My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. On the plus-side, I seem to be better at picking books I enjoy.
The Silent Multitude, DG Compton (1966, UK). After Gwyneth Jones, I would say DG Compton was likely the second-best sf writer the UK has produced. Except… His writing was a cut above what is typical for the genre, and his best work is among the top rank of British sf – and rather than being timeless, it makes a virtue of the fact it is tied to its time of writing – but… Compton’s range was somewhat narrow. He wrote many similar novels. And there are a number of other UK sf writers of the 1970s whose prose was perhaps not as good as Compton’s but who managed to produce more varied work. Which is not to say that Compton was never good, or that mediocre Compton is not a great deal better than some other writers’ best. The Silent Multitude is Compton coming into his voice, after a handful of years of writing crime novels as Guy Compton. A mysterious organism is spreading across the UK which dissolves mortar and reduces buildings to rubble in a handful of days. The “Sickness” has now reached Gloucester, a city completely rebuilt in the 1980s, which has now been evacuated. Except for the local dean, an old man who collects newspapers and lives alone among the tens of thousands he has collected, a twentysomething hoodlum who proves to be the son of the architect who designed the new Gloucester, and a twentysomething young woman reporter who is the daughter of the editor of the newspaper for which she works. (The mentions of a redesigned Gloucester reminded me not only of Portmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which I’ve only seen in photographs, but also the various plans to rebuild the city centre of Coventry and, of course, the precinct which eventually resulted.) The Silent Multitude is essentially these four characters witnessing the death of a city – the death of its buildings and infrastructure, that is; the people have already left – and while Compton is good on the descriptive prose and the characterisation, this novel doesn’t feature any of the narrative tricks he later used. The Silent Multitude is a slim work, ideas-wise, propped up by good prose, but that’s no bad thing as science fiction in general could do with upping its game prose-wise. Compton is good – bloody good, in fact – but this is nowhere near his best work.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss (2017, USA). Most of Goss’s short fiction that I’ve seen has been fantasy or reworked fairy tales, which is not really the type of fiction that interests me. But a year or two ago, she wrote ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, which was the sort of referential mash-up genre fiction that does appeal to me – and I thought it so good, I nominated it for the BSFA Award, but it did not make the shortlist – and it seems she has written more in a similar vein. Anyway, I saw mention of this, her first novel, and its premise – the daughters of various nineteenth-century fictional scientists team up to help Sherlock Holmes solve Jack the Ripper’s murders – sounded like it might be worth a go. And so it was. It is, in fact, very good. Except. Well, it feels a bit dumbed-down. I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel as clever a novel as its central conceit would suggest. It doesn’t help that Mary Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – is the main character but spends much of the plot tagging along behind Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the novel is explicitly presented as a narrative written by Catherine Moreau, often with interjections by the other women, and that works really well. It’s also quite funny. For a novel set in Victorian Britain, there are a few slips – the ground floor is continually referred to as the first floor; and some of the expletives are US English. Despite those minor quibbles, I enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and plan to pick up a copy of the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, when it’s published in July.
Author’s Choice Monthly 10: Tales from a Vanished Country, Elizabeth A Lynn (1990, USA). One day I will have all of these muahahah. Ahem. But for now, I have just over half of the series. Lynn was not an author known to me, so I came to this short collection cold. In the first story, a wizard runs a trading empire, and when his CEO, so to speak, betrays him, he imprisons him as water in the sea. Some time later, he frees him, because a rival wizard has been upsetting the balance of power. The two disguise themselves to visit the other wizard, but he sees through their disguises. Fortunately, after several months of drugged gaslighting, the CEO chap regains his senses, and the world is set right. So far, so consolatory. The second story, however, is anything but. Three sisters are noted for their beauty, intelligence and martial prowess. A mysterious woman appears and challenges them to combat. One accepts and is killed. Some time later, the mysterious challenger reappears, and this time the second sister is killed in combat. So the third sister hunts down the killer, who turns out to be an aspect of the Moon, and she becomes her lover. Years later, the sister decides to return to her family, but it seems decades have passed. But she stays and lives out her life, mourning her dead sisters and lost lover. The final story reads more like mythology than epic fantasy. A goddess entrusts command of the five winds to a reclusive astronomer who lives in a cave in the mountains. The goddess’s son decide to check this out, and becomes the woman’s lover. She has two girls, who grow faster than human girls. He leaves and steals the cloak the woman uses to command the winds. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the goddess returns. But the woman has disappeared and the two daughters are only just managing to survive. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Lynn before, and I have the impression I’ve seen her name chiefly on the covers of sharecropped novels… although checking on isfdb.org, I see that’s completely false and two of her three standalone novels are, in fact, science fiction. (The 1983 UK paperback edition of one has quite striking cover art.) The three stories in Tales from a Vanished Country are really good, which was completely unexpected. They make clever use of fantasy tropes, and are deeply feminist, even the first one which features no female characters. I think I’ll track down copies of those two science fiction novels…
Phosphorus, Liz Williams (2018, UK). This is the third novella of the third quartet of NewCon Press novellas, although the fourth book I read of the set. Not, I hasten to add, for any particular reason. It is subtitled “A Winterstrike Story’, and I have no objection to subtitles but I would like to point out that they are not titles. So when a data entry form has a field called “title”, it means title, not title and subtitle, not title and, as I have seen, “[random award] winner”. People complain about Big Data, but it would be much less of a problem if we didn’t have Shit Data. But that’s a rant for another day. I have read Winterstrike, but not the other books in the series. Neither is necessary to understand the story of Phosphorus, which, to be honest, isn’t much of a story. It’s extremely strong on setting – and Williams’s Mars is a fascinating place – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do much. A young woman with some mysterious quality is adopted by her mysterious aunt, who takes her from Winterstrike, which is under attack by another city, to the dead city of Tharsis. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Hunt – although she is dead, but animated by one of the Hunt’s starships – an alien race that saw its mission in life as “culling” other races, leaves her homeworld of Phosphorus, and eventually ends up on Mars. An event which, it transpires, happened centuries before the other narrative, and the young woman is in some way connected. And, er, that’s it. Pretty much. An interesting idea that’s not at all explored. It reads like the start of a novel. Nice writing, nice world-building, but disappointing plot.
Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon (2007, USA). Back in the day, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union appeared on several genre award shortlists, IIRC, and I read it and thought it quite good. So I stuck The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my wishlist and some years later was given it as a birthday present. And then I read it, an embarrassing number of years after that, and was much more impressed. And shortly after that I found a copy of Gentlemen of the Road in a charity shop, so of course I bought it. And… Chabon writes in an afterword that to him the novel (a very short novel) was always titled “Jews with Swords”. Because to him Jews had never been associated with swords – at least not since Biblical times. I’ve never attached a religion to a weapon – people with swords are people with swords, and I’ve never really thought about the religious tradition from which they came, perhaps because in most cases in fiction that tradition was invented, and for those where it was not the context more than explained it. But “Jews with Swords” gives us a Frankish Jew estranged from his European family, and an Ethiopian Jew from tribe that no other Jew seems willing to accept, on a mission which involves the Khazars, a Turkic state which converted to Judaism, but vanished after three centuries. The two unwillingly accept a commission to take a young Khazar prince, the last survivor of the family of a deposed bek (martial leader, a sort of government CEO to the kagan’s chairperson). But they lose him to some mercenaries, who are taking him to the new bek. Except the prince persuades the mercenaries to rally his cause, and sort of builds up an army from the Muslim Khazar cities in the south of the region which the new bek had let the Vikings plunder with impunity. And… well, the big secret about the prince is pretty obvious from about a page after he’s been introduced, and the only suspense is in wondering how the two main characters can be so dumb as to not figure it out. Having said that, the history is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and, while I find Chabon’s prose a bit hit and miss, the mannered style he adopts here works well with the story. I should read more Chabon. Fortunately, I have Wonder Boys on the TBR, picked up from a charity shop at the same time as Gentlemen of the Road…
Inside Moebius, Part 1, Moebius (2004, France). I came to Moebius’s work from Jodorwosky, as Moebius – Jean Giraud – illustrated Jodorowsky’s Incal series, still one of the greatest sf bandes dessinées of all time. Although, having said that, I seem to remember seeing parts of Moebius’s Airtight Garage many. many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, I used to fly out to the Middle East for holidays via Schiphol Airport, and in the bookshop there I would often pick up a copy of Heavy Metal or Epic, and even an issue of 1984 (which I had to hide once I’d discovered what it contained). I’ve a feeling that’s where I first encountered Moebius’s work. That’s all by the bye. I’ve been a fan of Moebius for many years now, so I keep an eye open for when new stuff by him appears in English (I could, I suppose, buy the original French editions, but I have enough trouble keeping track of new stuff in one language market, never mind doing it in two). Inside Moebius, originally published in in six volumes in France but now as three volumes from Dark Horse, is a sort of autobiographical private project that blossomed. Moebius wanted to give up smoking, so he started writing a bande dessinée about it, and then sort of dragged in the books he had worked on, or was currently working on, and his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Particularly politics. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in Inside Moebius, Part 1, as do some of Moebius’s characters – Blueberry, Arzak and the Major. The art is not as detailed as in other Moebius works, it’s almost sketches, in fact. But the way the book is designed, it’s clear the words are more important. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which have not translated but a helpful afterword explains them. (For the record, I did get the “Fumetti” one.) It’s all good stuff, although I could have wished for artwork as good as that in the aforementioned works.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131