This is the last but one Reading diary post before my 2017 reading is all written up. And then, of course, I’ll have to start documenting my 2018 reading… Which I hope to do more frequently and more diligently than I did in 2017.
The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts (2015, UK). I have not in the past got on especially well with Adam Roberts’s novels. He’s an enormously clever bloke and has excellent taste in fiction, but I think there’s something in his approach to the genre which rubs me up slightly the wrong way. Except. I really did like The Thing Itself and thought it very good indeed. The narrator is a radio astronomer, wintering in Antarctica with a creepy geek. This is during the 1980s. The geek is secretly experimenting with perception – the idea that our senses mediate the world, that there is something there, in reality, an idea based on Kant’s Ding an sich, which our senses edit out… but what if we could actually perceive it… “It” all turns out to be a bit Lovecraftian and eldritch, but the geek’s unsuccessful attempt to kill the narrator, and the brief glimpse the narrator has of unadulterated reality, were enough to fuck him up. And now, decades later, he’s a complete loser (although the geek is in Broadmoor). But then he’s contacted by a secret thinktank – and it’s pretty obvious they’ve built themselves an AI, but the narrator is too dumb to realise this – because they need him to approach the geek… And, of course, everything goes horribly wrong and the narrator ends up on the run, not entirely sure who he’s running from and increasingly convinced the mad geek has developed some sort of superpower. There are also a number of historical sections, which better explain, and illustrate, the book’s central Ding an sich premise. I do have a couple of minor niggles, however. The narrator uses a cane, which he loses while fleeing from hospital… but mysteriously has it back a chapter or two later. And a female character changes name over a couple of pages. But that’s minor, trivial even. I thought this a very good sf novel.
Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson (2015, UK). The trade paperback of this, among several others, was being given away free at Mancunicon, the 2016 Eastercon, so I grabbed myself a copy because, well, free. And, you know, it’s twenty-first century space opera and I still pretend to like that – although it does seem like increasingly fewer of them float my boat, as it were. Crashing Heaven is a case in point. It ticks all the boxes for 21st-century space opera, but that to me felt like more of a handicap than an advantage. Forster is an ex-soldier and POW, returning home to the Station after the cessation of hostilities with a collective of AIs who apparently dropped a rock on a lunar outpost that happened to be hosting a children’s schooltrip. (They denied doing it, of course.) Implanted inside Forster is an AI called Hugo Fist, which was designed to kill AIs (in that sort of handwavey computing cyber warfare bollocks that sf seems to love) and which manifests as an old-style music hall ventriloquist’s dummy. Unfortunately, due to some contract shenanigans, Fist is due to soon take-over Forster’s body, effectively killing him. Worse, Forster thinks the AIs are innocent of the lunar rock thing (I mean, come on, it’s obvious right from the start they didn’t do it). It’s all a plot, of course, by the “gods” of the Station – who are apparently uploaded humans so sociopathic they refuse the same existence and abilities to every other human, which to me is just putting a sf spin on slavery. And that’s pretty much the world of the Station – slavery, genocide, megaviolence, the usual 21st century science fiction crap. Not interested. Crashing Heaven is apparently the first book in a series. I won’t be reading the sequels.
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (2012, USA). I read the first book of this series a while ago, and a conversation on Twitter in late 2017 persuaded me to carry on with the series. So I bought book two. Which is Glamour in Glass. (Amusingly, according to the spine, it’s the second book in the “lamourist Histories”. Oops.) At the end of the first book, plain-but-talented Jane married estranged-earl David, and the two make their living as among the best glamourists in England. One of their clients is the Prince Regent,. He reveals to Jane that she will finally get her postponed honeymoon. In Belgium. Ostensibly there to study a new glamourist technique which can make things invisible, it turns out David is spying for the British Crown – since Napoleon has escaped and is expected to retake France… The end result is less Jane Austen and more Georgette Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, but the Heyer of An Infamous Army rather than Cotillion. Which is no bad thing, although the change in tone between the first half of the book and the second did jar a little. And the final scene wasn’t quite as dramatic as the lead-up had suggested. (On the other hand, a modern eye does mean some of the more skeevy aspects of Heyer’s fiction are avoided.) But I did enjoy the book, and I’m glad I was persuaded to give them another go. I think I’ll carry on reading them.
Swastika Night, Murray Constantine (1937, UK). It says Murray Constantine on the cover but it’s sort of an open secret that Constantine was a pseudonym of Katherine Burdekin, so I have to wonder why Gollancz chose to use the pseudonym on the SF Masterwork edition. I mean, no one remembers either name these days, so it makes no fucking difference. Use her real name, make it obvious the writer was female. Anyway, the story is set 700 years after the Axis won WWII, and and Europe is all Greater Germany. People – well, men… as women are considered subhuman and treated like animals – are divided into Nazis, Germans and everyone else. A clever Englishman visits Germany on pilgrimage and hooks up with a German friend who had worked in the UK. Through him, he meets the local Nazi lord, who reveals a secret history. Hitler was not tall and blond and godlike, and women were once considered equal to men… There are perhaps a few people in the US, or members of UKIP, who may be surprised by these revelations, but to the human race it’s the sort of reveal which has almost no dramatic impact. It’s not helped by the fact the narrative consists mostly of characters lecturing each other. The misogyny is baked into the world but, despite suggesting homosexual relationships are both common and unremarkable, there’s a still a whiff of homophobia. Swastika Night is not a great book. Had its profile remained prominent in the decades since it was first published, it might have been considered an important book. Sadly, it was all but forgotten. It’s good that the SF Masterworks series has chosen to publish it – although it would have been better thad they used the author’s real name – and it is scarily more relevant now than it has been since the 1940s… It’s an historical document, it reads like an historical document… but it’s a sad reflection on our times that its premise is no longer historical…
Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983, USA). This is the second book of Van Scyoc’s Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which I have in the SFBC omnibus edition. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s fiction for a long time, and I’m not entirely sure why. Or rather, I hadn’t remembered why until I started reading this trilogy, beginning with Darkchild (see here), and now Bluesong. She was genuinely good. She built strange worlds and set stories in them that were predicated on that strangeness and yet had plots which explained the cause, and sometimes cure, of the strangeness. She was never especially popular, but I think I’d rate her one of the best female US sf writers of the 1980s. Sadly, her last novel appeared in 1991 (although she apparently had a couple of stories in F&SF about ten years ago). The Sunstone novels are set on the world of Brakrath which, although mostly low tech, was settled from another world centuries before and remains aware of them. The planet is a bit too cold to be comfortable for humans, so they hibernate during the winter. Even during the spring, the valleys would be too cold for agriculture… but for the barohnas, the female rulers of each valley, who have the power to focus and direct the sun’s rays… to defrost the land and provide sufficient warmth to grow things. In Bluesong, a young woman realises she is not one of the river people among whom she lives, runs away, and eventually ends up finding her father among the desert people… But she is actually a daughter of a barohna, and so will change into one herself. Van Scyoc draws her alien societies well, and this series is particularly good at dropping hints toward a story arc. I liked Bluesong more than Darkchild, but they’re both pretty good. Cherryh may have received more love during the 1980s, and, er, since, and was hugely more prolific, but Van Scyoc was just as good.
The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987, USA). I don’t think I ever doubted that Russ was an extremely clever writer, although it was more evident in some stories than others – some of her short fiction, in fact, was so much of its time, it was hard to see see past how emblematic of their period of writing they were. But it wasn’t until I read The Hidden Side of the Moon that I realised how consistently clever a writer was Russ. This is not a specially curated collection, but it’s so much more intelligent a collection than her The Zanzibar Cat. Perhaps it’s because not every story in it is genre, and it was not put together to showcase her genre credentials. Perhaps it’s because every story in it is fiercely feminist. I don’t know. I do know a collected works of Russ is long past overdue – not just the short fiction, but also the non-fiction, like the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, or her criticism. She is, like Samuel R Delany, one of the most important writers American science fiction has produced. And yet who is it who remains in print and has countless stories and novels adapted by Hollywood? Philip K Dick. A drug-addled hack. We are, I suppose, fortunate that Asimov, one of the most graceless prose stylists of his generation, has not been so enthusiastically adopted by Hollywood. And while I still have a soft spot for some of Heinlein’s works, he’s pretty much science fiction’s embarrassingly outspoken old uncle with all the offensive opinions at the family barbecue, who’s pretty harmless until he starts touching up his young nieces. It’s long past time science fiction stopped venerating skeevy old hacks like Asimov and Heinlein and Dick, and started lauding the real grand masters, like Delany, Russ, Tiptree and Le Guin.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131