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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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A weight of words

Yes, I know ebooks are a thing, and if I bought them my bookshelves – or indeed the floors of my flat – would not be groaning beneath the weight of so many hardbacks and paperbacks. But there’s something much more satisfying in owning a physical book, just as there is in the actual physical act of reading one. Plus, of course, I wouldn’t be able to do posts such as this one if I bought only ebooks…

2014-11-29 10.02.30

Another book for my postwar British women writers challenge – I’d enjoyed Jameson’s A Month Soon Goes, so I picked up a copy of The Road from the Monument. The Race is Allan’s first novel, and quite a few people are talking about it. The Luck of Brin’s Five and Cautionary Tales are both for SF Mistressworks and were bought from Porcupine Books.

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I finally managed to track down a hardback copy of Resplendent, so now I have the set. I’ve read the first two – I quite liked Coalescent, but was disappointed by Exultant. I was disappointed by Proxima too, but nonetheless I bought the sequel, Ultima. And I’ve long been a fan of Frank Herbert’s fiction, and while I probably have most of the contents of The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert in other collections, I fancied a copy of it.

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Both of these were bought for research for Apollo Quartet 4, although they’ll also join the Space Books collection. The Cape is a trashy novel about astronauts, by possibly the worst writer ever to have been published, Martin Caidin. And Stu Roosa, the subject of Smoke Jumper, Moon Pilot, was the CMP on Apollo 14, and also a member of the Group 5 astronauts selected in 1966.

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A pair of paperbacks – Octopussy & The Living Daylights because I’ve been working my way through the 007 books because I’ve no idea; and Mortal Engines because I’ve decided Lem is an author I should read more by.

2014-11-29 10.05.11

Some non-fiction. Sibilant Fricative I won in the Strange Horizons fund drive draw. Galactic Suburbia I’m using for research for Apollo Quartet 4. And I already have a first edition of A Mouthful of Air, but this new copy is signed (and it was surprisingly cheap too).

2014-11-29 10.05.53

Finally, a selection of first editions. A Man Lies Dreaming, which I think I might have seen mentioned on Twitter recently once or twice; January Window, the first in the Scott Manson series by the author of the Bernie Gunther novels; Betrayals, which features a superb pastiche of both Taggart and Jeffrey Archer, and I really want all of Palliser’s books in hardback; and a lovely slipcased Kerosina book, The Road to Paradise, a mainstream novel, which comes packaged with a short travel book, Irish Encounters.


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Women writing sf – critical works

Recently, I went through eBay and Amazon to see what critical works had been published on the topic of women writing science fiction (or feminism and science fiction, or feminist science fiction). I already had some books on the subject – In the Chinks of the World Machine, Partners in Wonder, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, How to Suppress Women’s Writing – but it seemed likely there were more such books than just those. And so there are.

These are the ones I’ve found so far. I’ve put them in order of year of publication.

Future Females: A Critical Anthology, Marlene S Barr, ed. (1981) The somewhat garbled description of this book on Amazon contains the following wonderful, if inelegant, line, “if the mere mention of the genre causes a ruffling of academic feathers, then relating [it] to women is analogous to placing all those simply ruffled feathers in front of a wind machine”. The book contains essays on feminist utopias, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula K Le Guin… and, er, Star Trek, and Alexei Panshin. Contributors include Joanna Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas, among others.

futurefemales

The Feminine Eye, Tom Staicar, ed. (1982) Subtitled “Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It”, this contains individual essays on Leigh Brackett, CL Moore, Andre Norton, CJ Cherryh, James Tiptree Jr, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Suzette Haden Elgin and Joan D Vinge.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983) This is not specifically about women writing science fiction, but it’s such an important piece of work about writing by women that I thought it worth mentioning. (Do you own a copy? If not, why not?)

Worlds Within Women, Thelma J Shinn (1986) This was published by the ever-expensive Greenwood Press, is subtitled “Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women”, and “examines some seventy novels by twenty-four women writers”.

In the Chinks of the World Machine, Sarah LeFanu (1988) Taking its title from James Tiptree Jr’s story ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, this book is split into two parts. The first analyses a number of sf works by women writers, and their place in the genre in the history, as evidence of LeFanu’s “thesis that science fiction is the ideal form for the fusion of feminist politics with the imagination” (from the back-cover). The second part contains individual essays on the works of James Tiptree Jr, Ursula K Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ.

chinksofworldmachine

Where No Man has Gone Before, Lucie Armitt, ed. (1990) This is a Routledge book, and has contributions by Lisa Tuttle, Gwyneth Jones, Josephine Saxton and Sarah LeFanu, on topics such as CL Moore, Katherine Burdekin, Doris Lessing, Mary Shelley, Hollywood science fiction and YA sf.

A New Species, Robin Roberts (1993) An overview of science fiction from a feminist perspective, albeit at an undergraduate level – according to Marleen S Barr in a review here. Barr also provides a few quotes from the book – I think this one is true and important, “Feminist science fiction exposes sexism and condemns female exclusion from science and science fiction”.

newspecies

Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, Jane L Donawerth & Carole A Kolmerten, eds. (1994) Contains a dozen essays on, among other subjects, Margaret Cavendish, Sarah Robinson Scott, Jane Gaskell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Naomi Mitchison, and Octavia Butler.

Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction, Jane Donawerth (1996) This appears to consist of three chapters: 1, Utopian Science in Science Fiction by Women; 2, Beautiful Alien Monster-Women – BAMS; and 3, Cross-dressing as a Male Narrator. There is also an epilogue, Virtual Women in Global Science Fiction, which covers non-Western women sf writers. There are some notes on the book on the website of sf writer Alison Sinclair here.

Future Females: the Next Generation, Marlene S Barr (1999) As the title suggests, this is a sequel work to Future Females: A Critical Anthology, covering topics which have arisen since 1981 – cyberpunk, postcolonialism, queer theory, and, er, Star Trek: Voyager, among others.

Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, Debra Benita Shaw (2000) If the excerpt provided on Amazon is any indication, this looks fascinating – with chapters on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Katherine Burdekin, CL Moore, Margaret St Clair, James Tiptree Jr and Marge Piercy.

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier (2002) An historical study of women, and the presentation of women, in science fiction – from 1926 to 1973, during the career of James Tiptree Jr, and among the books selected by the Tiptree Award.

battlesexes

Partners in Wonder, Eric Leif Davin (2005) This is subtitled “Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926 – 1965”, and is an historical analysis of the women who were published in genre magazines during science fiction’s early decades.

Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, Marlene S Barr (2006) Barr spreads a wider net – including film, and non-sf film, television programmes and a variety of both female and male writers – in order to present her case that feminist sf is better consider as feminist postmodern literature.

Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, Patricia Melzer (2006) Unlike other books on this list, this covers both film and literature – part one Part I covers Octavia Butler, Part II Alien Resurrection and The Matrix, and Part III is about Richard Calder’s Dead Girls trilogy and non-binary gender in Butler’s Wild Seed and Imago and in Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man.

Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction, Lisa Yaszek (2008) The cover illustration is of Jerrie Cobb standing in front of a Mercury capsule mock-up, and while the book appears to contain some inaccuracies regarding the Mercury 13, it also presents an interesting argument regarding the historical presentation and uses of science fiction by women writers.

Yaszek-Galactic

The Secret Feminist Cabal, Helen Merrick (2009) The book’s page on the Aqueduct Press website pretty much says all that needs to be said about this (click on the title).

Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Robin Anne Reid, ed. (2009) A series of essays which cover the historical contribution of women to genre fiction, from the Middle Ages through to 2005, and also branches out to cover “Heroes or Sheroes”, comics, genre poetry, games, “Feminist Spirituality” and WisCon.

The Past That Might Have Been, the Future That May Come, Lauren J Lacey (2014) Part of a long-running critical series, currently at 45 volumes, this is number 43. It has four chapters, covering: 1, Beastly Beauty and Other Revisioned Fairy Tales; 2, Tampering with Time in Historical Narratives; 3, Working through the Wreckage in Dystopian Fiction; and 4, Becoming-Alien in Feminist Space Fiction.

lacey

I’ve excluded books of science fiction criticism by women science fiction writers – such as, The Language of the Night, Ursula K Le Guin (1989); Deconstructing the Starships, Gwyneth Jones (1999); The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ (2007); In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood (2011) – as well as critical works on individual women science fiction writers – eg, On Joanna Russ, Farah Mendlesohn, ed. (2009); The Cherryh Odyssey, Edward Carmien, ed. (2004) – or even biographies / autobiographies of women sf writers – James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, Julie Phillips (2006); Better to Have Loved: the Life of Judith Merril, Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary (2004). Perhaps those are books for another post on another day.

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