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Reading diary, #56

After a run of male authors in my last Reading diary, it’s a run of female writers… including one novel I had never planned to read. These days, “Hugo Award winner” is more likely to make me put a book down than actually pick it up. Um, looking back over the history of the award, I can’t say I’ve ever really used it as a guide to my genre reading and have always felt it has picked far more duds than actual classics.

The Milkman, Michael Martineck (2014, USA). Michael is a friend of many years, around two decades in fact, although we only met for the first time in person at the Worldcon in Helsinki this August. And it’s just as well I know Michael as The Milkman posits a horrible corporatised world and does so with a completely straight face. But I know Michael does not believe the politics the book presents… because they really are quite nasty. The story is told from several viewpoints. A young woman is murdered outside a bar, but there are no clues to the crime. The corporate police officer tasked with solving the crime – assuming it can be done economically – finds himself hitting a brick wall. A film-maker is paid to make a documentary about the Milkman, a mysterious figure who analyses milk from corporate dairy farms and posts his results on an anonymous website. And then there’s the Milkman himself, who’s a low-level bureaucrat who, with his network of co-conspirators, tests milk as a hobby. The Milkman does a good job of presenting a world in which everything is owned by one of three corporations, and manages to use it effectively in a mystery/thriller plot. Personally, I’d have liked more commentary on the world – I mean, it’s a horrible place to be, and presenting arguments from the characters that it’s preferable to the “old world” made the novel sound approving. It’s a political novel, and when it comes to political novels the author needs to wear their politics on their sleeve. You can’t let the reader draw their own conclusions, because they might well draw the wrong ones. There’s enough right-wing sf out there – the entire genre is essentially right-wing – and commentary against it is sorely needed in science fiction. Much as I enjoyed The Milkman, it felt too ambivalent toward its world – despite the final scenes set among those who had opted out – and I’d liked it to have been a little more overt in its politics.

Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1989, Austria). I’m a big fan of Michael Haneke’s films, and after seeing his The Piano Teacher, and learning that it was an adaptation of a novel by a Nobel laureate, I bought the book and read it and thought it very good. And then recently I thought it about time I read more Jelinek, so I picked up a copy of Lust, as it was quite short. It was perhaps not the wisest book to read on my daily commute, given the title. But never mind. The story is a brutal depiction of a marriage in wich the wife is treated as chattel by her husband. And when she eventually breaks free and finds herself a lover, he proves just as bad. What I had not remembered from The Piano Teacher, and perhaps that was down to the translator, but Lust was one long string of wordgames and puns and plays on words. It was relentless. Given its subject, it should come as no surprise the wordplay mostly focuses on sex, and especially on the male sex organ. I have no idea how this worked in German, or in the Austrian dialect in which Jelinek writes, but in English it felt to me like a dilution of the novel’s central point. The wife is entirely subject to the husband, she exists to satisfy his sexual desires, just as much as she is there to look after him and their spoilt son. Some of the expressions used, “shot his bolt”, for example, feel too… childish, schoolboyish, and while I get that the breadth and variety are what’s important, it does seem to detract from the brutality. This is an ugly book, about an ugly subject, so perhaps the wordplay is intended to add to that ugliness and it works much better in German. But this is definitely a book that provokes a reaction, and I’ll be reading more Jelinek.

Valerian & Laureline 19: At the Edge of the Great Void (2004, France). Cinebook are churning these out at a much faster rate after the Besson film, which is all to the good. At the Edge of the Great Void kicks off a new story-arc, which I think is the last for the duo. Valerian and Laureline are posing as itinerant traders on the edge of the Great Void because they feel the key to restoring Earth lies within it. But their plans are scuppered when Valerian is arrested. Fortunately, Laureline has made some friends, and with their help, she arranges an escape for Valerian, and the two of them join the crew of a ship heading into the Great Void. The story is mostly set-up – it introduces a new alien race, the Limboz, and drops hints about a plot by the Triumvirate, villains from an earlier story, and some sentient stones, the Woloch, who are clearly intended to provide the plot for the next few episodes. I’ve yet to see to Besson’s film, although I expect to be disappointed. The Valerian and Laureline series is massively inventive – there’s a good argument, although likely wrong, that it influenced Star Wars – and there’s a very dry wit in the interaction between the two main characters. But the stories are also very cut-down, so much so it often feels like bits of the plot have been left on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the opposite of decompression. Which, er, would be compression. I suspect it’s an artefact of the series’ original magazine appearances and limited page-count.

The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin (2015, USA). I had no plans to read this, for all that it won a raft of awards, and was shortlisted for many more (including, according to the back cover, the James Tiptree Jr Award, which, er, doesn’t have a shortlist – it has an honour list, and I should know as I’ve been on it). Anyway, there was no real buzz around The Fifth Season, as there had been for God’s War and Ancillary Justice, probably because The Fifth Season was Jemisin’s sixth novel – and, on top of that, it was fantasy, which is of zero interest to me. But some people said it was actually science fiction, not fantasy, and I heard some good things about it and, I admit it, the clincher was the fact it was going for £2 from a near-monopolitistic online retailer… So I bought it. And… It certainly smells like science fiction rather than fantasy; and if its sessapinae and orogeny is hand-wavy bullshit, it’s no more so than FTL, or indeed most of sf’s common tropes. It’s not worth summarising the plot, as much of it is linked to the world-building. The Fifth Season is set late in Earth’s history, when the planet is unstable, and “fifth seasons”, periods of intense seismic and/or volcanic activity, often bringing on nuclear winters, occur every few centuries. A new one has just kicked off as the book opens. There are three narratives, each following a female character – an orogene (ie, a person who can, among other things, control siesmic events) who has been in hiding for many years; a young girl with ability who is sold to an imperial order of trained orogenes; and a “four-ring” orogene of that order who is tasked with accompanying a “ten-ring” orogene to clear a town’s harbour of coral. The first narrative is written in the second person; the other two are more traditional. Initially, I thought the novel better than average – the prose was doing the job, but the world-building was interesting, if a little overdone (but we’ve all been there, nothing brings in the nerds like an excess of world-building detail). It was brutal in places – ho hum, it’s all that genre fiction does these days. So… enjoying it, but, on balance, unlikely to bother with the rest of the trilogy. And then I realised the book was using time-stacked narratives. Those three main characters were the same woman during different periods of her life. And things started to slot together like a piece of IKEA furniture. Now it was a much more interesting novel. Now, I might actually read the sequels. Did it deserve to win the Hugo? Given the shortlist… probably. I’ve read the Leckie, but the trilogy pretty much nose-dived after the first book. The other three shortlisted works do not appeal at all. If it hadn’t been for the £2 price point, I’d probably never have bothered reading The Fifth Season. Maybe if I’d stumbled across a copy in a charity shop, I might have given it a go. But I am glad I read it.

The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986, USA). I’m no stranger to Brackett’s fiction, having been a fan for a number of years – ever since reading the collection, Sea-Kings of Mars, in the Fantasy Masterworks series, in fact. The stories in that collection are not fantasy, of course. But Sea-Kings of Mars was not the only book in the Fantasy Masterworks series that was actually science fiction. There are ten stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett, and they’re all, well, typical Brackett. Some I had read before. They’re set on planets and moons of the Solar System which share names with the planets and moons we know but otherwise bear no resemblance – Mars is a desert world, inhabited by ancient dying races; Venus is a jungle world, also, er, inhabited by dying ancient races; the moons of Jupiter are inhabited; as is Mercury… In fact, Brackett pretty much turned every planet and moon on the Solar System into the sort of exotic location used in a Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s always the same – a dying race, a dead culture, a degraded society, and a jaded hero from Earth – pretty much always the US – who overcomes local taboos and superstitions to win the prize. It’s pure Hollywood, so it’s no surprise Brackett worked extensively in movies, her best-known scripts being Rio Bravo (my favourite western) and The Empire Strikes Back. Leigh Brackett and CL Moore were female pioneers in sf – not the only ones, by any means, and it could be argued Gertrude Barrows Bennett was more of a pioneer – but Moore and Brackette were big names in the genre fiction back in the 1940s, and while their style of science fiction is no longer popular, there’s no doubt they were very good at what they did. Perhaps too good, in some respects – some of stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett are dismayingly misogynist. It’s nothing unusual when you compare it to, say, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (it continues to amuse me that ‘Doc’ is always presented in quotes), but I’d expected better of Bracket – and she has indeed done better in other stories. Despite the title, The Best of Leigh Brackett does not contain any of her more celebrated stories, except perhaps ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – but since those stories appear in plenty of other Brackett collections, that’s to its advantage. I’d also dispute the stories here were her best – I thought the aforementioned Sea-Kings of Mars a better selection. Nonetheless, Brackett is always worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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readings & watchings 2011 #4

Here we go again – we know a song about that – it’s time for more scrapings from the petri-dish of popular and unpopular culture, as studied under the microscope by Your Scientifically-Minded Correspondent.

Books
Satan Wants Me, Robert Irwin (1999). Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare is one of the best fantasies of the 1980s, and his Night and Horses and the Desert (re-issued as The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature) is a highly-entertaining and informative study of, well, classical Arabic literature. Satan Wants Me – god knows what people thought when they saw me reading this on the tram during my commute to work – is presented as the journal of a hippie sociology doctoral student in early 1970s London. He has recently joined an occult group spun off from Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn. He’s also taking a lot of drugs. And he has some very weird friends. There are some very funny laugh-out-loud bits in this novel – which probably got me even stranger looks on the tram – and it’s sharply-observed throughout. Then it goes completely batshit weird towards the end. While not the classic The Arabian Nightmare is, it certainly confirms my belief that Irwin is a writer very much worth reading.

Cinco de Mayo, Michael Martineck (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. I’ve known Michael for a long time, though we’ve never actually met in person. We’re both members of an informal critting group, with a couple of other people – i.e., we email each other stories, novel extracts, etc., for comments. So I saw bits of Cinco de Mayo several years ago. But I’d never seen the finished product. I have now, and I enjoyed it very much. And thought it a happily diverse and intelligently put-together story. Definitely worth a read.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (1870). This 1973 edition of Verne’s classic has my name and old school number written on the ffep, which means I’ve owned this book for just over thirty years. So I must have read it at some point. I know the story – everyone does – but is that from actually reading the book, or just from some form of cultural osmosis? This (re)read did demonstrate that there’s much about the story I’d forgotten / not known. It’s very dull, for one thing. There are endless pages listing ocean flora and fauna. Very little actually happens. Aronnax et al go hunting a mysterious sea monster which has been sinking ships. In an encounter with it, they are swept overboard and then rescued by the monster… which proves to be a submarine: Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The Nautilus sails around the world, and they do things every now and again. Eventually, Aronnax and his two companions manage to escape, and witness the Nautilus being sucked into a giant maelstrom. That’s pretty much it. Some of the science is impressively detailed; in other places it is impressively wrong – the quoted ocean depths, for instance, are out by quite a margin, claiming the deepest part of the Pacific is something like 15,000 fathoms deep – that’s 90,000 feet! Challenger Deep is actually almost 36,000 feet deep – I know this because of this. Still, despite Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea being a bit of a slog to read, I actually fancy trying a bit more Verne. Perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced by David Herter’s Evening’s Empire

Phase Space, Stephen Baxter (2002), is a collection of short stories, many of which are off-cuts from Baxter’s Manifold trilogy. I read those three books back in 1999, 2000 and 2001 – when they were published, in other words. But not Phase Space. I have a lot of time for Baxter’s fiction, both short and long; but this collection was a bit of a disappointment. There’s some good stuff in it – ‘War Birds’, for example, which won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story in 1998 (and unfortunately resembles something I’ve been working on myself; damn); ‘Tracks’, based on an interview Baxter conducted with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke; ‘Moon-Calf’, about a retired astronaut on holiday in south-west England; ‘Barrier’, which is the sort of sf I’d be happy to have in Rocket Science. Unfortunately, many of the other stories follow a similar pattern – the narrative is interspersed with italicised first-person infodumps – and so they tend to blur together. And one or two, well, I was surprised to see they’d originally been published by Asimov’s and Interzone… Phase Space is not Baxter’s strongest collection by any means, but there’s some good stuff in it.

High Vacuum, Charles Eric Maine (1957). I’m currently working on a two-hander review of this and Jeff Sutton’s First on the Moon for my Space Books blog. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to contrast two novels about Moon landings written before the Apollo programme with the real world lunar landings. While I would have said there was plenty of drama in actually trying to get to the Moon, both Sutton and Maine clearly felt what was need for real drama was… a crash-landing.

Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson (1984). I have planned a “cage-fight” – which I will write up on this blog – between this book and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which I will have to read first; sigh). Because Icehenge is a much better candidate for the SF Masterwork series. Some of the world-building is a little quaint now – USA vs USSR – but I’ll be completely unsurprised if I find that Icehenge shits all over the Heinlein.

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990), was April’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.

The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953), is the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia by publication date, but the sixth book by internal chronology. Useless Eustace and new-found friend Jill Pole escape from bullies at “modern” school Experiment House (dear god, but Lewis shows his reactionary side with his description of the school), because Aslan wants them to find Prince Rilian of Narnia, who was abducted ten years before. Aslan gives Jill four clues, which she manages to screw up, but it all works out in the end. And everyone gets lashings of buttered scones and hot chocolate at the end, or something. These books are a bit like your old Daily Mail-reading grandad telling a bedtime story – the only bits missing are rants against immigration and falling house prices…

Orbital Vol 3: Nomads, Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2011), is the third book of a bande desinée series published in English by Cinebook. It’s heartland sf, but far more adult than you’d expect of a science fiction “comic.” Earth is a reluctant new member of a galactic federation, after a war with the alien Sandjarr. A pair of special agents, one human and one Sandjarr, must ensure the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur to mark the end of the war, to which a Sandjarr delegation has been invited, goes without a hitch. But a nomadic alien race has settled nearby, and something is killing all the fish and the fisherman are not happy about it… Good stuff.

Films
Barbarossa – Siege Lord, Renzo Martinelli (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Ship That Died of Shame, Basil Deardon (1955), is an adaptation of a Nicholas Monsarrat short story of the same title. The crew of a wartime MGB are re-united when they find their old boat – stripped of her weapons, of course – for sale. So they buy her, make her seaworthy, and use her to run contraband across the Channel into post-war austerity Britain. But it all goes horribly wrong when they accept a job to smuggle a murderer to France. Good solid British film-making from the Fifties.

Tin Man (2007), is a mini-series “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz, in which Oz becomes the Outer Zone or “Oh Zee”. DG, not Dorothy Gale, finds herself embroiled in a plot by her evil sister to bring endless darkness to the OZ. DG hadn’t known she had a sister, or that the OZ even existed. But when the Midwest farmhouse where she lives with her parents is attacked by strange men in black uniforms, she escapes through a tornado – discovering as she does so that her parents are actually robots. Because she’s really a princess from the OZ. With the help of a heartless ex-law officer (i.e., a “tin man”), the queen’s old advisor who has had his brain removed, and a cowardly lion-like humanoid – oh, and her old tutor, who can transform into a small terrier – DG must find the Emerald of the Eclipse in order to defeat her sister. An interesting spin on a children’s classic which, to be honest, has never appealed to me; but it all felt a bit meh in places. Though it reminded me a lot of the Sci Fi Channel Flash Gordon telly series – which was cheap and a bit silly, but which I quite liked – it didn’t have that programme’s charm.

Rio Grande, John Ford (1950). I am not, I admit, a big fan of Westerns. In fact, the only one in my DVD collection is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo – which is actually an alternative name for the Rio Grande, the river forming part of the border between the US and Mexico. Rio Grande the film is the third in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, following on from Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, neither of which I’ve seen. It’s John Wayne doing manly men stuff in the Wild West as injuns run rampant and hide out in Mexico where Wayne’s cavalry can’t follow them. Except he does, even though it might provoke a diplomatic incident. Then he learns that the injuns have captured a wagonload of white kids, which only makes the mission more righteous. The US Cavalry must have been the biggest bunch of war criminals in uniform until the formation of the SS, and their portrayal in films such as Rio Grande has only romanticised their crimes. It’s unlikely a John Wayne film would be “warts and all”, given that there’s always been a strong element of fantasy to the depiction of the Wild West in Hollywood cinema. Wayne’s character may be a racist, but he’s still the hero…

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Martin Ritt (1965), is a curiously flat adaptation of Le Carré’s novel of the same name. Richard Burton, who always sounds as though he’s declaiming rather than acting, plays the head of the Berlin office who comes under a cloud when a defection from East Berlin is bungled. He is demoted to a lowly position in London, eventually leaves the “Circus”, and turns to drink and a succession of low-paid jobs. At which point he is approached by East German agents, and reluctantly defects to them. But, of course, it’s all a cunning plot. They’re a bit bloody convoluted these Le Carré films. I have the novel on the TBR; I shall have to read it.

An Autumn Tale, Éric Rohmer (1998). That’s it, all four of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons now watched. In this one, a forty-something woman attempts to matchmake for a winemaker friend of the same age. As does the winemaker’s son’s ex-girlfriend, who has just split up with her university professor lover and who she thinks is an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, most of the characters in An Autumn Tale aren’t especially likable. They prattle and pontificate too much. The ex-girlfriend is particularly annoying – she spouts off lots of arrogant drivel about love and people, but doesn’t actually display much insight. Some poor bloke who gets dragged in as a prospective suitor is horribly mistreated but still hangs in there, though he and the winemaker don’t appear all that well-suited to each other… I first came to Rohmer’s films after watching Triple Agent, and enjoyed its slow-burning drama very much. These Four Seasons films have been… mixed. A Summer’s Tale was easily the best one, with A Winter’s Tale a middling second. A Tale Of Springtime and An Autumn Tale both suffered from unlikable casts. All the same, I’ll be bunging Rohmer’s six Comédies et Proverbes films on the Lovefilm rental list.

Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929), I will be reviewing in more depth on my Space Books blog. For the time-being, I’ll just say that it’s badly-paced, with far too much silliness up-front and not enough screen-time devoted to the mission to the Moon.

The Objective, Daniel Myrick (2008), is advertised as being by the director of The Blair Witch Project, which I’ve never actually seen. A Special Forces team of walking clichés, led by a tight-lipped CIA agent, infiltrate the mountains of Afghanistan where satellites have spotted something very strange indeed. If you like films in which US military stereotypes spout manly men bullshit, and then shoot at things, you might find The Objective interesting inasmuch as it’s not wholly a war film: the eponymous, er, objective, is – keep this to yourselves – not of this world. The film felt a bit amateur in places, and probably would have benefitted from a couple of beers inside the viewer.

I Come With The Rain, Anh Hung Tran (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

Aliens From Outer Space, Bill Knell (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Small Back Room, The Archers (1949). Those back room boys… Without them, we’d never have won the war, you know. Though they don’t actually appear to do much in this film. Sammy Rice is one such back room boy. He has an artificial foot, which pains him; and a dependency on pills and alcohol. He’s also in a strange relationship with his boss’s secretary. When a new type of booby-trapped explosive device, dropped by Jerry planes, starts killing children, Rice is brought in to puzzle out how it works. Meanwhile, he’s crawling further into a bottle, politics at the office is causing major problems, and his increasing bitterness is jeopardising his relationship with his girlfriend. Despite some clever photography, the tension and drama in The Small Back Room never quite works, but as a study of a man succumbing to despair during wartime – including a bizarre drunken dream sequence – the film is very effective. The Archers – Powell and Pressburger – were bloody clever filmmakers, and it certainly shows in this. In lesser hands, The Small Back Room could have been just another anodyne WWII home-front melodrama. We need directors like the Archers in the twenty-first century.

Le Refuge, François Ozon (2009), was surprisingly ordinary and a bit dull for an Ozon film. Could it really have been directed by the same person who made 8 Women, Angel or Water Drops On Burning Rocks? Two junkies score some smack, but one dies of an overdose. The other, the dead man’s girlfriend, only just survives. And then discovers that she’s pregnant. The dead junkie’s family, who are wealthy, don’t want her to keep the baby. But she chooses to have it, so runs away to a friend’s house on the coast. A few months later, the dead junkie’s gay brother comes to visit, and ends up staying a week or so. And, er, that’s about it. There are a number of scenes filmed on a beach, in which the woman’s pregnant belly is plainly visible. I was quite impressed by the prostheses and make-up used for this effect, only to learn in a featurette on the DVD that the actress, Isabelle Carré, really was pregnant during the making of the film. You have to wonder if she was cast because she was pregnant; or did Ozon completely rewrite the script on learning she was pregnant? Le Refuge is a likable drama, but Ozon has made much more interesting films.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), I will be reviewing for VideoVista, but I decided to give it an early mention because it’s a pitch-perfect spoof of low-budget action/spy movies, and might well end up on my Best of the Year top five films.