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… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #5

I’ve actually been reading a bit more than usual during these days of self-isolation, chiefly because my “commute” is a two-second walk from dining-table to sofa, and so the half-hour I’d spend on the bus, or walking, home I can now spend sitting comfortably and reading. And it’s been an odd reading selection in recent weeks. The five books below include an old sf novel I’ve wanted to read for several years, a new novel by a friend whose previous books I had mixed feelings about, a volume in an interminable fantasy series, and a debut by a US sf author which persuaded me it was about time I stopped reading debuts by US sf authors since the last dozen or so had all been pretty bad.

Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975, USA). I put this on my SF Mistressworks list several years ago based on its reputation, and the fact it won a Nebula, although that was for the original novella, not the novel (although the novel too was nominated four years later). MacLean’s name popped up a number of times in Judith Merril’s (auto)biography (see here) – she was part of the same Futurians group, with Merril and Pohl, banging out stories for the sf mags, which garnered praise from the likes of Damon Knight and Brian Aldiss. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Missing Man was actually sort of rubbish. George is an idiot savant  – an uneducated orphan, physically strong but good-natured, with an unnaturally strong empathic ability. He meets up with a friend from childhood, who is in the Rescue Squad, and is hired as a consultant because he can use his ability to find missing people. Meanwhile, there’s a blackmail plot by a gang of teenagers, who have kidnapped a city engineer (the missing man of the title) and learnt of a design flaw in the city’s systems. As proof of this, they cause the collapse of two undersea cities, killing thousands. MacLean clearly just made shit up as she went along. It’s bad enough that Missing Man, a mid-1970s novel, reads more like a mid-1960s one, but then you come across a line like “The distilled water, being pure and without salts, carried no radiation back from the ‘hot’ place it circulated through”, and it’s clear the author’s grasp of science is feeble at best… But then, from what Merril wrote in her autobiography, they were really quite cynical about writing for money, and would bang out any old crap, knowing that Pohl, as editor, would buy it (although he pocketed half of the fee). I had expected much more of Missing Man, given the author’s reputation. Disappointing.

Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK). I’ve known Chris for many years, and read and enjoyed his short fiction. I’ve also read several of his novels and, while I’ve appreciated the quality of their prose – which is definitely a cut above what is typical for science fiction – I’ll admit I found their conceits and plots felt a little second-hand. That’s sort of true here, and it gives the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. But that actually works in its favour, given it’s set in a mysterious place the world has forgotten. Ben Ronson, a British policeman, is sent to the Submundo Delta in Brazil to prevent the locals from killing the indigenes, called duendes. The Submundo Delta is surrounded by the Zone, which, on exiting it, wipes all memories of what happens within it. Partly because of the Zone, the only way to travel to the Submundo Delta is by boat, and so visitors must spend a day in the Zone. The novel opens as Ronson leaves the Zone and enters the delta – and he has no idea what he did when the ship stopped, and is too scared to read the journal entries he made. That fear drives him as he tries to stop the duende killings by the locals and come with some way of preventing them from occurring. This is not helped by the fact the duendes trigger some sort of mental barrage of anxieties and phobias in humans when they are close. Everything in the delta is low tech, like the early decades of the twentieth century. It makes the strangeness of the world seems a little more, well, plausible. But not entirely. Beneath the World, a Sea reminded me chiefly of Paul Park’s Coelestis, a favourite sf novel, although since it’s not set on an alien world it doesn’t have sf’s scaffolding to support its world, and relies more on a Ballardian twisting of mundanity for its setting. The plot is almost incidental – Ronson investigates, Ronson falls prey to the place’s atmosphere, in an almost Graham Greene sort of narrative. Beckett’s novels have always been strong on character, and that’s equally true here – to such an extent, the focus on character actually results in the plot losing its way around midway through. It doesn’t seem to matter much, however, because Ronson’s failure was pretty much obvious from the start. The only duff note is what happens to him in the Zone on his departure from the Submundo Delta. It feels like a twist that needed more set-up and yet was an obvious conclusion from the first chapter. Despite all that, Beneath the World, a Sea is very strong on atmosphere, the prose is excellent, and I thought this one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Shape of Further Things, Brian W Aldiss (1970, UK). Back in 1969, for whatever reason, Brian Aldiss decided the world needed a book in which he discussed a couple of items of interest to science fiction – more so than science – most of which were inspired by the researches of his friend Christopher Evans (who is not the Christopher Evans of Capella’s Golden Eyes, Aztec Century or Mortal Remains, all of which are recommended). Aldiss’s acerbic criticism is very much of its time, although it certainly includes a few amusing and clever aperçus on the science fiction world. What really stands out, however, is how little impact women made on Aldiss’s study. He mentions his wife, and Evans’s wife, but otherwise the entire planet might as well have been inhabited by men. I’m not so daft I don’t recognise this was the (male) worldview back then, but to a twenty-first century reader it paints a bizarrely one-sided view of the planet. I mean, a woman writer actually won a Hugo Award in 1968, and yet Aldiss writes as if the genre were entirely male. As it is, Aldiss’s musings are uninteresting – dreams and dream-logic – or so out of date – computing – to be laughable. Despite some nice writing, this is a book which is pretty much a perfect example of a phrase from his short story of three years previously, ‘Confluence’, one of whose definitions is “a book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in  writing it”. One for fans.

The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan (1992, USA). The reread continues. The plot really does shift into high gear in this volume. I’d almost forgotten what was supposed to be going on. Jordan seems to have realised he hadn’t actually achieved anything in the previous book, and so decided to get things moving. So Rand al’Thor heads into the Waste to recruit the Aiel (fearsome desert warriors totally cribbed from the Fremen). Egwene goes with Rand to learn how to dream-walk from the Aiel. Elayne and Nynaeve head for Tarabon to track down the Black Ajah sisters and prevent them from discovering something there which might threaten Rand. Perrin has heard the Two Rivers is under threat by Trollocs, and so returns there and sets up a local defence – undermined by the most obvious villain yet to appear in the series. Meanwhile, there’s a coup in the White Tower, and the Amyrlin Seat is deposed and stilled (ie, her powers are taken from her), and it’s all done so underhandedly you have to wonder why Jordan decided to make a rival faction behave like the Black Ajah, ie, the people they’re allegedly both dedicated to fighting. But then nuance is not something this series really has going for it, with a cast of stereotypes and archetypes, pantomime villains, and a frankly idiot plot. And yet, and yet… every now and again, Jordan throws in these neat little world-building elements, and you wonder what more he has up his sleeve… Very little, it turns out, as these elements are pretty much irrelevant as far as the main plot goes. In this volume, Rand has to undergo the same magical test as Aiel clan chiefs and Wise Ones, which basically involves reliving episodes from the Aiels’ past, which reveals them to have been cast-offs from a pacifist group who fought back against attackers and so ritualised their approach to combat. It’s all a bit Dune, but Jordan was never ashamed to steal from the best. Thankfully, The Shadow Rising is a surprisingly fast read, if only because you can skim over all the braid-pulling and “Mat would know how to deal with girls” repetitive bollocks. These are without a doubt appallingly written books, and their haphazard plotting was clearly a consequence of Jordan not being in control of his material – he didn’t even know how long the series would be! It continues to astonish me they were bestsellers.

Noumenon, Marina J Lostetter (2017, USA). This had lots of positive blurbs from well-known sf authors and, more importantly, it was 99p for the ebook, so I decided to take a chance on it. What a mistake. I’ve not read a good science fiction debut by a US author for several years but this one failed to make even that low bar. It is 2088 and an astronomer has discovered an unusual variable star. The world is putting together twelve missions to travel into interstellar space, using a “subdimension drive”, which, despite being FTL, will still mean several generations will pass before their destinations are reached. The variable star is chosen as the target of one such convoy. Which comprises seven ships and several hundred thousand clones of the scientists and engineers who put the convoy together. Lostetter uses this somewhat tired set-up to explore a number of banal situations. A young boy doesn’t want a sister. Slavery is bad. AIs can have feelings too. When the convoy reaches its destination, it discovers an enormous alien artefact but does not learn what it is or what it’s for. The author also clearly has a problem with orders of magnitude, as she states Jupiter is one AU wide. And her dimensions of the alien artefact make no sense. She also seems to think sonar works in space (and that subsonic waves can be detected in a vacuum). When two US characters, in the first chapter, enter a traditional pub in Oxford, UK, and a waitress brings beer to their table, I was afraid this was going to be one of  those sf novels where the author had done little or no research. That particular faux pas proved to be the least of the book’s problems. Later, two characters watch an episode of Star Trek – yes, this one of those novels set in the future where all the cultural references have relevance only to the author’s generation. The prose is so bland it is entirely forgettable. The science fiction is just complete rubbish from start to finish. The science is made-up. And the whole is in service to a plot which has no end – this is the first book in a trilogy – and whose only quality appears to be triteness. Avoid. In fact, I will go a step further: from this point, I will not read any debuts by US sf authors, say, post-2016. I don’t know what’s happened to US sf publishing, but the books they’ve been pushing over the past couple of years by debut authors have been fucking appalling. As someone or other once said, won’t get fooled again. The same applies to fantasy as well, of course. However, I’m not going to boycott debut sf novels from other nations. I mean, I’m not saying UK sf debuts are better, but UK genre publishing has been pushing fantasy – and YA – debuts for the past few years, and they’re not my thing. Given that more books than ever before are currently being published, when debut novels win major awards… there is definitely something wrong with genre publishing….