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Reading diary 2018, #13

The heat seems to have lessened a little, but we’ve still two months to go before summer is over, and even then heatwaves in October are not unheard of in these days of climate change. Having said that, two of the books below are slight cheats as they’re novellas. But then the Faulkner – famously described as a “difficult” book – I managed to knock off in three days…

Empery (Trigon Disunity 3), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1987, USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Trigon Disunity, which also includes the first use of the word “trigon”, although the word “disunity” appears nowhere in all three books. The story opens several centuries after the events of Enigma. Earth is now the centre of the Affirmation, which includes several advanced human colonies discovered since the second book. But one political wing of the human race is determined to take war to the Mizari, the “Sterilizers” of Enigma who wiped out humanity back in the last Ice Age (which was then reseeded by a good energy alien, as also described in Enigma). When Empery focuses on the politics of Earth and the United Space Service, and the fight between those who think the Mizari no longer present a threat (their last attack was 60,000 years ago, after all) and those determined on a pre-emptive strike, it’s not bad. It’s less good, however, on the science fiction. The Mizari are the worst sort of Trek super-aliens, and the only really remarkable thing about Empery (which apparently means “absolute dominion”) is how long it drags out its story. It doesn’t at least rely on superhuman intervention by a, er, human being, as Enigma does. Nor is its “good” character a paragon as in Emprise. That the books improve as the trilogy progresses is no surprise, but the initial world-building is too big an obstacle for the story to overcome and the aliens are shit too. Best avoided.

Unpublished Stories, Frank Herbert (2016, USA). Stories generally remain unpublished for a reason, and smart writers make sure they never see the light of day, even after their death. Hergé refused to allow new Tintin adventures to be written after he died, and so the last Tintin book we have is an unfinished one. Edgar P Jacobs, on the other hand, placed no such restrictions on his Blake and Mortimer characters, and the  Edgar P Jacobs Studio has continued his series, producing, to be honest, better stories than Jacobs himself ever did. Then there’s all the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman… Frank Herbert died before completing his Dune series, leaving only cryptic notes explaining where he planned to go with the narrative after Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson used the existence of these notes as a mandate to expand Herbert’s universe, and it’s a crying fucking shame what they did to it. However, Anderson has done good in making available Herbert’s unpublished fiction. ‘Spice Planet’, an early draft of Dune, which was published in The Road to Dune, is a fascinating historical document and does Herbert’s career no harm. And I’m pretty sure the stories in Unpublished Stories, despite being generally not very good, are unlikely to affect Herbert’s reputation either. For a start, they’re pretty much all mainstream. He fancied himself as a thriller writer before turning to sf. And that’s what we have here, a collection of mainstream stories (only two are sf, and one of them appears in The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert too), some of which work and some of which don’t. The prose is no better and no worse than you’d expect for commercial fiction from the middle of last century, but nothing about the stories stands out. Which is likely why they were never published. They’re interesting historical documents, but likely of interest only to fans.

Cottingley, Alison Littlewood (2017, UK). The title of this novella, from NewCon Press’s second quartet of novellas, immediately signals what this story is about, who it is likely to feature, and what is likely to happen… Which means that when a writer uses a title that is, so to speak, a hostage to fortune, they’re going to have to work especially hard to confound expectations. Littlewood frames her story as epistolary, a series of letters between an invented character, Lawrence Fairclough, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather Doyle’s associate, a “Mr Gardner”. Fairclough describes how he and his granddaughter stumbled across a small group of fairies at a brook in a wood by their home. But these fairies are more like malevolent insects. When Fairclough finds the skull of one, typical fairy tricks such as souring milk and making food go off persuades his daughter to return the skull – and a fairy spits in one of her eyes, blinding it. The story, making many references to the fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, unfolds through several letters. We do not see Gardner’s letters and can only infer what he wrote from Fairclough’s replies. Fairclough has answers to all of Gardner’s questions – clearly he’s afraid it might be a hoax – but whatever evidence he has gathered disappears one by one (such as the skull). Cottingley suffers from the same problem as all epistolary novels: how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t read like reportage. Which means the letters don’t really read like letters. They’re too descriptive, there’s too much interiority, and they’re far too fixed on the theme of the novella. On the one hand, these quartets of novellas NewCon Press are publishing are handsome books; on the other, I’m not a fan of dark fantasy or horror, so I knew this particular quartet were unlikely to appeal to me. There’s still three to read, of course; and a fourth quartet being published even now – with novellas by Gary Gibson, Adam Roberts, Ricardo Pinto and Hal Duncan.

Body in the Woods, Sarah Lotz (2017, South Africa). I read Lotz’s The Three a few years ago on a trip to Finland for Archipelacon. It struck me as commercial light horror and I didn’t bother with the sequel (three, er, well, some guesses to what the sequel was titled). And while I enjoyed Body in the Woods, there’s nothing in it to persuade me to seek out further work by her. A woman living alone in a country cottage – her partner is working in Qatar on contract – is visited by an old friend. He has a body wrapped in plastic in the boot of his car. Years before the two had defined friendship as “helping to bury a body, no questions asked”, and he’s turned up to make good on that. After the deed is done, she begins to obsess over the identity of the victim, leading to several flashbacks explaining how the woman and man are linked, and her thoughts and fears are manifested as corruption in her garden – a nettle patch that refuses to die and expands, growing mould patches, etc. It is, like The Three, all very light horror and written in commercial and readable prose. There is one minor weirdness: occasional Americanisms which appear in the prose, even though the voice is very British (the author is British but resident in South Africa, which may explain that). I found Body in the Woods are more involving read than Cottingley, but the latter struck me as a better work.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975, revised 1985, USA). In a recent exchange on Twitter with Kev McVeigh, he wondered why McIntyre, a feminist sf writer and multi-award winner, was not as well known as Joanna Russ. McIntyre wrote a number of Star Trek tie-in novels, and so may have become associated with that rather than straight-up sf… Although a look at her bibliography on isfdb.org shows she wrote only 5 Trek novels (including novelizations of films II, III and IV), one SWEU novel, and, er, ten genre novels that aren’t tie-ins. The first of which was The Exile Waiting in 1975, although the version I read is the revised 1985 edition. It’s one of those sf novels which posits a world which includes slavery and children deliberately mutilated to make them more effective beggars. I really don’t understand why sf writers feels a need to populate their novels with either of these. True, these last twenty years we’ve seen technological progress increase inequality – please please please, someone make like Max Zorin and flood Silicon Valley – when you’d imagine technology would make things better for everyone equally. As someone once said – was it Bruce Sterling? – the market finds its own use for things; except it would be perhaps more accurate to say that Silicon Valley finds its own way to develop revenue streams from things that were otherwise free. (Multi-passenger Uber! Er, that’s a bus, you’ve just invented a bus. And so on.) But The Exile Waiting is 42 years old, revised 32 years ago, and what is about American sf that all roads lead to libertarian variations on the Great Depression? Mutilating kids? Seriously? Slavery? Really? It doesn’t matter that the protagonist of this novel is female and has agency, because the world in which she lives embodies the worst of US sf. At one point, she’s whipped because she sneaked her way into the palace, was caught and accused of stealing, and given no opportunity to explain herself. Anyway, a more extensive review of this should appear at some point on SF Mistressworks. I don’t think The Exile Waiting was typical of its time – in some respects, it’s an improvement on mid-seventies American sf – but in some areas it demonstrates remarkably little commentary on the tropes it uses, even in the revised edition, and even its above average prose can’t really save it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). When my father died he left behind a collection of around a hundred Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them he had ordered directly from the publisher – I found an invoice in one – and included works by DH Lawrence (the writer he admired most), Carson McCullers, JP Donleavy, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Chandler, Herman Hesse, George Orwell and, among others… William Faulkner. I kept many of the books for myself – and subsequently became a big fan of Lowry’s fiction. (I had already sampled Lawrence’s fiction, and found it excellent, earlier.) There was always the possibility I’d be enormously impressed by another author from his collection, although a read of two of McCullers novels showed it wasn’t going to be her. William Faulkner, on the other hand, what little I knew of him – early twentieth century author, American, wrote mostly about the South, his novels had quite pretentious titles, I couldn’t think of anything by him that been adapted by Hollywood… Well, I’d expected The Sound and the Fury to be a bit of a chore to read, and it was only a complete inability to brain early one weekday morning that resulted in me grabbing it to read next on my commute. So I was very surprised to discover the novel hugely impressive. The casual use of racial epithets – the racism itself, especially in the third section, narrated by Jason Compton, who is racist – is hard to take, although nothing in the prose persuades me that Faulkner held those views, and in fact he develops his black characters as carefully and as well as he develops his white ones. And, of course, this is a book that was written, and set, within living memory (just) of slavery and the American Civil War. US society, especially southern US society, is hugely racist, and if the language in The Sound and the Fury is offensive it is at least a legitimate product of its time. But one of the areas that fascinates me about literature is narrative structure, and there The Sound and the Fury has plenty to recommend it. It is divided into four parts, three dated 1928 and one dated 1910, and each part subsequently sheds more light on the story. The first is told from the point of view of Benjy, who has learning disabilities, and presents his 33 years of life in an achronological almost stream-of-consciousness narrative, with time-jumps signalled by changes from italics and back again, although not with any degree of rigour. The second section is set 18 years earlier and mixes a straightforward narrative with stream of consciousness, and is perhaps the hardest to parse as its narrative is mostly peripheral to the main story. The third section, set in 1928 again, is more straightforward and, as mentioned earlier, is in the POV of the racist brother of the protagonist of the second section. The final section takes place a day later than the third, and is omniscient, but chiefly features the family’s black housekeeper. With each section, the overall story becomes clearer. It is not, it has to be said, the most exciting of stories – Banks followed a similar philosophy with his mainstream novels, albeit without the modernism, but he usually made his central secrets a little too “exciting” and a little too implausible. The Sound and the Fury is pure modernist literature, and the prose is really very very good. Though the milieu doesn’t attract me, the approach to writing strikes me as every bit as interesting as that of Lowry. Albeit in a different way. A third of the way into The Sound and the Fury I decided I needed to read more, if not all, of Faulkner’s fiction. So I’ve ordered another of his novels. From eBay. Because, of course, I want editions that match the ones I have – ie, mid-sixties Penguin paperbacks. Sigh. But Faulkner: excellent. Possibly even a new favourite writer.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #12

This stinking weather. It has, however, meant I’ve been reading more than usual because it’s too hot to do anything else. Which is weird, because when I lived in the UAE, where it gets way hotter than this during the summer, I used to read loads – and everywhere out there had really effective air-conditioning. Every other Thursday, I’d take taxi out to the Daly Community Library – a room in a church centre attached to the Al-Khubairat English-speaking school – and check out four books. I’d usually finish one by the end of the day. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do there. The TV was rubbish, I didn’t have the internet at home, the selection of DVDs for sale was poor (even the ones unapproved by the Ministry of Information I used to buy under the counter)… On the other hand, my commute to work was a 500-metre walk.

The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France). In 1980, Roland Barthes was hit by a van, and died a month later from injuries sustained in the accident. Binet supposes that Barthes was carrying a document wanted by several groups of powerful people – including the government of President Giscard d’Estaing. And some Bulgarian assassins. Who may or may not have been working for the Russians. A superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, Bayard, is tasked with investigating the accident, and recruits a young semiologist professor, Herzog, to help him. The two discover the existence of the Logos Club, where members debate each other for advancement, and challengers lose a finger if their challenges are unsuccessful. Bayard and Herzog bounce around literary theory and semiotics, through a series of clever set-pieces and in-jokes, and it’s all to do with Roman Jakobson’s theory of language and its six functions – or, in this case, a mythical seventh one which allows the speaker to coerce the listener – which may have been in Barthes’ possession, and which politicians are keen to discover, especially French ones… Not only is The 7th Function of Language a fun and clever mystery novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of semiotics and the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Jakobson and others. A lot of the characters who appear are real people, and a number of the events in which Bayard and Herzog find themselves involved also happened in real history. As in his earlier HHhH (see here), Binet frequently breaks the fourth wall, although the process of writing the novel does not feature here as it does in the previous novel. I picked up a signed hardback of this book in a Waterstone’s promotion, but hadn’t planned on hanging onto the book once I’d read it. But I think I will. It’s an entertaining read and it’s made me want to read up on Barthes and Foucault and semiotics.

Moon Face, Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq (2018, France). Jodorowsky seems to be on a roll. While he continues to contribute to a number of long-running properties – and in the case of the Metabarons appears to have licensed the property to others – he’s also churning out new stuff. Like Moon Face. On an island under a repressive regime, which regularly experiences tsunamis, there appears a man with somewhat undefined features, the Moon Face of the title, who can control the tidal waves. His appearance triggers a whole series of events, which eventually leads to the downfall of the island’s autocratic and arrogant rulers. At one point Moon Face prompts the rebuilding of a destroyed cathedral, and when a false messiah, tricked into appearing by a rebellious faction, destroys the cathedral Moon Face triggers a second rebuild and… Well, this isn’t an easy book to summarise. It’s thick with religious references and allusions, and while Jodorowsky pretty much always does that in his works, it’s far more in-your-face here than in other books. It doesn’t help that the villains are all a bit pantomime, which makes it all somewhat one-sided. Boucq’s artwork is lovely, however. And if Jodorowsky’s scripts feels a bit obvious in places with its religious – well, Roman Catholic – references and allusions, it doesn’t detract from the story as drawn.

Beatniks, Toby Litt (1997, UK). Litt began has career by stating that each of his novels would be titled alphabetically. so, obviously, Beatniks is his second book (but actually the fifth book by him I’ve read). He’s currently at “N”, and he started in 1996, so he’s not managing one a year. I first came across Litt with Journey into Space (2009), a generation starship novel. I seem to remember it wasn’t bad – the prose was better than most sf novels, but the science fiction itself was a bit old-fashioned. But I liked the idea of publishing books with alphabetical titles, so I kept an eye open for his books. He’s been a bit of a gadfly, as no two books have been the same. Beatniks is not atypical for UK lit fic. It’s set in Bedford, Litt’s hometown. A young woman is invited to a party, where she meets three people – two bloke and a woman – who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened after Dylan went electric. She can’t decide if they’re complete poseurs, but she fancies one of them so she tries to get them better. It all ends up with a trip to Brighton, where they learn a bit more about each other than they perhaps wanted to. It was hard to sympathise with the three “Beats” as they seemed to behave in a wilfully ridiculous manner. The narrator at least was sympathetic. But it all hung together entertainingly. A fast read, and enjoyable, and perhaps a little more memorable than some of Litt’s other books I’ve read.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson (1982, Finland). Jansson is of course best-known for the Moomins, but she also wrote a number of novels for adults, and in recent years they’ve been translated into English. In The True Deceiver, a young woman in a remote Finnish village – but Swedish-speaking, I think – organises her way into the life of an older woman who illustrates children’s books. Katri is something of an outsider in the village, partly due to her colouring, partly due to her independence and unwillingness to compromise that independence. She has a younger brother, who seems to have a learning disability, and works unpaid at a boat-builders. Katri persuades Anna, who lives in the “rabbit house”, named because she paints rabbits for children’s books, and who is also the richest person in the village, to allow her to help her, and then slowly takes over her affairs. She moves in, at Anna’s invitation, with her brother, but her plan is to stay on in the rabbit house after Anna has died, and provide for her brother. But Katri is scrupulously honest, and she ensures Anna is not being cheated by local merchants, especially the shop-owner. She is so honest, and so good at maths, that her advice is sought by people, even those who dislike her. There are levels of deception here, which is what the title refers to. Katri: to herself, the villagers, most of all Anna. Even Anna herself, although the victim of her deception is… herself. The prose is clean and clear, although it has a tendency to drift into a sort of story-telling mode, as if the author were directly addressing the reader. Given that the story is framed as if it were a fable, it seems appropriate, even if the contents are not especially fable-like. Worth reading.

Emprise (Trigon Disunity 1), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1985, USA). I don’t remember where and when I bought this trilogy, but I suspect it wasn’t long after they were published (these Legend editions were all published in 1988). I think it may have been at a convention, given that the third book, Empery, has “£1” pencilled inside the cover. Anyway, I’m pretty sure they went into storage when my parents returned to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and I didn’t see them again until I moved into my current address in 2004. So I’ve had them for around twenty-eight years, and they’ve sat on my book-shelves here for fourteen years before I’ve finally got around to reading them. And… Emprise was Kube-McDowell’s debut novel. And so too for the sequels, Enigma (below) and Emprey. I’ve read other novels by Kube-McDowell – The Quiet Pools (1990) and Exile (1992) – but Emprise is not very good. It opens with a history lesson, which is never a good sign. Apparently, in the 1980s a secret group of scientists discovered a way to render all fission weapons inert. And they used it. This led to a series of short wars, and a total backlash against science. Both of which we’ve managed during the past 30 years anyway, without rendering nuclear weapons useless. In a regressive US, a lone secret radio astronomer discovers a signal. From a spacecraft approaching the Earth at near light-speed. He passes the news onto a British colleague… and within a few short years, there’s an international organisation, led by the prime minister of India, set up to build a  spacecraft to meet the alien before it gets too close to the Solar system. When news of the alien breaks, it leads to a Church of the Second Coming, which believes the spacecraft contains angels. Anyway, the Earth spacecraft gets built and intercepts the alien… And its crew are human. From a colony apparently founded from Earth. By a technological civilisation which was wiped out by the last Ice Age. Publishing has changed in the thirty-plus years since Emprise was published, and debut novels these days are way ore polished than this one. A lot of the story is massively Americocentric, despitr not being set in the US. That church, for example: it becomes so powerful, it threatens to shut down the building of the spacecraft. There is no mention of any other religion. Indeed, the Indian PM’s religion is never actually named. If I had had all three books on my bookshelves, and felt slightly guilty for owning them so long without reading them, I doubt I’d have bothered with the sequels. Avoid.

Enigma (Trigon Disunity 2), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1986, USA). And avoid is not something I did, because I sort of felt I ought to complete the trilogy. Admittedly, they were fast reads – two days per book, pretty much – but they were also poor books. In this second one, the Earth has FTL ships searching for further colonies by those Ice Age Founders. And they’ve discovered a few, some now extinct. The novel is Merritt Thackeray’s story. He starts out as a student at a Government Service school, transfers to a Technical School, and ends up as a contact linguist on a survey ship. He’s an unlikable protagonist, and even Kube-McDowell’s attempts to make him sympathetic never really make him less annoying. At one colony, he disobeys orders and discovers the colony’s secret – that they were visited by the alien D’Shanna, who convinced them there was no point in existing any longer. Thackeray spends the rest of the novel hunting down the D’shanna… only to discover they’re not the villains. They’re energy beings from an alternate energy dimension, and one of them shows him the fate of the Ice Age Founders – they were wiped out by another alien race because one of the Founder’s colony ships had invaded their space. Enigma is better-written than Emprise, but not by much. However, it also introduces the trilogy’s big flaw: shit aliens. Who does energy-being aliens these days? They were a shit idea back in the days of the original Star Trek. The Trigon Disunity triogy is essentially a future history with Star Trek super-powerful aliens, and even for the 1980s it’s poor stuff. Especially for the late 1980s. New Space Opera was just starting to kick off, you had authors like Paul McAuley writing solid hard sf, not to mention the likes of CJ Cherryh, SN Lewitt or Susan Shwartz, among others…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131