to be proud of, and to build on. We should read more of those writers. I know I plan to.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (2019, Israel). Originally published in F&SF, but then as a stand-alone by JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. The story is set several centuries hence, after climate crash and wars have depopulated the earth. The narrator, who lives in, I think, what is currently Israel, is invited to New Atlantis, which proves to be an archipelago that was once the United Kingdom. Much of the story is a travelogue, but once she arrives in London, she’s taken to see the time-vault whose discovery prompted her journey. The story is filled with references to other sf works – including the chapter titles – but, to be honest, Tidhar has written better. For much of its length, the narrative feels like it’s treading water, holding off the reveal on what a “time-vault” actually is. Unfortunately, the path the story takes is well travelled, and while spotting Easter Eggs can be fun, it’s not enough to maintain interest. Tidhar seems to have three modes: genre piss-take, genre Easter Egg hunt, and the interface of Jewish and Nazi history. When he’s working in the first and last, he produces good material; less so the middle one.

Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). Major déjà vu reading this, as the first section is basically the novella The Enclave, which was published in 2017 and won the BSFA Award (I seem to remember voting for it, too). Three years later, and child slavery and human trafficking is not what I want to read about in a sf novel, but then Bridge 108 abruptly flips POV to that of an undercover immigration agent and we get some actual commentary on the world being described. I understand that to write from the POV of a child slave would mean the narrative accepting the situation – but it also normalises it. Science fiction, especially US science fiction, which this is not, I hasten to add, has an extremely bad habit of normalising the worst excesses of humanity in pursuit of “drama”. It’s s complete bollocks stance. If you write a fascist story with no commentary, you’re writing exactly what a fascist would write. Your personal politics are irrelevant. Charnock presents a UK in which refugees end up living illegally in “enclaves” alongside legal residents who do not have implanted chips, but then shows these enclaves are breeding-grounds of illegality and immorality. Sadly, too many people are like those fuckwits who voted for the Tories and now clap for the NHS. Or worse, voted for Brexit and now clap for the NHS – that £350 million a week would be fucking useful now, you hypocritical morons. British – and American – politics are perhaps extreme examples, but something similar exists in science fiction: authors saying, “look at me! I’m left-wing!” and then they write the most fascist space opera you could imagine. The genre is inherently right-wing, but they take it to excess. They’re a blight on the genre, and there are far too many of them and they’re far too popular. The Sad Puppies were right that the heart of science fiction had been colonised, but were too stupid that to see that it was their stories which had done so. They looked only at the politics of the writers. Had they based their argument on the politics of the stories, perhaps they might have kept their mouths shut.

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson (2018, USA). Robinson’s first book was first published in 1984, and there are many sf reviewers and voters these days who won’t read him for that reason. It’s true that Robinson writes a particular type of science fiction, but after nearly forty years he’s got pretty damn good at it. Better than some random debut author, anyway. Not every Robinson book has impressed me, although he has consistently produced work that I think speaks more to science fiction than many sf writers. Red Moon is… mostly a good sf novel. It reads, in parts, like off-cuts from the Mars trilogy. And the whole set-up does seem somewhat… accelerated for being set thirty years from now. Red Moon is definitely techno-utopian, and I’d sooner see sf like that than some jack-booted interstellar slavery space opera, which is all too sadly common these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise its vision or the points Red Moon makes. A US engineer who works for a Swiss firm delivers a qubit-entangled phone to the head of the Chinese settlement about the south pole of the Moon. Except the Chinese official dies seconds after meeting the engineer, who himself is rendered seriously ill, and he’s charged with murder by poison. It’s all about factions within the Chinese government, and partly related to the daughter of one minister who is the figurehead of a movement to seek justice for internal migrants within China. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, mostly to do with China’s recent history and its government; but there’s also a lot about the colonisation of the Moon – not just by the Chinese, but also the Americans and a group of techno-utopian freethinkers who run their own lunar colony (whose precepts I don’t think actually work because they rely on defined identities). I think Robinson’s timeline for the novel is somewhat unrealistic, although I can see how his story forced him into that situation. And I can disagree with the political arc of the story. I likely can’t say this enough: Red Moon is a novel about politics, and the politics in the novel are laid out for discussion. Unlike far too many sf novels where the politics is baked into the world-building, and a rejection of the politics is by definition a rejection of the entire novel. Red Moon is not the best novel Robinson has written, but is ample demonstration of why his novels are worth reading. Each new one has added something to the genre ur-conversation, whether you like them, or agree with them, or not.


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Reading diary 2020, #1

I think I’ll continue with this format, documenting the books I’ve read half a dozen at a time. But this year, I’m going to write up each book shortly after finishing it. At least, that’s the plan…

The Man in the Darksuit, Dennis R Caro (1980, USA). I picked this up from Fantastikbokhandeln, a secondhand genre bookshop that opened recently here in Uppsala. I’m not sure what prompted me to purchase it. The cover boasts an approving quote from Philip K Dick, but I’ve never really a fan of Dick’s writing. So it can’t have been that. The title sounded intriguing, but the backcover blurb reads more like the book is a piss-take… undercover reporter saves heiress from kidnapper and so uncovers galactic conspiracy, in the sort of language that implies it’s all very funny and witty and tongue-in-cheek. And it’s not, it’s really not. It reads a bit like Ian Wallace and a bit like Ron Goulart, and neither of those are really writers to admire. The titular character is the villain of the piece and his suit bends light around him so he’s effectively invisible. But the novel is more concerned with failed reporter Bos Coggins, who seems to have had a surprisingly successful career for a “failed” reporter, and Muffie Bernstein, the heiress he “rescues” in the opening chapters and who takes a shine to him and pretty much drives the plot thereafter. I have to wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when they chose to buy and publish this book. I mentioned Ian Wallace earlier, who had a career through the 1960s and 1970s, but whose novels at least made an effort at discussing science-fictional ideas and in fact used the genre as a springboard for a discussion on all manner of subjects. The Man in the Darksuit is a an attempt at farce, and while it shows a familiarity with sf tropes, it chooses to pastiche more general tropes, which renders its presentation as sf pretty moot. It is also clearly so popular, not a single secondhand copy is for sale through Amazon. A book to avoid.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005, USA). Scalzi is something of a lightning rod for science fiction and, while I find very little to disagree with in his public persona and what he chooses to champion, he’s no poster-boy for the best of what the genre can produce, and has, in fact, built a career on resolutely commercial science fiction of a type that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with 21st century sensibilities. Of course, science fiction is global, but Scalzi’s version of it is entirely parochial. And that’s woefully evident here. Old Man’s War is about a middle-class old man in Middle America who chooses to throw it all away – a comfortable retirement, that is, and eventual death; not that everyone, even in the US, gets the first – in order to fight for the Earth Federation in some sort of undefined war. And “undefined war” is the key to this novel. The protagonist, John Perry, knows nothing about the universe beyond Earth, or indeed what he’s signing up for by joining the Colonial Defense Force. His ignorance about the universe – imposed on Earth, incidentally, by the authorities – is the average American’s ignorance about planet Earth writ large. It turns out humanity is one of many races settling the galaxy – the science and background of which are hand-waved away quickly – but that has led to competition for habitable planets and Earth is in a war to maintain its own colonies. All of which are apparently only populated by emigrants from “developing” countries such as… Norway. Er, what? I mean, even imagining a programme in which India and Bangladesh only are allowed to send settlers offworld because, by implication, they’re failing as Earth-bound nation-states, but the US is not allowed to because… Present history, and orange buffoon in the White House, aside… even in 2005 this was a bad take. Old Man’s War is US exceptionalism writ large. And it doesn’t get any better. Characters lecture one another – the lecture on orbital elevators is dull and irrelevant – and then a love interest is – literally – manufactured, and this is used to drive the second half of the plot, despite somewhat dubious ethics. However… Old Man’s War has an engaging voice, and its story must have felt so comfortable to US sf readers of 2005 they probably wondered why they hadn’t read it a dozen times before in previous decades… Sadly, the book’s charm does not cross the Atlantic. It’s a bit like a Big Mac, a triumph of marketing over content, something that non-Americans see as an exemplar of US culture – or US sf culture, in this case – but Americans see as emblematic of culture as a whole, but of course there’s more to culture than just the US… Scalzi strikes me as a nice guy, I probably agree with 75% of his sensibilities, but that doesn’t make Old Man’s War a good book or worth recommending. It is, in fact, pretty awful. I won’t be bothering with the sequels.

Crimson Darkness, William Barton (2014, USA). I’ve been a fan of Barton’s fiction for many years – he’s American, by the way – ever since reading the collaborations he wrote with Michael Capobianco back in the 1990s. At one point, we were even corresponding. His last traditionally-published novel was 1999’s When We Were Real, and he has self-published ever since. On the one hand, this is almost a crime as he’s one of the best sf novelists the US has produced; on the other, Crimson Darkness is pretty much unpublishable in its current form… I’m describing it badly. Crimson Darkness is an excellent sf novel. It’s also a much harder read than most sf readers will accept. It’s a bravura piece of world-building, it takes no prisoners, and so creates a narrative that bounces from obtuse to obscure. No traditional publisher would touch it in its current form, but by self-publishing Barton allows us to decide for ourselves. This is complicated by a number of issues: one, it’s a big novel, 200,000 words; two, it’s the first in a series of, to date, three novels, with possibly more to come; and three, it’s supposed to be backed up by an online reference, particularly for the conlangs used in the novel, but that online reference is still “under construction”. I can’t fault Barton for his ambition, or indeed for failing to meet those ambitions. Been there done that, myself. Crimson Darkness is part Bildungsroman and part Secret-of-the-World story. A prince of a defunct kingdom bounces around various nations, gets embroiled in revolutions, witnesses great social and industrial change, but is also puzzled by the nature of his world. There’s a lot of discussion of the conlangs Barton has invented for the series, a lot of descriptive prose, which Barton does well (despite a tendency to use “it’s” when he means “its”), and an astonishing amount of detail in the worldbuilding. This is what Neal Stephenson should be like. As I said earlier, a bravura piece of worldbuilding. But also an engaging narrative. I’ve been aware of Barton’s self-published novels for a number of years, but they were only available on Kindle and until last year I didn’t have one. I now have access to a whole bunch of stuff he’s published since When We Were Real (since re-published by Barton himself in a preferred form), including preferred versions of earlier traditionally-published novels. His works are not easy reads, not the simplistic deathless prose and well-worn tropes of the more successful self-published sf authors. Obviously. I wouldn’t be reading them if they were. But for those who like intelligent sf, this is the real stuff.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (2018, USA). I received a copy of this as part of the Hugo Voters Pack as it was shortlisted for the award in 2019. (I didn’t read it in time to vote, but I don’t vote anyway – why should I vote for the least worst of half a dozen books I don’t think are any good?). I’ve not read anything by Novik before – she was the GoH at IceCon 2 in 2018 in Reykjavik, which I attended, but her best-known series, the Napoleonic wars and dragons one, is not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Spinning Silver, and the earlier Uprooted, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016, were, I understood, retellings of fairytales, and while that does appeal to me a great deal more, it’s a genre that’s very much in the shadow of Angela Carter, a writer I greatly admire. Having said that, it’s a genre open to many different approaches, and one that’s good at reflecting the concerns of the time, and place, it was written. And so it proves with Spinning Silver, which actually bears little resemblance to the Rumpelstiltskin story on which it is supposedly based. The story is told – chiefly – from the viewpoints of three young women – and, to be fair, on the occasions when it uses other viewpoints, it weakens the story, if they’re necessary it’s because plot. Anyway, one is the daughter of a moneylender, who takes over her ineffectual father’s business, and proves very effective at it, and is only identified as Jewish a quarter of the way into the novel. Another is the plain daughter of a local earl who is unlikely to marry well. And the third is the abused daughter of a farmer who becomes the servant of the moneylender’s daughter… And the moneylender’s daughter – although she’s pretty much the moneylender by this point – attracts the interest of the Staryk , who are sort of winter elves, and Novik builds her story, which isn’t much of a retelling out of these three young women, and it works really well. If there’s a flaw to the novel, it’s that it feels like its story should be an allegory – but the Jewish experience, although it takes a while to be revealed, is explicit in the narrative – and so you have to wonder what point Novik is trying to make if it’s not about the treatment of Jews in Slavic Europe (which the book’s world is a thinly-veiled version of), or indeed Europe entire. Which is not to say the book has to be about that, or that there’s an expectation it is… it’s just that retellings of fairytales generally carry a different payload to the original fairytale, and in Spinning Silver that’s not actually apparent. Nonetheless, worth reading.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019, USA). I will not be surprised if this appears on a few shortlists later this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book, merely that’s it’s being pushed a lot… and being talked about a lot. However. Plot first. The Teixcalaani Empire asks Lsel Station, a small space-based polity on the edges of the empire, for a new ambassador. It seems the old one has died – murdered, the new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, discovers shortly after arrival on the Teixcalaani capital world (which is one giant city). It turns out there’s a bit politicking going on, both on the capital world and on Lsel Station, none of which Dzmare is aware of, even though she should be carrying an “imago” of her predecessor, ie his memories and a copy of his personality, in her own head. First, a popular general is trying to seize the throne. Second, Lsel Station is trying to prevent impending annexation. Third, the Teixcalaani emperor is trying to safeguard his succession, using Lsel imago technology. And, on top of all that, it turns out there are powerful aliens lurking out past Lsel Station and Lsel wants the empire to keep it safe from them. With all that going on, it comes as something of a surprise to find that A Memory Called Empire spends more time on interiority than it does on plot or action. Or on worldbuilding – and there is a lot of worldbuilding. And it is, in the main, done quite well – except all the Teixcalaani words in the prose are italicised. Who still does that? Italicising non-English words in an English text is so twentieth-century. The end result reads a lot like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, albeit without the advantage of being first or using Leckie’s default gender trick – but fans of that trilogy will no doubt love this novel. The publisher seems to think fans of Le Carré and Banks will love it too, but comparisons to their oeuvres is one hell of a stretch (Dzmare could be a character name from a Culture novel, but that’s about it). In A Memory Called Empire‘s favour, it has a remarkably low bodycount for a space opera, in the high three figures. Space opera as a subgenre relies heavily on well-used tropes and worldbuilding-blocks (to coin a phrase), but there is also one type of space opera that makes a feature of its worldbuilding. A Memory Called Empire falls into the latter category. That makes it interesting, and a better read, than the majority of space operas, but it’s also plain most of the book’s energy has been invested in the worldbuilding… and the romance which forms the emotional core of the novel. As a result the science-fictional elements feel paper-thin – the infrastructure of the capital city, for example, is supposedly controlled by an AI, but the book presents this as little more a big computer, and the controlling “algorithm” for the AI even forms a minor unconvincing subplot. The central murder-mystery isn’t actually much of a mystery – the murderer confesses freely to Dzmare, knowing he won’t be prosecuted – and the offstage threat is so far offstage it only seems to impinge on the plot when the writer remembers it. This is a novel that is essentially all about the worldbuilding. The writer clearly revelled in it, and hopes the reader will too. And, in general, they’ve done an excellent job. A Memory Called Empire is not a great novel, or arguably a good novel, but it is the first novel – long overdue – in a form of space opera which needs to be more prevalent. It is an example of a model of space opera which could have appeared in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and would have made space opera a better subgenre, but which was pretty much squashed at the time. Instead of The Risen Empire or Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, we’ve ended up with the Expanse and assorted clones. Sigh. A Memory Called Empire won’t make any of my award shortlists, but I’d sooner it was a typical example of 21st century space opera rather than something worth remarking on…

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). I had wanted to buy a copy of this at the Worldcon in Dublin last August, but the handful of copies available in the dealers’ room had gone by the time I went to buy one. Fortunately, I recently found a copy in The English Bookshop here in Uppsala (albeit for somewhat more money). I’ve read most of Tidhar’s fiction – perhaps not all of the short stories, but there are so many of them, but certainly the longer works, especially the novels. So the self-referential elements of Unholy Land came as no real surprise, although the extent of them does feel greater than usual. So much so, in fact, that one important plot point, I think, is based on the first Tidhar story I ever read, some fifteen years ago, and whose title escapes me, but it was about a person browsing Hebrew pulp novels and stumbling across a novel which should not exist, or something. Which is, sort of, a fair description of Unholy Land itself. The starting premise is that Europe’s Jews accepted the British government’s offer of a homeland in east Africa (an actual historical suggestion, but the Zionist Congress rejected it in favour of historical Israel, although the first Aliyah to Palestine took place forty years prior to the Balfour Declaration). The novel is set in the 1980s, and the Jewish homeland, Palestina, is under constant attack by the African tribes who once lived in the territory it now occupies. The irony is thick here. A Jewish writer of pulp detective novels, resident in Berlin, returns to his home in Palestina on a visit. Except he has not been living in the Berlin of the same history as Palestina, and there is in fact a multiverse of alternate realities which can be accessed by certain people – in the writer’s case, unconsciously – and something is happening which jeopardises Palestina’s alternate reality… Not only does Unholy Land offer some seriously good worldbuilding and alternate history, but it also goes all meta and begins to deconstruct its own story from within its narrative. That’s so cool I’ve even done it myself. Tidhar has said he considers Unholy Land one of the best piece of work he has produced – so far – and though I take everything he says with a pinch of salt, having known him for several years, he may well be right in this case. It’s surprising how few awards picked up on Unholy Land. Well, no, it’s not really surprising – popular vote genre awards these days are entirely tribal and no longer fit for purpose, and Unholy Land is a genuinely good book.


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Raising steam in Copenhagen

Last weekend was Fantasticon, a Danish sf convention which has been running since 2004. This year the theme was Steampunk, and the two Guests of Honour were Jeanette Ng and Lavie Tidhar. It was also my second time at Fantasticon, as I went last year (see here).

The journey didn’t start well. At the railway station, no platform was given on the concourse display for the 7:08 train to Manchester Airport. Fortunately, five minutes before it was due to arrive, someone spotted a hand-written sign on the information desk which said it was arriving at platform 6. So I headed to platform 6… only to watch another train to pull in. The Manchester Airport train was now at platform 8. I had a seat booked on coach E, but when the train appeared it only had three coaches: A, B and C. FFS. So the train was packed and all seat reservation were null and void. The train also ended up stuck behind a slower train, so it was soon running ten minutes behind schedule.

Thank you, Conservative governments, for fucking up our railways so comprehensively.

The timing was tight, and if there were a massive queue at security at the airport I’d have to rush to catch my flight. And then I looked at the boarding card I’d printed out the night before… It read 12:35, not 10:15. When I’d bought my ticket months earlier, it had said 10:15. Which was why I’d booked a ticket for the 7:08 train. When I checked the Opodo website a few days earlier, it had said 10:15. I checked the SAS website. It said 12:35. Apparently, they’d rescheduled the flight and not bothered telling me. Oh well. At least it meant it didn’t matter if my train were 10 minutes late. On the other hand, I’d have three hours to kill in Manchester Airport…

I reached the airport and was directed to the security check-in in the basement. The usual one was closed for all except “fast track” passengers. I asked one of the security officers why the usual one was closed. Was it being refurbished? He laughed. Refurbished? Manchester Airport? Ha. No, it was only because it got too busy so they introduced a second security check-in downstairs. The usual one would be open later. I for one am glad they put us through all the security rigmarole. After all, think of the bombers they’ve managed to catch– oh wait, they haven’t caught any. On the other hand, they did fail to catch two bombers…

Happily, the plane stuck to the new time. It wasn’t SAS, however. I noticed the signs in the aircraft were in English and… Icelandic? Apparently not. It was Faroese. The aircraft was operated by Atlantic Airways, the national carrier of the Faroe Islands. They have an Airbus 319 and two Airbus 320s. So I have now flown on a third of their fleet…

I was sat next to an old Australian couple, who were flying to Copenhagen to join a Baltic cruise. They were due to visit Talinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm. They had, they told me, plenty of euros. You’ll need more than that, I told them…

This year, I’d booked a room in a hotel in Frederiksberg, 250 metres from the con venue, the Serapion Order (the same venue as last year). That proved a tactical error, as it was a 1 kilometre hike from the central railway station to the hotel. With a heavy bag. And it was pissing it down when I arrived. Still, the Hotel Sct. Thomas proved very pleasant (and convenient), although the soft-boiled eggs on Saturday morning looked like they’d only been shown a pan of boiling water…

Fantasticon seemed more, well, in evidence this year than last. The downstairs hall contained far more dealers, and there seemed to be more attendees – there were reportedly 119 in total, almost twice as many as last year. Obviously, I knew more people – not just Danish fans, but also Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. And another Brit beside myself (and the two GoHs, of course, and partner). And even an American, although he lives and works in Finland. This was good, but it did mean I attended few programme items since there was always someone to hang out with. So, name-check time: Sanna, Fia, Thomas, Jukka, Bente, Sidsel, Eva, Knud, Johan, Edmund, Paul, Einar, Rolf, Dom, Carolina, Flemming, Klaus, Lise, and if I’ve forgotten anyone I apologise profusely. As for the programme, well, I’m not a steampunk fan, so I wasn’t especially interested in it. But who goes to cons for just the programme, eh?

On the Friday night, a group of us went for a meal, arranged some days earlier, to a seafood restaurant near Nørreport, called Musling. Some of the group had oysters, but I’ve never been a fan. I’ve heard them described as like “licking snot off a tortoise’s back” and that seems about right. I had ceviche for starter and monkfish for main, and it was very nice. I saw some Danes at a nearby table with a massive dish that looked like something out of Lovecraft, all hard jointed legs and antennae. After the meal, it was back to the con. The bar closed at eleven, so I took Lavie to the famous Mikkeller bar. But his idea of a good beer is apparently Carlsberg, so he wasn’t impressed. After a couple of beers there, we went looking for somewhere else, and ended up in Dudes on Vesterbros Torv, which was strangely deserted for one am on a Friday night.

Saturday was more of the same: sitting around in the Serapion Order, drinking the cheap bottled beer – and good beer it was too – and chatting to friends. The bar also served food, so I ate there for lunch. That evening, it was the banquet, which again was lactose-free. This time, they had it in the main hall on the first floor. And it was a lot more, well, Danish. Not the food – which was excellent, incidentally – but the fact that people would stand up at intervals during the meal and speak. Or sing. Yes, filk. Karl-Johan Norén led the filking. Including some song, sung to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which used the phrase “bouncing potatoes”. It is still stuck in my head. Both Lavie and Jeanette gave speeches. Then Jeanette was persuaded to sing. It was some pirate song with lyrics composed entirely of obscene double entrendres. After the banquet, a group of us head for Dudes. I left the bar around one-ish. I wasn’t the first to leave, and I wasn’t the last.

I gave breakfast a miss on Sunday, I felt rough and had a bit of a lie-in. I had a plan, you see. I was going to grab myself a fruit juice and a sandwich and a bottle of water (as I’d managed to lose the one I bought in Manchester Airport). But I obviously wasn’t braining very well. The nearest supermarket was a Føtex. I found the fruit juice, and even a dairy-free cold coffee drink (it proved to be vile), but I couldn’t find the sandwiches and I completely forgot about the water. And when I tried to use the self-scan machine, it wouldn’t let me use my card, so I paid in cash, took my change… only to have a guy run after me because I’d left a 50 kroner note in the machine. Doh.

Despite having a bowl of chilli in the con venue, I accompanied some friends for lunch, and we ended up in a tapas – I think – bar. During the hunt for somewhere to eat, I discovered my favourite Danish word, blækspudder, which means octopus but translates literally as “ink squirter”. The bar served “orange wine” but I stuck to beer…

Sunday afternoon, Fantasticon hosted the Niels Klim Prisen for children’s fiction – genre I think – and the con had invited a class from a school to participate. So there were kids everywhere. At one point, one of the nominated writers approached myself and a few others who were sitting an chatting in the lounge to ask us about fandom. We admitted we were from several countries, that some of us had last seen each other at Swecon in Stockholm, that some of us would see each other at Icecon in Reykjavik… It feels weird to be included in this group, given I’m not actually a Nordic fan. True, I have a family connection to Denmark and I’ve visited the country about a dozen times. And the first Swecon I attended was in 2013… leading one Swede to wonder why I didn’t speak the language, until I pointed out I had spent less than a fortnight in elapsed time in Sweden… But, to be fair, I’ve been picking up bits and pieces of the language, although I do need to make a concerted effort to learn it. However, post-Brexit, once “Fortress UK” comes into effect when we lose our Freedom of Movement throughout the EU and all the flights to and from the UK are grounded, well, I may not be so regular an attendee to Nordic cons… I hope I’ll still be able to attend them, of course, but…

Thank you, Conservative government, for fucking up our economy and our future so comprehensively.

Fantasticon ended at five o’clock on the Sunday. Most went home, but several of us headed for the dead dog party in Cafe Asta in Valby, which entailed a ten-minute bus ride. Copenhagen public transport operates a similar system to London’s Oyster card (it may predate Oyster, I’m not sure). I have a Rejsekort because I visit Copenhagen regularly, but others didn’t. So I dug into my pocket, pulled out a handle of Danish coins and handed them across.

The dead dog party was fun. It wasn’t warm enough to sit outside, as it had been last year, but then Fantasticon this year took place later in the month. People slowly disappeared as the night progressed, until there was less than half a dozen of us left, including the GoHs, both of whom were staying in the hotel attached to Cafe Asta. I asked the cafe to order me a taxi. I think it was only about midnight, but I’m not sure.

The following morning, I hiked it from my hotel, with heavy bag, to the central railway station, and caught a train to Skodsborg, where my sister picked me up. She lives in a small town nearby – although they’re not really towns: Zeeland north of Copenhagen is pretty much suburbs all the way up to Helsingør, although many have town-centres, such as Lyngby, Holte and Nærum. I spent the Monday relaxing, well, recovering from a weekend of drinking.

On the Tuesday, my sister took me to see the Tekniske Museum in Helsingør. It’s in an old hangar, and contains a number of cars and aircraft, and the Soyuz capsule in which Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen returned from the ISS after a ten-day stay. As well as the Soyuz, there is a Sikorsky S-55, a Lockheed F-104, a Saab Draken, a Caravelle, a Dakota DC-3, the wreck of a Blohm & Voss BV 138 flying boat discovered in the Øresund when they were building the bridge to Sweden, an early outside broadcast TV van from Danmarks Radio, a number of electric cars, some other early jet fighters, and, apparently, as I missed it, DASK, the first Danish computer.

I love shit like that, especially when you can climb all over the exhibits, as you could at the Tekniske Museum. The Caravelle was a bit old and tired, as was the DC-3, the Draken was missing its engine and the F-104 had half of its control panel removed… I mean, it’s great seeing these things “in the flesh”, as it were, but I’d sooner they looked as they had done when they were actually in use.

After the Tekniske Museum, we drove into Helsingør, got a bite to eat in a cafe in the town centre, and then walked out to the Søfart museum. This has been built in an old drydock below ground, and to reach the entrance you walk down a ramp crossing the drydock from one side to the other and back again. The museum itself is arranged in a downward spiral underground around the drydock, and covers Denmark’s maritime trade. There are lots of models of ships, as well as film clips and artefacts from more than two hundred years of cargo transport by sea. It’s fascinating stuff, if not as visceral as clambering over and around helicopters and supersonic jets or standing next to a flown Soyuz descent module.

I’d planned to head into central Copenhagen on the Wednesday, perhaps to visit Fantask or Faraos Cigarer. But in the end we drove into Lyngby for lunch and a wander round. Lunch wasn’t especially good, a steak sandwich in a cafe we’d visited several years previously – and why do Danes put pesto in all their hot sandwiches? At 5 pm, I caught the train to Copenhagen airport for my flight back to the UK. Which this time was a wet lease operated by Air Nostrum, a Spanish airline. It was a Bombardier CRJ100, a small 100-seater jet. Not the smallest airliner I’ve flown on, but not far from it. The flight was happily uneventful, the landing very smooth, and even Manchester Airport’s passport control was virtually empty. We landed thirty minutes late and it seemed like all the major routes across the Pennines were closed, but I got home around 11 pm. And went straight to bed.

Oscar returned from the cattery the next day, and has been following me around and copying me ever since. I give it a week before he’s back to his old tricks of demanding I fight with him and scratching everything in sight.


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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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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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Reading diary, #31

Been a while since the last one of these. I have been reading, of course, and I’ve even managed to get into the habit of polishing off a few pages when I get home from work. And now that Dayjob Horrible Project has moved into a slightly less frantic phase (but only slightly less), I can start getting some writing done… including those reviews I owe people… Meanwhile, here are some short paragraphs, that aren’t really reviews, about books I’ve read…

if_on_a_wintersIf on a winter’s night a traveller*, Italo Calvino (1979). You are reading a book which opens with the line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller,” and you think, sigh, metafiction. But this is Italo Calvino, and so you take the advice Calvino offers: “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought”– Hang on, every other? How will you know which ones to dispel and which ones to keep? And yet, it is perhaps sound advice as you read about a reader who reads a book only for his reading to be cut short, and when he goes looking for a complete copy of the novel he was reading he discovers he had been reading an entirely different book altogether… And at the book shop he meets a young woman who is also interested in this literary mystery he has uncovered, and together they discover yet a third novel mixed in with the previous two. But then he meets the young woman’s sister and becomes involved in her schemes… and at some point both young women end up in one of the narratives you are reading about him reading… And yet despite this literary shell game, where the narrative peas seem to proliferate out of sight under the cups, the whole is intensely readable and not in the slightest bit confusing. In parts it reminded me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, although without the prissiness. It certainly convinced me I should read more Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveller may be one long literary trick, but it’s gloriously done. Bravo.

gorelGorel and the Pot-Bellied God, Lavie Tidhar (2011). And from the sublime to, er, Tidhar. This is the first of his “gunpowder fantasies”, which I take to mean generic heroic fantasies but with firearms. (Obviously the guns and bullets and gunpowder are all made by magic, as fantasy worlds rarely have an industrial base.) Gorel travels to Falang-Et, the home of a frog-like race, in order to steal their most sacred magical object (not that he knows exactly what it is). En route, he meets up with a bird-like man and a fish-like woman, and the three join together for the theft. Which doesn’t go quite as planned. Of course. That’s the nature of these sort of story. The setting hovers on the edge of strangeness and familiarity. I’m not that widely read in this type of fantasy, or New Weird, but I think there’s a bit of Lovecraft in there somewhere; and probably some Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson, for all I know. Whatever it is, the combination is pretty effective. The book’s novella-length works in its favour too, although the prose is occasionally a little too light on detail. It’s still not my thing, but I did enjoy it.

technopriestsThe Technopriests Supreme Collection, Alexandro Jodorowsky, Zoran Janjetov & Fred Beltran (2013). Originally published between 1998 and 2006, the eight-book bande dessinée series collected in this omnibus follow the fortunes of Supreme Technopriest Albino, and his two siblings, as he rises through the technopriest hierarchy while the other two track down the three pirates who raped their mother and so fathered them. The story is framed as Albino’s reminiscences during a journey to lead 50,000 technopriests to a new home in a distant galaxy. When the three were born, the mother rejected Albino and his four-armed red-skinned sister Onyx, and lavished all her affection on grey-skinned Almagro. She started up a business making “kamenvert” cheese, which became a galactic monopoly. But Albino wanted to be a videogame creator for the technopriests, only he proved to have much greater talent in that area than anyone had expected… This is not Moebius – the art is gorgeous, but all the characters are somewhat pumped up, so to speak. Happily, Jodorowsky’s off-kilter inventiveness is abundant. Although it takes a few twists and turns, it’s a more straightforward morality tale than The Incal or The Metabarons, and in parts it does feel a little like it’s retreading ground already covered in those earlier series. But if you like Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées, you’ll like this one.

pavanePavane, Keith Roberts (1968). I’ve had this book for years – I collected the original SF Masterworks series as they were published – and was fairly sure I’d read it many years before. But having now read it (again?) I’m not so sure. I think I may have read a part of it as a short story – it’s a fix-up, after all. The central conceit has made it a touchstone work for an entire genre – alternate history or counterfactual stories. In Pavane, Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Duke of Medina Sidonia successfully invaded England. The book is set at the time of writing in a Catholic Britain which is technologically far behind the real 1968 – obviously because of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s handled well – society seems to be stuck in the late 1600s, and some areas of science and technology not much past then. The first chapter, for example, is about a steam-powered road train. There is also a chain of great semaphore stations stretching the length and breadth of the country, as electricity has not been discovered nor radio invented. I’ve certainly heard it said that the Catholic Church set back science in Europe by about a thousand years, but I’ve never seen it argued with any degree of intellectual rigour. True, Hero of Alexandria had his aeolipile in the first century CE, and all the work done by Islamic medics, mathematicians and astronomers was completely ignored by the Church… But Roberts’s premise needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, since quite a few places – like the Holy Roman Empire – remained under Roman Catholic influence for a long period and progressed pretty much at the same pace as everywhere else. Still, Roberts was one of British sf’s better writers, and if Pavane isn’t his best book, it’s still a good one. ‘The White Boat’ is worth the price of entry alone. Worth reading.

death_familyMy Struggle 1: A Death in the Family, Karl Ove Knausgård (2009). Yes, I know the cover the book spells it Knausgaard, but the proper Norwegian is Knausgård; and no, I don’t know why the publisher felt a need to “Anglicise” it, as it’s not exactly hard to write. But anyway. This is the first book in a six-volume autobiography – as I write this five volumes are currently available in English – although for some reason the series has been published as fiction. Knausgård, it seems, prefers the term “novel” because he wrote the books as if they were fiction, although they were based closely on his own life. Certainly it’s true the level of detail for something set thirty years ago suggests fiction more than reminiscence. A Death in the Family covers Knausgård’s teen years in Tromøya in southern Norway, his friends, the girls he fancies, his introduction to alcohol, and his difficult relationship with his parents. In the second half of the novel, Knausgård tries to come to terms with the death of his father, and the state his grandparents have fallen into since their son’s death. I’ll admit I found the level of detail fascinating, even though the story itself is mostly banal. And the weird distancing effect between adult Knausgård presenting his memories and the lack of self-awareness by the teen narrator made for an interesting juxtaposition. I think I’ll give the second one, A Man in Love, a go…

old_devilsThe Old Devils*, Kingsley Amis (1986). “Professional Welshman” Alun Weaver returns to his South Wales hometown after a career in London as a writer and poet and TV pundit. His old friends are in two minds about his re-appearance. And that of his wife, Rhiannon. Yet they welcome the pair pretty much with open arms, and some private bickering. And a lot of drinking. One of the good things about The Old Devils is that, on the one hand, the various characters are conflicted about the Weavers’ return; on the other, things quickly settle into what is clearly a well-established routine. A number of past events resurface and cause a few problems, but they seem to be resolved with a surprising lack of drama – in fact, the most dramatic scene is prompted by the pettiest of disagreements. There’s often some nastiness on display – and of all the characters, it’s the wives who are treated worst. One might almost suspect Amis was a misogynist – one wife is cruelly mocked by her friends, another has her character assassinated, and a third heartlessly abandons her husband. The men are old codgers and drunkards, and amusing at times, but The Old Devils‘ one-sidedness does get wearying as the novel progresses. I’ve no idea why The Old Devils is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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March madness

Well, not strictly March – after all, we’re less than a week into the month. Some of the following were bought during February. Obviously. So far this year I’ve managed to chip away at the TBR, by reading more books than I’ve bought each month… but I think I might have a bit trouble doing that in March. Especially since it’s the Eastercon at the end of the month… Oh well, never mind. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading them all. One day…

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Some first editions. I’m not a huge fan of Wolfe’s novels, but PS Publishing recently set up a discount website, and they only wanted £6 for a signed and numbered edition of Home Fires. That’s also where I bought Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God. For £4. Bargain. I recommend visiting PS2. Other Stories I’ve been eagerly awaiting for more than a year as I am a fan of Park’s writing. Murder at the Loch is the third of Eric Brown’s entertaining 1950s-set murder-mysteries. And my mother found J: A Novel for me in a charity shop.

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Aeroplanes… I’ve been picking up copies of Wings of Fame whenever I see good condition copies going for a reasonable price on eBay. Now that I’ve finally found a copy of Volume 9, I have eighteen of the twenty volumes. I’ve also been doing the same for Putnam’s Aircraft Since 19– series, although I forget why I began buying them in the first place. And with Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Since 1913, I now own sixteen of them. X-Planes of Europe and X-Planes of Europe II I saw on Amazon, and I’m fascinated by the aircraft designed during the Cold War which didn’t make it into production.

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Some of yer actual science fiction. Invaders is an anthology of genre fiction by literary fiction writers; I’m reviewing it for Interzone. Patchwerk was given to me by the author; I wrote about it here. The Price of the Stars I bought to review for SF Mistressworks (it has a male co-author, but that’s no reason to ignore it). Sargasso I found in a charity shop, and looks to be a techno-thriller potboiler about an Apollo mission. And finally, Aphrodite Terra is a thing at last – a paperback thing, that is; it’s been an ebook thing since the middle of December (although Amazon have yet to figure out the two editions are of the same book…).

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I bought a couple of these Anatomy of the Ship books as research for A Prospect of War back in the day, and ended up picking up copies whenever I saw them going cheap on eBay. Like The Cruiser Bartolomeo Coleoni and The Destroyer The Sullivans. I have more than a dozen of them.

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Finally, some translated fiction, some Malcolm Lowry, and a Lawrence Durrell. I read Munif’s Cities of Salt a couple of years ago and thought it very good, so I picked up the second book of the trilogy last year, and now I have the final one, Variations on Night and Day. I recently read Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, also part of the Canadian Literature Collection series, and the first time Lowry’s “lost” second novel had seen print. So I decided to get these two critical editions, also published in the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Literature Collection series – The 1940 Under the Volcano (I’ve read Under the Volcano, the final published edition, of course), and Swinging the Maelstrom (which I read under the title Lunar Caustic, but which was apparently a version cobbled together posthumously from a number of different manuscripts). Finally, Pope Joan is for the Durrell collection. Not an easy book to find in this edition.


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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.


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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.