There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.
Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.
But on with the relatively recent reads…
The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.
Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.
The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.
All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.
I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.
And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.
And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.
But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.
This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)
books 1The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.
2The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) . Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.
3The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) . This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.
4Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.
51610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.
Honourable mentions:Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK)  [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA)  [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.
films 1The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland)  No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.
2Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK)  No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.
3Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.
4Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.
5Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway)  Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.
Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain)  I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France)  my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…
On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.
1No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.
2Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.
Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.
The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.
Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.
For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.
2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.
books 1The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.
2Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…
3The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.
4The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.
5Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.
Honourable mentions –Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.
films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.
1The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.
2Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.
3Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.
4Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..
5India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.
Honourable mentions –Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.
films – documentary 1Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.
2A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set around the actors, is especially effective.
3Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.
4Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.
5Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.
Honourable mentions –Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.
albums 1The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.
2Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.
3The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.
I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).
I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association since the late 1980s, and attending Eastercons, on and off, since 1990. So the BSFA Award is the one genre award I’ve been most involved with as a voter. They’ve changed its workings over the years and, to be honest, I’ve yet to be convinced the current system works all that well. But then I’m not convinced popular vote awards are especially useful. I think the British Fantasy Society has it almost right – a popular vote to pick the shortlists, and then a jury to decide on the winner (and they can pull in an extra nominee if they feel a work deserves it). On the other hand, The BFS Awards have way too many categories. At least the BSFA Award keeps it nice and simple: best novel (published in the UK), best “shorter fiction” (novellas to flash fiction, published anywhere), best non-fiction (from blog posts to academic tomes, published anywhere) and best artwork (no geographic restriction either). This year, the shortlists look as follows:
I’ve read the first two, and in fact nominated them for the longlist. The Charnock was initially ruled ineligible as 47North is Amazon’s publishing imprint, but I argued the point on Twitter and the committee decided 47North was actually transatlantic and so the book qualified after all. I’m pleased about that. I’m in no rush to read the Leckie, as it’s apparently more of the same. The Hamid is a surprise. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker, and I’ve not heard anyone in sf circles talking about it on social media. I guesss I’ll have to get me a copy.
I’ve read the Charnock, and I thought it very good. There’s nothing from Interzone here, which is a surprise… Or maybe not. The most active voters these days seem to be those who use social media, and both Strange Horizons and tor.com are popular among them – but not Interzone, which is old school tech, ie paper. The Thompson I’ve seen praised a lot. The others I’ve heard nothing about.
The 2017 Shadow Clarke Award blog, Nina Allan, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Victoria Hoyle, Vajra Chandrasekera, Nick Hubble, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont, Megan AM (The Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy)
I like the grab-bag nature of this category, but it can end up a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. Here we have a book of criticism, two series of blog posts, a critical article in a book and a review in an online magazine. I’ve read the Banks book, and it’s very good (I might well have nominated it for the long list; I don’t remember). Adam Roberts is a frighteningly intelligent and witty critic (and writer), but to be honest I really couldn’t give a shit about HG Wells and all the books he wrote. I followed the Shadow Clarke (and was much amused at US fans’ mystification at the concept of a shadow jury), and I plan to follow it again this year. The final nominee… well, the only article published by Strange Horizons that I’ve seen mentioned several times is ‘Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift’ by Erin Horáková, so I’d have thought that more likely to have been chosen. I’ve not read the Ghosh book reviewed by Singh – my mother is a big fan of Ghosh’s fiction, but the only novel by him I’ve read is his 1996 Clarke Award winner The Calcutta Chromosome – but Singh’s review does look like an excellent piece of criticism.
Geneva Benton: Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)
Jim Burns: cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
Galen Dara: illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)
Chris Moore: cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
Victo Ngai: illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)
Marcin Wolski: cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
There’s not much you can say about Best Artwork – you either like the nominated piece, or you don’t. But another Jim Burns cover for an Ian Whates novel? Really? Burns does great work, he’s one of the best genre cover artists this country has produced, but I’d sooner see more adventurous art in this category. We also have a short story, and the art illustrating it, on two shortlists. It’s a lovely piece of art, but… I have a lot of trouble myself thinking of candidates to nominate for this category, so I guess it’s unsurprising the people who voted for a story would also vote for its accompanying art. And voting on the long list requires hunting down each piece in order to decide whether or not it’s worth a vote… Perhaps in future, the BSFA can provide a page with thumbnails of all the longlisted art?
So there you have it… Four shortlists, the winners to be decided at Follycon in Harrogate at the beginning of April. I’m going to have a go at calling the winners. I think The Rift will take best novel, Greg Egan best short fiction, the Shadow Clarke jury best non-fiction, and… okay, I’ve no idea who’ll win Best Artwork. Probably Jim Burns. Again.
Okay, we’re just about a month into 2018 and it’s already proving a better reading year than 2017. Of course, the real test is keeping it going for 12 months… One of the other things I’d like to do, reading-wise, in 2018, beside read fiction from other countries, is to try and increase that 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count at the bottom of each of these posts. I’m not good on the classics, I need to read more of them. Would you believe I’ve only ever read one book by Charles Dickens? And while I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novel (except Emma), I’ve never read anything by a Brontë.
Meanwhile, some recently-published and recently-read fiction…
Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). I’m not entirely convinced by tor.com’s line of novellas if only because they like to suggest they either saved the novella or created the current market for them. Small presses have been publishing novellas for decades. Which is not to say tor.com are doing a bad thing. I like novellas so I can’t fault tor.com’s mission. True, many of the novellas they’ve published have not been to my taste – and one or two have, I feel, been lauded far more than they deserve – but … one or two of them have been entirely to my taste. Like this one. Dave Hutchinson is a friend but I also think his soon-to-be-more-than-a-trilogy of Europe books is excellent. Acadie, however, is much closer to heartland sf. The narrator is the president of the Writers, a group outlawed because of their experimentation on the human genome. He was a famous whistleblower and was recruited by them. When the Writers learn their hideout may have been discovered, they kick into action a plan to abandon the star system and settle elsewhere. The narrator is one of several people left behind to oversee the withdrawal and ensure the Writers are not tracked to their new home. But what he learns calls into question everything he knows. Okay, so the big twist isn’t that hard to spot, and while I’m no fan of first-person narratives, it’s hard to see how this story would work in third-person. If I have one complaint, it’s the depictions of the Writers’ society are both a little extreme, which undermines the point they’re trying to make. But otherwise, this is good stuff. It may well make the BSFA Award shortlist.
Orbital 7: Implosion, Pellé & Runberg (2017, France). Cinebook have been doing an excellent job introducing well-known bandes dessinées to the UK market, but my interest lies pretty much exclusively in the sf titles, such as Valerian and Laureline and this one, Orbital. The series follows the adventures of a human and Sandjarr, both mavericks, who were once members of their respective races’ diplomatic corps. Humanity lost a war to the Sandjarrs and hate them, so the first couple of volumes were chiefly concerned with normalising relations between the pair. But now they’re pretty much partners, and it’s a wider conspiracy seeking to undermine the human-Sandjarr alliance which provides the stories. Neuronomes, giant sentient ships which were instrumental in saving the galaxy in the previous two-volume story, have been mysteriously blowing themselves up, killing millions of people. Caleb and Mezoke are on the alien space station of Tetsuam, trying to track down a clue to what is affecting the Neuronomes. This may be the start of a new story, but it makes little or no sense without knowledge of the earlier six volumes. Which are worth reading anyway. Good stuff.
The Rift, Nina Allan (2016, UK). There’s no doubt that Allan is one of the more interesting genre writers the UK has produced in the past few years. She came out of slipstream and dark fantasy and has moved into science fiction, and her beginnings very much flavour her stories. The Rift is only her second try at novel-length, and even then her first, The Race, felt more like three novellas badly welded together than it did a novel… which sort of makes The Rift Allan’s first successful attempt at novel-length fiction. Because the one thing The Rift is… is a much more coherent narrative than The Race. (To be fair, the lack of coherence was a feature of The Race‘s narrative, it just didn’t quite work for me.) The problem I have with The Rift, and it’s fairly minor, is that I can’t decide if it’s stunningly clever, or just very clever with accidental elements of stunning cleverness. Obviously, I’d like to believe the former, but I’m also all too aware of how writers can unwittingly include more in their fiction than they realise. The plot in a nutshell: Selena’s sister, Julie, disappeared twenty years ago, assumed to have been a victim of a serial killer caught at that time, but now she has re-appeared and claims to have spent much of the two decades on an alien world she accidentally reached through a “rift”. The alien world feels like something which might have been invented for a 1970s science fiction novel, internally rigorous but also strangely familiar. It didn’t help, for me, that some of the invented names sounded like places in Denmark (Nooraspoor = Nørreport?). The big question is: did Julie really spend her time there, or has she made it up? And The Rift refuses to commit to one or the other. Is Julie perhaps an imposter? The final section of the novel seems to suggest as much, but Serena refuses to believe it, on more than sufficient evidence. The beauty of The Rift is that refusal to commit. It’s a lovely piece of writing – but that’s not unexpected for Allan – but it’s also a coherent straight-through narrative, enlivened with a few tricks such as changes of tense or person or POV, and it’s because the story is a neat contained whole, so to speak, that the narrative’s refusal to commit to a truth is so striking. It’s a novel that stays with you, not just because of the story it tells but because of the way it tells its story. It is, without a doubt, Allan’s best work yet.
My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015, USA). I nominated this for a BSFA Award in 2016 based on a read of the first few chapters… but I never got around to finishing the book off. Which I have now done. And it deserved that nomination. Which, sadly, came to nothing anyway. Inspired by the sight of a mannequin’s head in a basket of tat at a flea market, Wosk began researching female automatons, both historical and fictional. But not just mechanical ones, or indeed magical ones from mythology. She discusses Eliza Doolittle, for example, as well as several early genre stories about mechanical women. The book then goes on to cover mechanical women in films of the 1920s and 1930s, then films and television of the decades following, before moving onto actual female robots. If you consider the robot trope in science fiction as a signifier for slavery, or for at the very least for “invisible” domestics, then it’s no great stretch to see artificial women as little more than a signifier for deep misogyny. Artificial women are, after all, above all biddable. They are the ultimate in male gaze, mirrors of the male gaze in fact; so it’s little wonder they’ve proven popular in genre. Of course, there are those examples which subvert the trope – at the end of Pygmalion, Eliza is her own woman and no longer Higgins’s toy; in Metropolis, the robot Maria is used to foment revolt among the workers; in Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, Ossi Oswalda’s impersonation of a doll sees her take control of the story… If there’s a weakness to My Fair Ladies, although it is a fascinating read, it’s that it doesn’t cover much written science fiction, covering only early genre stories and then films and television. When you consider the use of artificial women in written sf since WWII, and especially in the past couple of decades… the trope is even more pernicious, such as the title character of the awful The Windup Girl. There are no female Pinocchios. At least, there are none written by men. Madeline Ashby’s vN features a female robot as a protagonist, but she’s on the run after breaking free of her safety protocols. Jennifer Pelland’s Machine is a much more interesting work, although it is about a woman who has been decanted into a robot body while her human body is treated for a fatal condition. The treatment of artificial women in science fiction is, of course, a consequence of the treatment of women in science fiction – both in narratives and in the real world. And while women have always been writing science fiction, it’s a trope they’ve not typically made use of, and so it’s been developed almost exclusively by male writers. I would like to see that change.
Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I bought this when it was first published, so it’s taken me nearly eight years to get around to reading it. And I’m a big fan of Crowley’s writing. Oops. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Endless Things, which I bought in 2007, chiefly because I want to reread Ægypt (AKA The Solitudes), Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania first… But: Four Freedoms, which is entirely unrelated and not even genre. The title refers to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: 1 freedom of speech, 2 freedom of worship, 3 freedom from want, and 4 freedom from fear. It is is set during WWII and chiefly concerns people who work at an aircraft factory in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The bomber these people are building is the B-30 Pax, but it’s clearly an analogue of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which did not see service during WWII (but from 1949 to 1959, to be precise) and was one of the great Cold War bombers of the US. Only 384 were built, but the novel claims 500 of its “B-30″s were built. Crowley mentions in an afterword that he didn’t intentionally model the B-30 on the B-36 and only later discovered the Pax / Peacemaker synchronicity and that the B-36 had been damaged by a cyclone at Fort Worth echoing events in his novel. I believe him – you don’t put “wow synchronicity!” notes in your afterword unless that’s what they were. The actual story of Four Freedoms is that of female and disabled members of the US workforce during WWII. The novel focuses on the factory which builds the B-30, but tells the story of several characters, introducing them and then telling their back-story through flashback. It’s a beautiful piece of writing – effortlessly readable, effortlessly convincing. I had forgotten how good Crowley is. I really ought to get started on my read of Endless Things…
Autumn, Ali Smith (2016, UK). This was my first Ali Smith. I know her name, of course, although she has appeared on my radar more often recently as her fiction of the last few years seems to be borderline genre. Or rather, is genre but not published as such. And Autumn seems to be a case in point. Although to be fair, had it been published as genre, it would have generated no end of complaints and killed Smith’s career as a genre writer. Happily, it was published as lit fic, and those of us not so tied to space opera, mil sf, grimdark, etc. we can read nothing else, can enjoy it as genre. The novel opens with a man on a beach who appears to be in some sort of afterlife, and then abruptly shifts to the life of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer. As a child she had made friends with her neighbour, an OAP called Daniel, who had been a songwriter. Years later, she discovers he is terminally ill and begins visiting him in his nursing home. At which point she realises that he is the only man she has ever loved, despite their great difference in ages, and that has affected all her relationships. The narrative bounces back and forth through time, telling each character’s story, and introducing Pauline Boty, a female British Pop artist, whose works and contributions have been criminally forgotten (in real life, that is). She was Daniel’s one great love, although she was married and did not return his feelings – but because of her, Daniel could not love Elisabeth. Much is made in reviews of the book’s post-Brexit setting, but to anyone who has lived in the North after a decade of the Tories’ criminal Austerity it seems pretty much what life in the UK is like now. I’m not sure about Smith’s prose. It seemed at first a little OTT, and some of the stream of consciousness sections seemed to serve little purpose. I’ll read more by Smith, I think, but I’m not about to dash out and read everything she has written.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131
I’ve got a few of these posts to get out before I complete documenting my 2017 reading. The books below were all read two months ago, but I’ve been a bit crap at writing them up. I’ve been a bit crap at finishing books, in fact, and have got into the bad habit of picking up a new book before reaching the end of the current one… and then having to go back and finish it later. I’ve got piles of books scattered around the living-room which only need me to read the last twenty or so pages so I can put them back on the shelves (or send them off to the charity shop). I think I’ll make that a resolution for 2018: only pick up a new book when I’ve actually reached THE END in the one I’m reading. And if that means carrying two books on my daily commute, so be it.
Anyway, November 2017’s reading consisted of…
Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain). This is the sequel to Nocilla Dream, which I read and thought very good last year – see here. There is a third book, Nocilla Lab, although I can find no information on when Fitzcarraldo Editions plans to publish it, or indeed Mallo’s most recent novel, Limbo. Like the first book, Nocilla Experience is split into numbered sections, 112 in total, some several pages long, others no more than a sentence or two. They are a mix of fiction and fact, or, such as in the case of the snippets of dialogue from Apocalypse Now, found documents. The main narratives all deal with obsession – a man who is trying to eat every box of corn flakes he can find with a sell-by date the same as his ex-wife’s birthday; another who turns bubblegum stuck to pavement into tiny paintings; a third man runs a restaurant that serves up found objects instead of food, although they’re presented as food… It’s a fascinating literary experiment, although I’m not entirely sure how it’s supposed to fit together – or if indeed it’s meant to. And, for some reason, much as I liked it, Nocilla Experience didn’t quite appeal to me as much as Nocilla Dream did. But I’m still looking forward to the third book… and I wonder if there are any Spanish writers inspired by Mallo – the “Nocilla generation” – who have also been translated into English…
The Silver Wind, Nina Allan (2011, UK). I’m still not sure if that’s “wind” as in what you do to a clock, or “wind” as in the movement of air. And I heard the author read one of the stories from this linked collection at a Fantasycon in Brighton several years ago. But there’s a fob watch prominent on the cover, and the six stories inside are all about time – so much so, watches and clocks are repeatedly called “time machines” – and there are definite hints that travel through time takes place in some of the stories. But each story also features variations on a small cast of characters, suggesting alternate universes more than time travel. It all makes for an unsettling read, a mosaic narrative which refuses to remain constant, which refuses to settle down. While the plots themselves are little different to those you might find in a series of literary fiction short stories, the fact the world in which they take place seems to rest on shifting sands gives them a fantastical atmosphere. It’s something Allan does in most of her fiction, but in The Silver Wind, because of the small cast and the interweaving of lives and stories, it’s much more obvious. Good stuff.
The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (2009, Canada). This is the sequel to Oryx & Crake, and now apparently the second book of a trilogy, followed by MaddAddam, which I also own. I read Oryx & Crake a couple of years ago and, to be honest, I don’t recall much of the plot. I do remember finding it all very unconvincing and Atwood’s neologisms quite cringeworthy. That last is still true in The Year of the Flood, but the world it describes seems much better made. But brutal. Horribly, stupidly brutal, in fact. It’s cruel in a way that only science fiction and fantasy can manage, a scale of brutality that needs an invented world to achieve. Atwood seems to revel in the gore in parts of this novel, and I’m not interested in such fiction. I don’t want to read books that normalise psychopathic behaviour, and far too much science fiction does that. On the other hand, the “sermons” which introduce each section of The Year of the Flood are hilarious. It is, I think, a much better book than its predecessor, but it is also disappointingly violent. I don’t know when I’ll get to MaddAddam, but I suspect it’ll take me a while.
Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr (2017, UK). This is the twelfth novel in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, begun back in the early 1990s with his Berlin Noir trilogy. Since returning to the series in 2006, Kerr has been banging them out one a year, with no discernible loss in quality. And over the twelve books, we’ve seen Bernie survive WWII, bounce around South America, Cuba, Germany, and now it’s the mid-1950s and he’s a concierge at a small hotel on the Riviera. Each of the Gunther novels has followed the same template – what Bernie is doing now, and how he gets himself out of the bad situation he seems to have got himself into, and a narrative set at some point before, or during, the Second World War, when he worked for various iterations of the Berlin police. In Prussian Blue, a face from the past turns up and blackmails Bernie into murdering a woman in England, so he goes on the run. That face from the past was Bernie’s criminal assistant during an investigation into a murder in Obersalzberg, Hitler’s mountainside retreat in Bavaria, which he had to solve in a week before Hitler arrived to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, Obersalzberg, administered by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Borman, is rife with corruption, and there is no shortage of suspects. Just make matters worse, Borman doesn’t much care if the crime is solved, just as long as he has someone he can put in front of a firing squad. Which he soon finds. But Gunther also has a suspect. Unfortunately, the murder is linked to the millions Borman and his cronies are ripping off from the Third Reich. And while Borman’s brother, who hates him, is waiting in the wings to bring him low, he and Gunther have been out-manoeuvred. Worth reading.
Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). I forget who originally recommended Charnock, but I read her Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (see here), and was impressed enough to want to read more. Which I now have done. Although it has taken me pretty much exactly twelve months. But it was worth the wait. Dreams Before the Start of Time is… an ensemble piece. There are a group of people, related by blood or marriage or just friends, and they’re living their lives in London and Shanghai over the next few decades, beginning several years from now. The story opens with a young woman deciding to become a single mother, but using a sperm donor. Her friend, on the other hand, has a one-night stand, and decides to keep the consequences. As the years unfold, attitudes to the means of conception, gestation and child-rearing change as technology progresses and sensibilities reflect new social mores. A sf novel like this in direct opposition to the Atwood above – the world has not ended, there are no sexual assaults, no mega-violence, no violence, in fact. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Of course, it helps that the writing is really good – good enough for me to pick the novel as one of my top five books of the year – see here. I was given Charnock’s A Calculated Life, her debut novel, for Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Final Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Ladrönn (2017, France). Jodorowsky keeps on coming back to the Incal. This is hardly a surprise as it’s been his most successful title – although Incal spin-off the Metabarons has probably appeared in more media incarnations. In Final Incal, the multiverse is in danger when an evil machine intelligence creates a plague and the only defence is to convert everyone into a robot… Three iterations of John DiFool all meet up between universes, in the hunt for their lover, Luz, and the means to save the multiverse from destruction. But only one of them can complete the task. The artwork, by Ladrönn, is very good indeed. Apparently, Moebius did start work on the project, but only completed the first part, so Jodorowsky had Ladrönn redo it from the start. The story is the usual Jodorowsky weirdness, although it’s starting to feel a little recycled by now. This was an astonishing piece of sf in its day, and it continues to make for good reading decades later. But I have to wonder whether these returns and extensions to it are doing it any favours. I guess I’ll find out when I get around to reading Deconstructing the Incal…
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131
So the big project at work that was supposed to end on September 1st… didn’t. A month before, they realised they weren’t going to hit the deadline, and so rebased all their plans. Which meant I was now free for the first weekend in September, the date of Fantasticon, an annual science fiction convention in Copenhagen. I mentioned it in passing to my boss, told her it was doable, if expensive, and she said go for it, I needed to use up some holidays anyway. Which is why, on pretty much a week’s notice, I booked a flight and a hotel room, and flew to Denmark to attend Fantasticon 2017.
I flew out on the Thursday night, as it was easier and cheaper than a Friday flight, although it meant an extra night in the hotel (which, er, wasn’t cheaper…). Usually, when I fly to Denmark, I go EasyJet, but this time I flew SAS, and it was a much better experience. I landed just after 9 pm, topped up my Copenhagen travel card, and caught the train from the airport to the city’s main railway station. My hotel was on Vesterbrogade, about 800 metres from the station. There are a lot of hotels on Vesterbrogade, which meant a lot of tourists, dragging their suitcases along the pavements, which were restricted because of roadworks. When I landed in Denmark, I’d switched my mobile back on and learnt I had two voicemails. Once I was in my hotel room, I listened to them. The first was from work; the second was from my bank… asking me to ring them on their fraud prevention line. I called them, demanding to know what was going on – they’d wanted to cancel my debit card two days before I flew to Helsinki for Worldcon75, but I’d persuaded them to hold off, and on my return they’d cancelled my card and sent me a new one… and now this new one had been compromised, even though I’d had it less than a week. I got a bit shouty. The bloke on the other end of the phone said, we haven’t left you a voicemail today, that one was from 16 August. Oops. It was an old message about my old card, and had got stuck in Vodafone’s voicemail system. I apologised for my outburst.
The view from my hotel window
Fantasticon 2017 didn’t start until 4 pm, so I had most of Friday free. I rang my sister, Kay, who lives just north of Copenhagen, and we agreed to meet up for lunch. I went for a wander in the Indre By, and managed to navigate my way to Faraos Cigarer, with a bit of help from my phone. I’d last visited there at Christmas, but the shop had greatly expanded. Downstairs had been English-language and upstairs Danish-language. Now, it was all English (there was a new Danish-language shop across the road), with novels and manga downstairs, and graphic novels upstairs. I met up with my sister outside the Rådhus, and we went looking for somewhere to eat. The first place, the waitress gave us a blank look when I asked what was dairy-free on the menu. She checked with the chef. I could have the salad. It seemed Copenhagen was going through a brioche phase and all sandwiches were made with bread that contained milk. We left. The second place we tried, the menu was just as unwelcoming, but the guy behind the bar (he appeared to be the only person serving) made an effort and produced two club sandwiches without dairy for us. Danish club sandwiches are not like club sandwiches in the rest of the world. They’re not triple-decker sandwiches with egg, bacon, chicken, salad, etc; they’re hot sandwiches containing chicken breast in curry mayonnaise, often with pesto. But then the Danish don’t call danishes danishes either. (They call them Viennese pastries.)
After lunch I returned to my hotel to wait for the con to begin. At 3 pm, someone from the con posted on Facebook that the doors were open, so I made my way to Frederiksberg, 800 metres from my hotel in the opposite direction to the railway station, and the Serapion Order, the venue for Fantasticon. I was a bit early. I walked in and the only three people there were Sanna, Bende and Flemming, all of whom were involved in organising the con. (I’d met both Sanna and Flemming at Swecons previously.) So I checked out the venue until the opening ceremony started. More people began to arrive, including a few Swedish fans, Carolina, Thomas and Johan. There was also a Finnish fan at the con, Linn, who was a NOFF candidate. The opening ceremony consisted of Flemming welcoming everyone to the con, apologising that the GoHs – Nina Allan and Christopher Priest – had not yet arrived (their plane was landing as he spoke, he told us), and then mentioning several upcoming cons (including Icecon 2 next year and the worldcon in Dublin in 2019). Later that night, I sat through Jesper Stage’s entertaining, and very dry, talk on the economics of colonisation in fantasy and science fiction. The venue closed at ten. I left with Jesper Rugård, and as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, we stopped at a posh burger place on Vesterbrogade. They actually had an allergy sheet for their menu.
The Serapion Order
The next morning, after a big breakfast (sadly, no gherkins), I headed to the Serapion Order about 11 am. I spent most of the day talking with friends, and attended two programme items – a GoH interview with Nina Allan, and a panel on the New Wave. The con was much busier than the day before – not just with day members, but half a dozen invited guests had also turned up to give talks or sit on panels. That evening the con laid on a buffet – they’d assured me there’d be some lactose-free food available, so I’d bought a ticket for it. In the event, the chef turned out to have a daughter who was lactose-intolerant, so he made everything using lactose-free ingredients. The dinner was excellent. Again, the venue closed at ten. Most people went home, but half a dozen of us – Jesper R, Lars, Linn, Sanna, Fia and myself – headed for a bar called the Mikkeller. It turned out to be just around the corner from my hotel. Fia, Sanna and me carried on until 1 am, before calling it a night.
Nina Allan interview
I didn’t bother with breakfast on the Sunday, and had a lie-in until 9 am instead. On my way to the con, I stopped in Irma, a supermarket, and bought a sandwich and a small bottle of orange juice with chilli, which proved to be horrible. I nipped to another supermarket, Fotex, to buy a sandwich and a drink at lunchtime. (It was the same sandwich both times, chicken and bacon, which was the only dairy-free one I could find.) I attended a panel on “Will the real science fiction please stand up?”, with both GoHs, which mostly discussed the Clarke Award and the Sharkes. At 4 pm was my only panel of the con, added at the last minute when I bought an attending membership, on “Manned space flight in the past and in the future”, moderated by Flemming, with Asmus Koefoed, Klaus Æ Mogensen, and myself. It was a bit of a free-form discussion – perhaps too free, I noticed Chris Priest nodding off in the front row at times, although apparently something we said has given Nina “the key inspiration for my next novel” (according to her blog).
The end of the con
Fantasticon 2017 ended after the closing ceremony. There was a dead dog party planned, but not in Frederiksberg near the venue. Instead, they’d booked tables at the bar used in previous Fantasticons in Valby, a ten-minute bus ride away. I’d planned to head straight for my sister’s, bus since I had a travel card, I decided I might as well have a couple of beers first. So I caught the bus with the rest of the fans. I also had some food while I was there (fish and chips! I go all the way to Denmark and I have fish and chips!). I left to catch the 19:44 train but, in a weird repeat of Worldcon75, I arrived on the platform just as the train was pulling away. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last one of the night, and I only had to wait ten minutes before another came along. If I’d caught the train I missed, I’d have changed at Østerport and arrived at Skodsborg at 20:39. But the train I actually caught meant I had to change at Copenhagen main railway station, and I got lucky with my connections, and actually arrived at Skodsborg 20 minutes earlier than the earlier train would have got me. Danish trains are good – covered in graffiti, bizarrely – but the timetable is a bit variable.
I spent the night at my sister’s, saw my brother-in-law and my nephews. I’d originally intended to stay a couple of days in Denmark after the con, but in the end booked a flight on the Monday night. And unfortunately, museums are closed in Copenhagen on Mondays. Plenty of people had told me the best coffee in Copenhagen is in Arnold Busck, a book shop, which I already knew, since I go there at least once every Christmas. People had also mentioned Fantask, Copenhagen’s first comics/sf shop, to me, so I dragged Kay there after we’d finished our coffees. I walked into the shop… and there was Sanna. I didn’t buy anything, however. Me and Kay ate lunch in Palæo, which sells grain-free food (most of which is also dairy-free).
After a couple of hours back at Kay’s, I caught the train to the airport. I got a bite to eat in the airport – these days airports are all about the shops, with far too few places to just sit down and relax. And it’s ridiculous shops too – Gucci watches, £50 pairs of tights, Victoria’s Secret… Yes, food, toiletries, books and magazines, these are all useful… but you have to wonder if some of the shops take in enough to cover their rent. And I’d much sooner have somewhere to sit. The flight back to the UK on a tiny aircraft, an 88-seater Bombardier CRJ900, was uneventful. Instead of relying on the vagaries of the British railway network at 9 pm at night, I’d pre-ordered a taxi from an online website. They’d emailed me the driver’s telephone number, and I rang him once I was through the e-passport gates. Manchester was, bizarrely, extremely humid. The minicab turned up 5 minutes later, and drove me home. I think in future, when I travel to Nordic cons, I might fly later in the day and take a taxi home. It was a lot less stressful.
It was all a bit sudden, but I’m glad I made it to Fantasticon. Jesper reckoned they’d had about 65 paying members over the weekend, and certainly the two rooms used for the programme were often only a quarter full. The venue, the Serapion Order – it’s some sort of Masonic order, with lodges throughout Denmark – was surprisingly good. A bottle of beer for only 25 Kr! (That’s £3.) I didn’t try any of the sandwiches they had for sale, but the buffet on the Saturday night was very good indeed. I met a bunch of Danish fans, not just the ones already mentioned, but also Knud, Jan, Klaus, and several others whose name I didn’t catch. It was also good to chat with Nina and Chris, although the con kept them busy over the weekend. The programme items I went to could have done with a little more preparation – and I include myself and the one I was on – but none were boring. A date hasn’t been set for Fantasticon next year, although it’s likely to be the first weekend in September. Nor have they decided on GoHs. But if I’m free that weekend, I’ll probably go again (but I’ll book everything well in advance so it’s not so expensive).
I’ve now been to conventions in four of the five Nordic countries, only Norway is left. True, the cons I went to in Finland were a Nordic con and a worldcon, so neither were actually Finnish conventions. But there’s always Åcon or Finncon. Swecon next year is back in Stockholm, at the Dieselverkstaden in Sickla. Assuming work doesn’t get in the way, I plan to be there – it’ll be my third Fantastika there. And, as previously mentioned, there’s going to be a second Icecon in Reykjavik in October next year. The first one was excellent, so I’m definitely up for that.
Things got a bit stressful a few weeks ago, so I coped by doing what I usually do in such situations: I buy more books. Also, there were a few authors with new books out that I wanted. So the collection has grown quite a bit this month…
I have absolute no idea why I bought Forever Amber. I recently watched the film adaptation by Otto Preminger (see here) and was not especially impressed. But when I looked up the book on Wikipedia and saw the lines, “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long”, I was intrigued enough to look for a copy on eBay. Where I found a hardback for £2. The Unburied was a lucky find – a signed first edition for a reasonable price. I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s books for years but only recently started collecting them.
Some new books: The 7th Function of Language, The Essex Serpent and The Power (not shown) I bought in Waterstone’s a few Saturdays ago, before meeting up with friends for the Sheffield SF & Fantasy Social. I took The Power with me to Helsinki to read during the trip, and gave it away when I’d finished it. Lust was from a large online retailer. I decided it was time to read another book by Elfriede Jelinek – I read her The Piano Teacher a couple of years ago, and thought it very good.
Xeelee: Endurance is a collection of stories originally published in 2015. This is the PS Publishing slipcased version, which was published only this year. The Massacre of Mankind, also by Baxter, is an official sequel to Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I’ve read several of Goss’s stories over the last few years, and was especially impressed by her ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ in 2014, so much so I nominated it for the BSFA Award… but it didn’t make the shortlist. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter sounds like more of the same.
New paperbacks by authors whose books I like and admire: John Crowley’s Totalitopia is more a collection of essays than anything else, The Rift is Nina Allan’s second novel (although I didn’t bother with the updated Titan Books version of The Race), Calling Major Tom is by a friend and has been getting good reviews, and The Switch, well, I’ve been buying and reading Justina Robson’s books right from the start, after being in a writing orbiter with her back in the 1990s.
The Gulag Archipelago – it’s only volume one, although it doesn’t say so – I found in a local charity shop. Cosmic Encounter I bought on eBay – it was very cheap, but the seller was a little optimistic in their description of its condition.
And last but not least, a pair of bandes dessinée: Orphan of the Stars is the seventeenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series (I was surprised to discover recently they’re publishing a novelisation of Luc Besson’s film adaptation; er, what?), and Fog over Tolbiac Bridge is the latest by Jacques Tardi to be published by Fantagraphics. I wrote about both of them here.
The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).
The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.
A Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.
A Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.
Poseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.
The Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129
I seem to have come over all genre. No idea how that happened. Six books and all are genre. Two weren’t published as genre, although one of them did win a science fiction award. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better the next time I come to write one of these posts…
The Brain from Beyond, Ian Watson (2016). This was launched at Mancunicon, but they didn’t have the signed edition available, so I ordered it from PS Publishing a couple of weeks later. It’s your typical Watsonian mad science fiction, which is – I hasten to say – not a bad thing. The invention of time travel has resulted in a lot of lost time machines, and so the Time Machine Salvage Ship Fibonacci, with its crew of four and AI, must go looking for them… and so gets dragged into a bonkers plot involving aliens in statis buried under Antarctica for 12,000 years which had been discovered a couple of centuries earlier, a Boltzmann Brain from far future after the universe has collapsed, a Creationist geologist from a theocratic USA… and jumps back and forth in time, stitching together the various elements of the story so that cause and effect end up tied up in some sort of Gordian Knot. Despite a tendency to fling ideas at the page in the hope that some will stick, this is a fun and clever novella. A definite contender for the BSFA short fiction award next year.
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (2014). This won the Clarke Award last year, and while I’d heard many good things about it, it’s a lit-fic post-apocalypse novel and I find post-apocalypse fiction banal at the best of times, and lit fic attempts at the genre all too often seem to think they’re doing something brand new and innovative, that no one has ever thought of before, and so the prose tends to reek of smugness. So my expectations were not especially high. Happily, Mandel proved a better writer than I’d expected, and I found myself enjoying reading Station Eleven. It’s still banal, of course; more so, in fact, because it trots out the Backwoods Messiah With The Persecution Complex plot, which should have been retired sometime around 37 CE. Anyway, a global flu epidemic wipes out most of humanity. Station Eleven opens in Toronto, when a famous actor has a heart attack on stage and dies. Then everyone else starts to die from the flu. The book jumps ahead twenty years to a post-apocalypse US, and a travelling orchestra/acting troupe, who travel the southern shores of the Great Lakes. And then there is a half-hearted attempt at a plot, which ties in with some of the flashback sections, which are about either the actor or the main character of the post-apocalypse story, a young actress in the travelling troupe. The writing was a great deal better than I’d expected, and so despite being post-apocalypse I came away from Station Eleven a little impressed. A worthy winner of the Clarke Award.
The Harlequin, Nina Allan (2015). At some point it seems every writer has a go at a World War I story. Although World War II was more recent, and killed more people, and had a more profound effect geopolitically, for some reason it’s the Great War which attracts the literateurs. It’s not like I can claim to be immune – I’ve written at least one short story set during WWI. But Allan’s The Harlequin is actually set immediately after the Armistice, when concious objector Dennis Beaumont, who drove an ambulance near the Front, returns to London. On arrival, he bumps into an old shool master, whose reputation was somewhat unsavoury. Beaumont tries to pick up his life, with his sister and his fiancée, but instead finds himself in purely sexual relationship with a barmaid from a rough pub and unsuccessfully trying to ingratiate himself with the widow of a soldier who died in his ambulance. The Harlequin scores big on atmosphere, but like a lot of Allan’s fiction there are several things going on that don’t quite fit together. Clearly something happened to Beaumont in France, and its not until the end of the novella we learn that it might have been supernatural. But it feels like the plot is not in synch with the protagonist’s behaviour – the events of the past are insufficient grounding for his actions in the present. Still, what do I know? The Harlequin won the Novella Award last year. Allan is certainly a name to watch, and her prose is really very good, but, for me, her stories are never quite joined up…
Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976). I’ve been after a copy of this, and its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine, for several years – although not enough to hunt down a copy on eBay, or even shell out full price for the omnibus edition available from Amazon… but it was one of those books I kept an eye open for in the dealers room at conventions, in the hope of picking up a cheap secondhand copy. And, in the end, I had to leave the country to find one: I bought this is the Alvarfonden book room at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. I also found a copy of Drinking Sapphire Wine at the same time. A pair of lucky finds. I reviewed Don’t Bite the Sun on SF Mistressworks here. I can’t say it was really worth the wait…
Nazi Moonbase, Graeme Davis (2016). I stumbled across this on Amazon – I can’t remember what I was actually looking for – and as soon I saw I knew I had to have it. It’s a faux non-fiction book which takes the whole Nazis at the South Pole Who Went To The Moon mythology as fact. It’s a clever melding of the various nutjob theories, and impressive in the way it presents it all absolutely straight-faced. It even takes the piss out of Iron Sky at one point by pointing out that Swastika-shaped buildings would be a bad design for the lunar surface. However, when it sticks to the interstices of known history, that grey area populated by the mythology, then it comes across as almost plausible. But the book has a tendency to push a little bit too far and declare as real something that plainly cannot be… Um, I’m explaining that badly. It’s suspension of disbelief, basically. UFO and Nazi occult science mythology exist in the shadows of science and history, and part of the reason for their longevity and pervasiveness is that they can fit in those dark spaces and the lack of illumination works in their favour. But when they step out of the shadows, the whole edifice collapses. And at several points in Nazi Moonbase, it threatens to do just that. As someone who has themselves stitched an invented history – more than one, in fact – into real history, I’m aware of the difficulties and sensitive to the techniques used. Nazi Moonbase is not entirely successful in that regard, although I did find it very amusing.
Grazing the Long Acre, Gwyneth Jones (2009). I ‘ve been a fan of Jones’s fiction for many years, and consider her the best science fiction writer the UK has produced… so even though I probably I already have the stories in this PS Publishing collection in other books, I had to have it. The slipcased signed and numbered edition too. Grazing the Long Acre contains: ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Balinese Dancer’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’, ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’, ‘The Tomb Wife’ and ‘In the Forest of the Queen’. Only ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, which originally appeared in Dark Terrors 5, was new to me. ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’ and ‘The Tomb Wife’ also appear in The Buonarotti Quartet; ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘In The Forest of the Queen’ are also in The Universe of Things. And yes, I have both of those collections. (‘Balinese Dancer’, incidentally, is also one of the stories in Daughters of Earth, followed by an essay on Jones and the story by Veronica Hollinger.) Apart from ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, as mentioned previously, I’d read all the stories before. Not that it proved a hardship. There are some authors whose novels you love but their short fiction you are cool toward; and vice versa. But Jones’s short fiction I find as sharp and bitingly intelligent as her novels, and while I may enjoy some stories more than others, in terms of quality I find little to distinguish between the two lengths. This reread proved an interesting exercise because revisiting stories can change your perspective on them. I found ‘The Eastern Succession’, for example, a far subtler story than I remembered it. But ‘La Cenerentola’ I felt a little heavy-handed. ‘Balinese Dancer’ was another I thought much better than I’d remembered it; and the Buonarotti stories proved much stranger than I recalled – the aliens of ‘The Fulcrum’ who are not aliens, the horror of the creature which bleeds… qubits?; the creepy atmosphere of the mausoleum in ‘Gravegoods’. I recently posted a review of Jones’s The Universe of Things I wrote back in 2012 (see here), and reading this collection four years after that I found my opinion of the stories pretty much unchanged. This is why I am a huge fan of Gwyneth Jones’s writing.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126