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Best of the half-year, 2018

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
1 The 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.

2 Pack 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…

3 The 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.

4 The 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.

5 Four 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.

1 The 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.

2 Dunkirk, 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.

3 Thelma, 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.

4 Vampir 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..

5 India 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
1 Notfilm, 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.

2 A 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.

3 Waltz 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.

4 Bombshell: 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.

5 Kate 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
1 The 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.

2 Currents, 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.

3 The 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).

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The BSFA Award

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:

Best Novel

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.

Best Shorter Fiction

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.

Best Non-Fiction

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.

Best Artwork

  • 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.


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Reading diary 2018, #2

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


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Reading diary, #57

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


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Wonderful wonderful– er, fantastic fantastic Copenhagen

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.)

The Rådhus

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).

Fantask

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.


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Expanding bookiverse

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.

I signed up for The Blaft Anthology Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 3 on indiegogo back in June 2015. It only arrived last month. The rewards I signed up for included volumes 1 and 2, but reprints of Vol 1 have apparently been delayed so the publishers included Kumari Loves a  Monster as a “sorry, and please be patient”.

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.


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Reading diary, #45

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…).

blake_24The 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_heroA 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.

cover_truth_largeA 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.

poseidons_wakePoseidon’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.

book_enclaveThe 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