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Reading diary 2021, #5

It’s time to retire this blog. All I’m doing is posting mini-rants-masquerading-as-reviews of books and movies, and that at increasingly longer intervals. Plus, WordPress have gone and fucked up a perfectly good product, and their new “Gutenberg” block editor is shit. It now takes ten times longer to format a blog post, and I had to trash the one I’d planned to post before this one because I couldn’t get the editor to let me format it how I wanted. If I want to use the old editor, I have to pay extra money. I’ve no desire to support a business that blackmails its customers by removing functionality and then demanding money to return it. So, fuck them.

I could, I suppose, move to another platform. Not Blogger. I was on that originally. But they kept on randomly blocking my blog because their AI had decided it was spam… and Blogger made it increasingly difficult to get it unblocked. “Customer support” is not a phrase that seems to be in Google’s vocabulary. I’ve also heard their current version is even worse than WordPress.

Other blogging platforms seem more in the nature of website-building platforms for complete idiots. All drag and drop and fixed templates and zero actual control on the part of the user. And yes, I do still use the CLI in $dayjob.

Anyway, blogs are dead, social media is a cesspool of stupidity and tribalism, fandom is a pitched battle between various groups determined to police and/or gatekeep everyone else, and who knows when physical conventions will be a thing again? (I refer, of course, to English-language genre culture.)

Anyway, for this ultimate post, I shall finish much as I’ve been going on these last few years. With sort of reviews of half a dozen books.

submissionSubmission, Michel Houellebecq (2015, France). I can’t decide if this novel is irresponsible race-baiting or a clever commentary on the culture war. It’s probably both. In Submission‘s 2022, a moderate Muslim candidate becomes president of France and remakes French society along moderate Islamic lines – which are not all that moderate. In a word, the patriarchy is back. Women can no longer work. The narrator is a professor at a Parisian university, who is forced to retire when the new regime takes over. While the new government greatly reduces crime, it is at the cost of women’s freedoms. Professors are “bribed” back into their positions by finding them biddable female students as wives. Which, to be fair, is not how Islam works. It is, however, how patriarchy works. And that’s definitely one of the unacknowledged planks of the right-wing adherents of the “culture war”. They hate Muslims. But they want women back in the kitchen and no brown people in sight. But I’m not sure this novel is commenting on them, and I don’t think Islam is a good vehicle to make that point. But then France has a different reaction to its Muslim citizens than the UK, and I grew up in the Middle East so I’ve lived in actual Islamic countries, and Houellebecq’s presentation of Islam is hopelessly simplified, even though he provides a character to actually explain the religion. There’s also an unacknowledged issue here. I’ve seen it in the real world. In Houellebecq’s France, women can still study, but they cannot work. So their studies are worthless. But those women don’t want their daughters to suffer the same fate, so they agitate for jobs. It’s what’s been happing in the Gulf states for the past 30 years. Houllebecq’s interpretation of an Islamic Europe is unsustainable. You can’t disenfranchise half of the population and expect that to continue unopposed. Houellebecq is a controversial figure, but much of the controversy he has manufactured himself. Submission is the sort of novel that will upset people, but it’s not really a thought experiment. it’s a piss-take. Houellebecq is upsetting the people he’s taking the piss out of. Seems fair to me.

binaryBinary System, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This was originally published as two ebooks in 2016 and 2017, but that seems an odd decision since neither seem to stand on their own. It is good old-fashioned – where “old-fashioned” means 1990s – science fiction, but with updated sensibilities. To be fair, UK sf of the 1990s and English-language sf of today doesn’t require much in the way of “re-alignment”. Female protagonists were common in male-authored sf by UK writers in the 1990s; the fact it took an additional decade for female protagonists to begin appearing in US male-authored sf is another matter. And, to be fair, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US published a great deal more women genre writers than the UK did. Anyway. In Binary System, Delia Kemp is the sole survivor of an explosion as a ship is translating through a wormhole type thing, and finds herself marooned on a world thousands of light years away. It is inhabited by several alien races – and Earth has yet to encounter any aliens. She is taken prisoner by insectoid aliens, but then broken free by gibbon-like alien, and with him she agrees to travel south to witness the ten-yearly appearance of his god. They’re helped by a “spider-crab” alien. The insectoid aliens, she learns, are invaders, devolved ones, it’s true; but the other races, native to the planet, would be happy to be rid of them, and Kemp is worried they might at some point reach Earth. Not that she expects to ever reach Earth herself as she’s marooned so far away. It’s all very trad sf, and there are few real surprises – other than wondering how they story could have been split into two – but it’s well-crafted stuff. And if some of the tropes are a little shiny around the edges, they’re at least used by someone who knows what he’s doing. This is not Brown’s best book, but it’s emblematic of the solid, heartland, unassuming science fiction that he writes when he’s writing moderate to good sf. He’s actually written some excellent sf, but has never been popular enough for it to be noticed. Which is a shame.

empty_quarterIn the Empty Quarter, G Willow Wilson (2021, USA). This was actually free, and I don’t think I’ve read anything by Wilson before – although I do remember she was flavour of the month some ten years ago, but has been writing comics the last few years. An American couple are in an invented city in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, as the husband is part of a team prospecting for oil. The wife, Jean, has been shown about town – as much as she can be – by a local contact of her husband, Mahmoud, and while she’s starting to harbour romantic thoughts toward him, she’s also bored. So she persuades her husband to allow her to accompany him on a trip into the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al-Khali. But she finds herself even more bored, standing around while he works, so she explores a cave she finds in a sabkha, gets trapped, and is rescued by a djinn. I’ve actually camped in the Empty Quarter, so I know what it’s like, and I’m not really convinced by Willow’s description (which does not mean she has never visited it, of course). For one thing, she doesn’t use the term sabkha, and her description of one doesn’t quite ring true. Despite all that, the entire novella feels like packaging for a single line, “You’ve been treating me like a guest, but I’m here without an invitation”. Which is, of course, true – of the Brits and French in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. But the novella’s story isn’t really a commentary on that one line, just its delivery vehicle. And that, I think, is where it fails. Jean sees Saudi Arabia as “exotic”, which fits her character, but Willow seems more interested in commenting on the US’s exploitation of the Arabian peninsula than US, or indeed Western, attitudes to the cultures of the region. Having said that, this is a novella. If it disappoints, it’s because it implies a wider remit than it actually delivers on.

pincherPincher Martin, William Golding (1957, UK). Some friends of mine have recently been writing about William Golding, although they initially encountered him many decades ago. I did too, in a fashion, as I read Lord of the Flies at school – at least, I’m pretty sure I did – but I didn’t try another Golding novel until only a couple of years ago. So I’ve not had that long an appreciation of his books, and the few that I’ve read so far have been somewhat variable: Rites of Passage is amazing, The Inheritors is very good, but The Pyramid and The Paper Men are only mildly amusing. Pincher Martin is a remarkable book, and I think if it had been one of the first books by Golding I’d read I might perhaps hold him in as high esteem as the aforementioned friends. The title refers to a RNVR lieutenant in a destroyer in a trans-Atlantic WW2 convoy. The ship is sunk – probably by a U-Boat – and Martin finds himself on his own floating in mid-Atlantic. He manages to land himself on a tiny rock island, and has to subsist on rain water and mussels until he is rescued. As he waits, and suffers from exposure and malnutrition, flashbacks, some of which are more or less stream-of-consciousness, tell something of his past. And he was not a nice man. Much of the novel recounts, in excruciating detail, Martin’s situation and efforts to keep himself alive. It’s hard reading. And then there’s the final chapter… I’ll say there’s a twist, but I won’t spoil it. Recommended.

mitfordChristmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford (1932, UK). The second of The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, and it’s more of the same as the first. But much funnier. Some of the characters featured in Highland Fling (like Waugh, Mitford seems to have a stable of characters for her books), but this time they’re spending Christmas in the country. Amabelle Fortescue, rich widow and ex-sex worker, has hired a cottage in Gloucestershire. She invites the Monteaths to join her. Meanwhile, novelist Paul Fotheringay, a friend of Amabelle’s, whose tragic debut novel has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, deeply hurting him, has decided a biography of his favourite Victorian poet is what is needed to convince people of his serious literary nature. So he wangles a post, under a false name, as tutor to the poet’s descendant, a teenage baronet, whose home is near the country cottage rented by Amabelle. Some of the poet’s verse is reproduced, and it’s brilliant – “Think only, love, upon our wedding day / The lilies and the sunshine and the bells / Of how, the service o’er, we drove away / To our blest honeymoon at Tunbridge Wells.” The cast are grotesques, even when presented as relatively normal for the milieu, and it’s Mitford has a sharp tongue when poking fun at them and their world. But this is no social commentary – nor was Waugh’s, to be fair – and if Mitford’s humour is at the expense of her characters, it’s at least it’s  not Waugh’s contemptuous cynicism. They’re well put-together these novels. Recommended.

vanished birdsThe Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez (2020, USA). I’d given up on reading US genre debuts, but then I go and pick one up and read it. To be fair, I’d heard good things of The Vanished Birds from people whose opinion I trust, and I’ve not seen it mentioned often on social media, which means it probably doesn’t appeal to the sort of people who champion books I’ve found I definitely don’t like. (And it hasn’t made any award shortlists this year.) But, oh dear. Tricked again. On the plus side, it’s better written than is usually the case – but given it was apparently a thesis for a Creative Writing MFA, that’s hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, it fails pretty much everywhere else. It opens with a section set on a world which is visited by twelve spaceships every fifteen years, there to collect… a fruit which apparently stays fresh for up to fifteen years after harvesting. The economics make no sense – there are other villages, and hence more spaceships, on different schedules, so demand for this fruit must be huge. Except… the ships only appear every fifteen years, but for them the trip takes days, and they’re away from their destination for only months. (This time discrepancy in FTL applies nowhere else in the novel.) All this has little to do with the story, which is all about a mysterious boy one such ship picks up on a trip to the planet. There are a series of spacestations, in a universe that borrows most of its visuals from media sf, especially Star Wars, and which are shaped like birds because… because why? Their architect is treated more or less like an empress, for no discernible reason. She goes into cold sleep at regular intervals and has now lived for over a thousand years. She has determined the mysterious boy has the ability to “jaunt”, ie, travel from planet to planet without a spaceship. This ability could, understandably, upset the standard corporatist US-imagined space opera bollocks universe, with its serfs and one-percenters and child abuse and slavery, all of which exist because. For all its praise, The Vanished Birds is a creative writing exercise that strives more for effect than rigour, has a plot that makes little sense, and  a universe  cobbled together from a dozen ro so properties and overlaid with the usual US science fiction fascist nonsense. (In one scene, 2,500 innocent men, women and children are herded into a room and shot dead by corporate soldiers in order to “punish” the aforementioned architect who had created the secret complex where they lived and worked. Seriously, this fascist shit needs to stop. It’s a failure of imagination, and says more about US culture than it does English-language science fiction. And The Vanished Birds will definitely be the last twenty-first century US genre debut novel I ever read – at least until those authors have several more novels under their belt.

So, that’s it. The end of a blog. It had a good run – November 2006 to April 2021. I’ll keep it up, as there are one or two posts that still get visitors, like 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. But I’ll no longer be adding new content. And the URL may change as I no longer see the point in paying to redirect to my own domain.


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Reading diary 2021, #4

I had a week off work, and spent most of it stretched out on the sofa, reading. Which is not that much different, these days, to a working day – with me stretched out on the sofa, doing $dayjob on the MacBook. I’d hoped to read more during my holiday, but got bogged down in the Márquez, which I appreciated more than I liked. Having said that, on the whole not a bad selection of books…

Highland Fling, Nancy Mitford (1931, UK). Once upon a time, I had an idea to focus my reading on British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century – I even wrote a blog post about it, here. I was already a fan of the novels of Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), so it wasn’t much of a stretch. In the event, I only read a dozen or so qualifying novels, but it did introduce me to writers whose oeuvres I wanted to further explore – such as Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz. I later read novels by Hilda Vaughn and Rosamund Lehmann. Nancy Mitford, however, was not on my list, possibly because she was best-known for her 1930s novels, which was a little earlier than I was interested in. But then I started reading Evelyn Waugh, and Mitford’s novels are often compared to his, and – which is probably the most important factor – The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford on Kindle was on offer for £2.99 (that’s eight novels, btw). Comparisons with Waugh are inevitable – both wrote satirically about “Bright Young Things” during the inter-war years. Waugh’s prose is sharper, but his satire is meaner; Mitford plainly doesn’t hold her subjects in contempt, and her set-pieces are slightly more absurd than Waugh’s. In this, her first novel, her characters are put in charge of Highland castle for a shoot, despite being complete upper class twits. And destitute. Because, like Waugh, Mitford is keen to stress how poor most of the upper classes are. It doesn’t wash. Poor working class person asks bank for loan, bank says fuck off. Poor upper class person asks for bank loan, bank throws bundles of cash at them. The upper classes have always been the UK’s worst enemy, and that’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. Or even the 1130s. Highland Fling is mildly amusing – not as cutting as Waugh, but not as racist either – but, you know, if everyone wiped out the entire English upper classes I would not shed a single tear. I might fucking celebrate, though.

Love in the Time of Cholera*, Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Colombia). The title of the book and the name of the author were known to me – and are no doubt known to many people – but I had absolutely no idea about the story. And while I’ve read and enjoyed some South American literature, it’s not a tradition that figures highly in my chosen reading. The book was, of course, on offer, and it’s also on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I thought it worth a punt. And after a diet of far too much bad high fantasy, it was surprisingly refreshing to read prose by someone who could actually put a sentence together. An old man in a South American country dies. The novel then flashes back fifty years to a fifteen-year-old girl, who is being wooed by a young man of middling means. Her father takes her on a road trip to stay with relatives inland in order to block the relationship. When she returns a couple of years later, she finds herself suddenly no longer in love with her suitor. He, however, continues to love her. She marries an urbane and wealthy doctor who studied in France. The story then follows both her paramour, and the years – decades – he spends trying to get on with his life, while loving her from afar, and her own life. She is seemingly content in a marriage that gives her everything but love. Her husband is widely admired, which is all he ever wanted. And the old suitor has a string of jobs and affairs, none of which change him in any meaningful way. It gets distinctly dodgy some three-quarters of the way in, when the suitor takes charge of a thirteen-year-old cousin, and then makes her his lover. That’s straight up paedophilia. I don’t care when and where the book was set, and whether it was even considered acceptable in that time and place – and surely it wasn’t? – but writers choose what they write about, and García Márquez chose to write about a relationship between a man in his fifties and a girl not yet fifteen years old. As for the rest… the story jumps around a little, and I got a bit lost in the internal chronology – suitor works for the telegraph office, then he lives in a brothel, then he gets a job with a telegraph office, and somewhere in there he unsuccessfully tries to retrieve some sunken treasure… The novel revels in the filth and squalor of its setting – obviously the cause of the frequent cholera outbreaks which lend the book its title – and though ostensibly about love and romance, its female characters often feel like walking plot-points. The novel has its moments, but its blithe treatment of paedophilia, not to mention honour killings. or just plain indifference to the preventable squalor and deaths of the poor, make it a hard book to read in the twenty-first century. García Márquez’s other really famous novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suspect I’ll give it a miss.

Master of Paxwax, Phillip Mann (1986, New Zealand). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction for many years, and even reviewed several of his books – positively, of course – for the BSFA’s critical journal, Vector, back in the day. I liked that Mann was considerably more literate than most of his peers, and exhibited a somewhat sideways approach to common science fiction tropes. I’d forgotten that Master of Paxwax, followed by The Fall of the Families, was Mann’s second novel, but I’d remember the broad shape of the story. What had not occurred to me at the time, and struck me quite strongly on this decades-later reread, was how much Master of Paxwax is a pastiche of Frank Herbert’s Dune. More than that – and the timing is tight, so perhaps I’m reaching – but quite a bit of the imagery in Master of Paxwax evokes David Lynch’s movie adaptation of Dune, released in late 1984. After discovering an alien Way Gate, humanity spread out into the galaxy and wiped out all (alien) competitors. This was the Great Push. Centuries later, human society has ossified into an imperium ruled by eleven Great Families, and countless other ones. The Paxwax are the Fifth Family, and Pawl, the third son, finds himself head of the family when his father and elder brother die. The second brother had joined the Inner Circle, ostensibly a semi-religious order of diplomats and advisors, but secretly the last refuge of the alien races subjugated, or even destroyed, by humanity. The Inner Circle has determined that Pawl Paxwax will return the galaxy to the aliens; Pawl Paxwax just wants to break with tradition and marry someone he loves, who is not of the Eleven Families. On the surface, this is a space opera that makes free use of the subgenre’s tropes. But there are many similarities with Dune, while not mapping directly onto its story – no white saviour narrative, no appropriation… And there’s all those aliens, of course. It is, perhaps, a more sensitively-written Dune… but it never manages Herbert’s book’s weight of background, one of Dune‘s chief appeals, because Master of Paxwax relies overmuch on space opera tropes. It’s a good book, perhaps even a forgotten space opera masterpiece, although I suspect that’s a label that applies to a great many books given the low bar most fans seem to apply to space opera…

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2008, USA). I had the title of this book written down on a list of books I wanted to read, and for the life of me I can’t remember why I’d listed it. But it popped up for 99p on Kindle, I remembered the title, and my finger went straight to the “buy now” button. And having now read it, I still can’t remember why it was on that list. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’ve never read a book simply because it won that prize – although I’ve read books that have won it. Olive Kitteridge reminds me a great deal of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction – and I’m a huge fan of her novels; signed first editions only sort of fan – but it doesn’t have the warmth and easy domesticity of her prose. It’s set in small town USA, a foreign country of not much interest to me, north or south, and any familiarity I might have with that world, in broad stroke, is down to a shared language only and the vigorously exported parts of a culture that has pretty much inundated the rest of the Anglophone sphere. The novel is about the eponymous woman. It’s part of a fictional universe built up over several works – in this case, all contained in this “novel”, and a later novel published in 2019. Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of linked stories, in which the title character appears, either as the PoV character or in a supporting role. She was a maths teacher at the local school, but is retired at the time the novel opens. The comparison to Robinson is not entirely unfair – both writers detail a small community in their fiction, telling the stories of several interlinked families. The Wikipedia page for Olive Kitteridge boasts a complete cast of characters from the book – that’s eight families, and half a dozen assorted other groups. Strout manages to make her characters believable – although one or two seem to be defined solely by a couple of traits – despite the fact most of them only appear for a handful of pages. Much as I enjoyed the Olive Kitteridge, I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel.

Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1, (Frank Herbert), Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Raúl Allén & Patricia Martín (2020, USA). Despite repeated attempts to find further means of cashing in on the Dune corpus, by 2010 interest had clearly begun to wane and two planned Dune books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson were quietly cancelled (although another trilogy was completed and published). With, it must be said, good reason: their additions to the Dune universe have been uniformly shit. But then the Dune film – its second movie adaptation – was greenlighted, with no less than semi-auteur box-office darling Denis Villeneuve at the helm, and the Dune universe suddenly got a shot in the arm. I’d thought this graphic novel adaptation was, like the earlier Marvel one, tied in to the new movie adaptation. But now I’m not so sure. The artwork in the graphic novel doesn’t appear to match the production design from the Dune movie trailer. Which suggests it’s yet another cash-in. On the one hand, the graphic novel is faithful to the novel. But it fluffs some scenes – the banquet scene especially – and puts too much emphasis on others, such as the gom jabbar scene. But, worse than that, everything looks disappointingly generic. Lynch’s film had its problems, but it looked absolutely gorgeous. It had exactly that level of over-elaborate design you’d expect of Frank Herbert’s universe. I doubt Villeneuve’s production design will match it. The graphic novel art looks, well, boring. The characters appear far too ordinary and similar and, disappointingly, there’s no intricate detail in the backgrounds. This is the blandest version of Dune that has been produced yet. I will, of course, be buying books two and three.