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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

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Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

capture

The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

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To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.

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2014 reading diary, #1

This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.

lachlan-fenrir7Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.

minaretMinaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s earlier The Translator.

squarescityThe Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978). See my review on SF Mistressworks here.

violent-century-lavie-tidharThe Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.

breakdownBreakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the  TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.

Evening-empireEvening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…

therainforestThe Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.