I stuck to my plan to read only non-fiction in July, but unfortunately I’d not considered one consequence: it usually takes longer to read non-fiction than fiction. So I’ve still not finished The Third Reich: A New History, I’m only three-quarters of the way through The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, and I barely got started on Imagination/Space. However… I did manage to sneak in a few fiction books…
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.
Tor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.
Agent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.
Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.
Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.
The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.