I suppose you could say I’ve recently become disenchanted with modern genre fiction. I haven’t really, it’s been an ongoing thing. I suspect this comes to us all at some time. It’s not so much “putting away childish things” because I don’t consider genre a childish thing (not all of it, anyway). My tastes have changed, and most genre no longer meets those tastes. So I have to look harder to find stuff that does – I have to look harder anyway because the genre is now so much bigger, and I have access to so much more of it; but you know what I mean. I still have my favourite genre writers, of course, and I continue to read, and enjoy, their output; but unless something new really is out of the ordinary I usually find myself blithely uninterested in it.
Fortunately, there is more to literature than just genre fiction. And I’ve found that some mainstream/literary fiction does offer me what I look for in my reading. Plus, there is tons of it to explore – an entire history, in fact. I’ve learnt I really like, for example, DH Lawrence’s writing, so there’s an extensive oeuvre to work through right there. And Malcolm Lowry. And the works of recent discoveries Karen Blixen and Jenny Erpenbeck I want explore. I also have a bad habit of jotting down the titles of books that sound interesting when I come across mention of them, particularly twentieth-century ones that are hard to find… which is how I ended up with a copy of Johannes V Jensen’s The Long Journey (originally published in Danish in six volumes between 1908 and 1922; first published in English in three volumes in 1924), and I’m still looking for a copy of Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On (1924)… oh, and I’d like to read Jerzy Żuławski’s Lunar Trilogy but I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English…
Despite all that, there’s still a lot of twentieth-century science fiction I’ve not read, and I’m not about to write off the genre completely. It may well be projection on my part, but there seemed to be more of a distinction between science fiction and fantasy last century and I like that. I also like that there are a lot of well-written science fiction novels from the twentieth-century which have been pretty much ignored – mostly written by women, yes – and discovering them for SF Mistressworks does add an extra dimension to reading them.
So, anyway, reading… I did some. It is here. See below.
Windows in the Sea, Marion Clayton Link (1973). Ed Link made his fortune inventing the aircraft simulator, but he put a lot of time, effort and money into underwater exploration. He invented the SPID (Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling), which set a record when two divers stayed in it for 49 hours at a depth of 432 feet. He also invented a submersible with a lock-out chamber for divers, so they could be carried to their working depth, compressed en route, and begin their decompression while returning to the surface. And he invented the Johnson Sea Link submersible, in which the pilot and passenger sit inside a transparent acrylic sphere. Perhaps he didn’t advertise his adventures to the extent Jacques Cousteau did – in fact, this is the only book specifically about Link’s underwater exploits; other books are about people who worked for him – but he pioneered a number of important underwater technologies. Windows in the Sea thankfully sticks to more of a reportage style, rather than being hagiographic, and it’s fascinating stuff. Of course, not everything went according to plan – in an early test of the SDC (Submersible Decompression Chamber), it was catapulted out of the water with Link inside. Later, Link’s son died in a tragic accident in the Johnson Sea Link. But in a topic poorly served by non-fiction works, this book deserves to be better known.
The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2014). I think it was David Hebblethwaite who recommended this novel – and while people recommend books pretty much all the time, something about this one sounded like it might appeal. So I bunged it on my Amazon wishlist, and was subsequently given it as a Christmas present. The back-cover blurb makes explicit comparisons to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (a book I very much liked, and, in fact, nominated for a Hugo, during my one and only attempt at nominating for the Hugo), but the novel The End of Days reminds me of the most is Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, another book unknown to me until someone recommended it… and which turned out to the best book I read that year. Plotwise, Atkinson’s novel is certainly a closer match, given that The End of Days describes the life of a woman born in Galicia in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and her life throughout the twentieth century as she survives WWI, joins the Communist Party in Vienna, moves to Moscow, and then Berlin, and becomes a famous East German writer. As in, that’s it in the final section in which she lives a long and eventful life. Earlier sections cut it short at various junctures. The writing throughout is stunningly good, the structure is very carefully built up, and this is one of the most impressive books I’ve read so far this year. I fully expect it to make my best five of the half-year, if not the year. I also want to read more by Erpenbeck.
Bibblings, Barbara Paul (1979). I consider myself reasonably well-informed on women sf writers of last century, particularly novelists, but Barbara Paul was one that had completely slipped by me. She had five novels published between 1978 and 1980, and one Star Trek novelisation in 1988. Only her first novel, An Exercise for Madmen, and this one, Bibblings, were published in the UK – and the first was in hardcover only by Robert Hale (whose books are notoriously hard to find). Paul also wrote crime novels; the last was published in 1997. She has an extensive website here. My review of Bibblings is on SF Mistressworks here.
James Benning: Decoding Fear, Peter Pakesch & Bettina Steinbrügge, eds. (2014). I Love Benning’s films, at least those I’ve seen so far, which is only a small portion of his oeuvre as that is all that’s to date been released on DVD (happily, he donated his archives to the Östereichisches Filmmuseum, so hopefully they will release more). James Benning: Decoding Fear was produced to accompany an exhibition of Benning’s work, and comprises a series of essays in German and English, photographs of the exhibits, and an interview, in both German and English, about one element of the exhibition – his Two Cabins, the cabins in question being those by Henry David Thoreau (of Walden fame) and Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber). It’s an interesting insight into an artist whose work I much admire, although to be honest I had expected something a little more analytical than what is essentially a companion-piece to an exhibition.
Blue Gemini, Mike Jenne (2015). How could I resist this? A thriller about a secret militarised Gemini programme – that’s right up my street. True, it was published by an independent publisher, and it’s not being sold as genre fiction… but I thought it worth a go. And, unsurprisingly, the book’s prose has all the style and grace of, well, a technothriller. The topic is indeed something that interests me – a Soviet plan to orbit nuclear warheads persuades the US to develop a secret USAF programme of satellite killer Gemini spacecraft, something that was actually considered in the real world. A group of sterotypically technothrillerish characters become involved in said programme and, er, well, that’s it. The research is good, and Jenne writes the technical aspect of his story with authority. But the characters are pretty much what you’d expect, the prose rarely rises above clunky, and there are a lot of pages here for the story. There are some nice set pieces – particularly those involving a black USAF airman and the racism he encounters – but there’s also a lot of ignorance shown about the rest of the world, and it’s not always clear if Jenne is trying portray the ignorance of Americans of the 1960s or if it’s twenty-first century ignorance. There are two sequels to this book – Blue Darker Than Black, published earlier this year, and Pale Blue, due in June this year. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with them.
1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122