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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.

starmanjones

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.

hear_us

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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One-liners

It’s been a while since I last noted here what books I’d read. Yes, I’ve given up on the readings & watchings posts, but I’d still like to record what literature I’ve consumed throughout the year. Here I shall attempt to do it in a single line per book (occasionally through the creative use of punctuation, I must admit).

A Torrent of Faces, James Blish (1967) Pleasingly detailed, somewhat dated, but a much more interesting sf novel than I’d expected.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005) Oof – worse than I’d expected (though I’ve heard the translation was rushed), but Blomqvist is a Gary Stu and the attempts to drag in references to the original title (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women) are hamfisted to say the least.

The Immersion Book of SF, Carmelo Rafala, ed. (2010) Small press anthology of, er, science fiction; some contents better than others, though nothing stands out especially.

The Ghost, Robert Harris (2007) Blair’s biographer is murdered so pro ghost writer is drafted in and discovers something rotten in the ex-PM’s career– oh wait, it’s not Blair, it’s a made-up politician…

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks (2008) Faulks does Fleming and makes a pretty good fist of it – also: a Caspian Sea Monster!

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961) Some astonishingly good novellas, some not so good short stories; planning to read more Lowry.

Islands, Marta Randall (1976) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

If the Dead Rise Not, Philip Kerr (2009) Bernie Gunther in Berlin after leaving the Kripo; and decades later in Cuba – and it’s all about corruption by US mobsters over building work for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Eastmodern, Herta Hurnaus (2007) Bratislava, home to some surprisingly interesting-looking Modernist buildings; as this book amply demonstrates.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Dulcima, HE Bates (1953) I read it but I’m not sure why it was written; apparently they made a film of it too…

The Maginot Line, Rob Redman, ed., (2012) Literary paperback anthology, contains some good stories, including one by a bloke called Sales.

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (1959). A bit like the film, but with added homophobia and sexism! – Bond turns ice-cold lesbian Pussy Galore into a warm and loving heterosexual with a good rogering; plus a half-page homophobic rant by 007.

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Oscar Niemeyer Buildings, Alan Weintraub (2009) Does what it says on the cover: lovely photographs of lovely buildings.

Building Brasilia, Marcel Gautherot (2010) Yet more lovely Niemeyer buildings – they should let Neimeyer design the entire world.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (1980) April’s book for my reading challenge; I wrote about it here.

Girl, David Thomas (1995) Man goes into hospital but through implausible mix-up gets vaginoplasty; played for laughs, manages some sensitivity, but definitely from the male gaze so nothing learned.

The Maquisarde, Louise Marley (2002) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012) Read for review in Vector; interesting approach to the central conceit, though a little muddled in execution.

Disguise for a Dead Gentleman, Guy Compton (1964) Actually DG Compton: murder most foul at a public school; some nice-ish writing but a bit all over the place structurally.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov (2004) Reviewed on A Space About Books About Space here.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (1972) Not a Moomin in sight, just grandma and granddaughter having fun and games among Finland’s islands; simple, elegiac.

Impact Parameter & Other Quantum Realities, Geoffrey A Landis (2001) Variable collection by Analog/Asimov’s stalwart; contains a couple of good ones, but a few are surprisingly poor given their initial publication venues.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Valerian 3: The Land Without Stars, Mézière & Christin (1972) English slowly catches up with famous French lightweight space opera bande dessinée series.

The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner (1969) Even in 1969, Brunner should have thought twice about this – a near-anarchic over-armed US with voluntary racial segregration; painfully, embarrassingly and datedly hip.

West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi (2009) Bande dessinée about a man who goes on the run after being mistakenly targetted by hitman; astonishingly nihilistic.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (2009) European history re-imagined with mermen, sort of; a slow start, drags even slower for the first third, then gets moving… and proved actually rather good.

The White Peacock, DH Lawrence (1911) His first novel: structurally weird and the viewpoint lacks rigour, but some lovely prose and it all feels very local to me; will definitely be reading more.

Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012) Read for review in Vector – sequel to Isles of the Forsaken (see here), and not quite the expected story; some excellent bits nonetheless, though the plot feels a little problematical.

Starship Winter, Eric Brown (2012) Third in a quartet of seasonal novellas set on the world of Chalcedony; shenanigans at an art exhibition; the weakest of the three so far.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore (2012) Third and last (?) in the Century series, which sees the League sort of re-unite to defeat a stoned Antichrist.

Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2007) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978) Published in 1978, from the characters’ ages would appear to be set in 1968, feels like it was set in 1958; Booker Prize winner, though felt far too long and flabby to me.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977) Collection of early short fiction with a patronising introduction by Terry Carr; will be reviewed on SF Mistressworks soon.

‘À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ & Other Essays, DH Lawrence (1961) English literature’s one true Puritan wibbles on about masturbation (bad), the right sex (good), marriage (sacrosanct!) and obscenity (“moi?”) – he really was a dirty old reactionary…

Griffin’s Egg, Michael Swanwick (1990) Novella about, er, a group of astronauts stranded on the Moon after a nuclear war on Earth – not an inspiration, honest; nor anywhere as good as I’d vaguely remembered it.


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World fiction reading challenge #4: So Long A Letter, Mariama Bâ

The more observant among you will have noticed there’s no third installment in this year’s reading challenge. That’s because March’s book was My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk and I got stuck about halfway into it. At some point I plan to return to it, but for now I’m giving it a rest. I can’t really say why I lost interest so comprehensively in the book, especially since its topic is something that normally interests me: Islamic history (albeit Turkish rather than Arabic). After reading Magda Szabó’s The Door in February, I wrote, “Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done.” Clearly, I spoke too soon…

Anyway, April’s book, which I read late, is So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, a Sengalese writer. In fact, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980, and was later called one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. So Long A Letter was originally published in French as Une Si Longue Lettre, and was Bâ’s first novel. It was also the only one she saw in print. She died in 1981, five years before her second novel, Scarlet Song, was published.

So Long A Letter is a short book of 95 pages. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher and the wife of Modou. He has just died and she is now in mourning. During this period, she writes to her closest friend, Aissatou, and recounts her life – much of which involves episodes involving Aissatou. The epistolary structure allows for greater intimacy, but the fact that Ramataoulaye is telling Aissatou of events which her friend herself directly experienced does seem to spoil the effect somewhat.

Though Ramatoulaye is an educated woman – Bâ herself had to fight her parents to be educated – I’m guessing much of her life is not atypical for a Sengalese wife and mother. Such as, for instance, her husband taking up with a younger woman and marrying her – in fact, not a “woman”, but a school friend of Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. Also, the declaration after the funeral by Modou’s brother that he will marry Ramatoulaye – ie, “inherit” her. She turns him down. Which is not typical. In fact, Ramatoulaye is adamant she will remain single now that she is widowed. When Daouda Dieng,a past suitor from before she married Modou, asks for her hand in marriage, she also turns him down. Neither the brother-in-law nor Daouda take their rejections well.

A lot of the novel concerns the family connections of the cast. Aissatou’s marriage was considered controversial because she came from a less affluent family than her husband. Likewise, when Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter wants to marry an impoverished student, friends of the family try to persuade Ramatoulaye to prevent it. Ramatoulaye, however, knows that her daughter loves the man, and that’s good enough for her.

There are one or two moments of outright racism:

Right from Form One, he had been top of his class in this subject; but this year for every capital letter forgotten, for a few commas omitted, for a misspelt word, his teacher knocks off one or two marks. Because of this, Jean-Claude, a white boy who has always come second, has moved up to first position. The teacher cannot tolerate a black coming first in philosophy. (p 76)

The story is filled with details of life among the Sengalese, both as Muslims and as Sengalese. At one point, Daouda delivers a lecture on the importance of true democracy in a newly-formed nation (Senegal gained independence in 1960), and though he rues the male dominance of the Assembly and admits they need more women in government, his suit to Ramatoulaye seems to expect a much more traditional “partnership”. There is also much about polygamy and its effect on women involved; not to mention their huge families – Ramatoulaye herself has twelve children.

So Long A Letter is, unsurprisingly, a very reflective novel, and it is likely it is partly auto-biographical. Though only a slim book, it does an excellent job of painting Ramatoulaye, her life and the society in which she lives. It’s a classic for good reason. I’m not so sure the story quite leads to the final paragraph – various incidents recounted in So Long A Letter demonstrate that Ramatoulaye has both witnessed the happiness of others, actively worked towards it for yet more, and even experienced it herself during the early days of her marriage:

The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter… (p 95)

So Long A Letter was a good choice for my reading challenge. I’m glad I read it. I might even one day have a go at Bâ’s other novel, Scarlet Song.