It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #11

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. Not sure why. I’ve enjoyed the last few books I’ve read by North, so she’s a safe read. Herron had been recommended to me several times by various people, and the first six books were a daily deal at 99p each, so I bought them. The Roanhorse was part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Pack, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK). To me, the phrase “high concept” feels like it should apply to some profound and intellectually challenging premise around which a novel or film is based, when in fact it just means you can reduce a work’s plot to a simple easily-understood sound-bite. North writes “high concept” sf novels, and yet she manages to put together complex stories based around her “sound-bite” premises. And her plots are buttressed by well-used and extensive research. Her prose has an authority few of her contemporaries can match – and that includes hard sf writers who at least have the laws of physics and known cosmology to underpin their stories. The Pursuit of William Abbey is, ostensibly, framed as a story told by a doctor to a nurse in a casualty clearance station during World War I. She had noticed his suspicious behaviour regarding a particular patient – a young officer who has lost both his legs – and after she quizzes the doctor, he tells her his story. Abbey, the doctor, was cursed during the Boer War when he failed to prevent the murder of a young black man. The murdered man’s shadow now follows him and, when the shadow is close, Abbey can read “truth” directly from a person’s mind. But should the shadow catch up with him, then someone he loves will die. The British Empire has realised the usefulness of people who can read truth from others, and Abbey is press-ganged as a spy. But the British Empire wants to control this ability, and has been experimenting – deliberately “cursing” people with shadows, then lobotomising them and turning them into “truth machines”. The young officer is the son of the man driving the programme. This is the fate they have planned for Abbey. North has taken a fantasy premise and treated it as rigorously as science fiction, but based around a plot inspired by the Great Game (as in Kim). This is good stuff. North is definitely on my list of authors whose latest books I buy.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948, USA). There are writers whose works you admire and enjoy, there are writers whose works you enjoy, and there are writers whose works you admire. Faulkner definitely falls into the last category. His novels – and I base this only on a sample of three – are far from easy reads but the writing is absolutely amazing. They’re modernist, and I do like me some modernism, and written in long run-on sentences in great blocks of text in something close to dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also rewarding, although they’re mostly set in the American South, with all its overt racism, and poverty… The subjects don’t interest me, but the writing is so dazzling, so precise, it overcomes that. Like many people, when I wasn’t reading genre I read contemporary fiction, including exploring back-catalogues – Anthony Burgess, for example, was still being published when I first started reading him. But I’d never really tried reading authors who were active in the first half of the twentieth-century. Perhaps I’d been exposed to some of them at school and so reading them felt like “school work”. Which is not exactly true, as I read The Cruel Sea (1951) at prep school in 1978 or 1979, but in the 1990s sort of rediscovered Nicholas Montsarrat and became a fan of his novels. DH Lawrence’s fiction I’d previously avoided partly because my father was a huge fan (I didn’t feel a need to find something, such as an author we both liked, to connect with my father; we already had a good relationship). But I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as part of a reading challenge ten years ago, loved it, and decided to explore Lawrence’s oeuvre further… As a result, partly inspired by my father’s collection of 1960s paperbacks, which included some Lawrence, but also also Malcolm Lowry, another writer I became a big fan of, and The Sound and the Fury and Intruder in the Dust, I discovered Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury blew me away. And if the novles by him I’ve read since have not been impressive, I have still found them amazingly written. I will certainly read more Faulkner – he has consistently proven an impressive, although difficult, read. Once, I’d have spent time – and money – tracking down good condition copies of the nice 1960s Penguin editions that match the two I inherited from my father. But these days, I think I’ll just go for the ebook editions. Faulkner is definitely an historical author worth reading.

Slow Horses & Dead Lions, Mick Herron (2010/2013, UK). These have come highly recommended, and I do like me some spy-fi – I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s Audley/Butler novels, and I also highly recommend them – but Herron is no Price, and, even worse, his schtick does not really survive prolonged exposure. A “slow horse” is a resident of Slough House, which is an off-site office of MI5 where the failures and screw-ups are sent. The idea being that MI5 cannot actually fire them for their transgressions, so instead assigns them to Slough House in the hope that the shit work and drudgery performed there will persuade them to resign. All under the leadership of Jackson Lamb, a fat slob (described repeatedly in the first book as resembling “Timothy Spall gone to seed”, but apparently played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV adaptation), who has enough dirt on the current MI5 leadership to do what he wants. Which, fortunately, is not much. In Slow Horses, Lamb’s team inadvertently becomes involved in a plot by right-wing nutjobs to fake an online beheading of an Asian, but it all goes horribly wrong because too many people in the intelligence community have had a hand in creating the situation and their agendas are confusing everything. In Dead Lions, the same crew become involved when it looks like an old KGB sleeper network in the UK known to Lamb has been reactivated and it might have something to do with assassinating a Russian oligarch in London for secret talks with MI5… Herron nails the topical talking-points, but he peoples his novels with a cast of the most unlikable shits this side of the Conservative Party front benches, and it’s hard to care about them. Even Jackson Lamb is such a fucking throwback, you have to wonder why Herron thought he might be considered sympathetic. I don’t want to read stories peopled by arseholes. Especially people who are actually worse than those I meet in real life or on social media or who are running the UK government. Plus, the computing in these novels is complete bollocks. The hacker character is apparently so amazing he can hack “air-gapped” networks and if he were indeed as good as advertised, MI5 would keep him even if he were a completely self-deluded incel troll… which he is. But… unlikable characters, implausible plots… not a deal breaker, especially for a science fiction reader… But when the second book follows exactly the same pattern as the first book. And the third book does too… I’m sorry. I’ve got six of the fucking things to read, I’ve read three to date, and I’ll read the other three, but I can’t in all honesty recommend any but the first.

Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974, UK). I’ve no idea why I bought this, and even less why I read it. Call it a whim. I’ve read perhaps half a dozen novels by Brunner over the years, and while he wrote some notable sf during his time I’ve never really felt a need to read him. He is, I suppose, a sort of British Silverberg. And, like Silverberg, he produced a handful of  highly-regarded works, a great many potboilers, and a number of solid science fiction novels. Total Eclipse falls into the last category. It’s a straightforward sf mystery, its plot almost a staple of the genre: humans colonise a long-dead world but, despite all their research, cannot figure out what killed off the world’s original inhabitants. Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is deteriorating and it’s no longer certain Earth’s one and only starship will return to Draco Pavonis on its next supply run. Cue a fevered attempt to understand what killed the planet’s indigenes, driven partly by desperation and partly by the arrival of a neuro-atypical archaeologist. Eventually, of course, they find out what happened, but it’s too late to save them. This is not a cheerful book. I liked it. I thought it made a good fist of its premise. The science seemed mostly convincing to me, although actual experts – remember those? people who have actually studied shit and know what it means – might be less forgiving of some aspects of the novel. Overall, it struck me as a solid piece of seventies UK sf.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (2018, USA). Roanhorse’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first short story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and won the former. She has written two short stories since, both for themed anthologies. Her first novel, this one, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It was followed by a sequel, Storm of Locusts, a year later, then a Star Wars novel, and a middle-grade fantasy from a Disney imprint. With a career path like that, you’d expect something amazing. So it’s a surprise to discover Trail of Lightning is, well, nothing special. It’s a bog standard urban fantasy but with Navajo mythology. Yes, the latter is interesting, and it’s good to see something other than the usual suspects used for world-building. But there’s little else in the book that isn’t entirely cliché. The narrator, Maggie, kills monsters, is emotionally damaged after her relationship with her mentor, a Navajo immortal, imploded, drives a 1970s pickup truck, fetishises over her weapons, and basically gets the entire plot wrong by jumping to conclusions. The book tries to turn the tables by casting a male as the pretty sidekick, but we’ve all seen enough manga and anime to find that one familiar. The prose is a cut above average for urban fantasy, but Laurell K Hamilton was doing the damaged kick-ass female urban fantasy heroine three decades ago – and her prose wasn’t bad either. There’s not enough here to justify the heights Trail of Lightning has achieved. It’s true that Native American mythology has not appeared much in genre, but it has appeared. And there have been Native American genre writers. Less than you can count on the fingers of one hand, true. But there are other modes of fiction, and fiction that privileges Native American culture exists in those. It’s good that genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror – wants to be more diverse and more inclusive, but many cultures have their own literary traditions, and while they may not be positioned as genre, they may be close enough to genre to be of interest to genre readers should they make the effort to look for them. When it comes to Navajo culture, I will freely admit I’ve not made that effort. I suppose in that regard it makes Roanhorse’s novel a gateway book. But had I been interested, I would have made the effort. I’ve done so for other cultures whose literary tradition has interested me. Rather than agitate for people to write sf based in and around those cultures, I’ve sought out the fiction the culture has already produced (where translations exist, of course). The point I’m trying to make is that genre fiction doesn’t have to include all other modes of fiction or cultures. It needs to be relevant to its readers, yes, and so it needs to be inclusive and diverse. But it should never take the place of the literary traditions that already exist in those cultures. It should complement them.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, Dave Hutchinson (2019, UK). There is a short story, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’, which I don’t believe I’ve read, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this novel is an expansion of that short story, or at the very least is set in the same world and features some of the same characters. It’s a novel set in the US but could have only been written by a Brit, and not just because the narrator is British. Alex Dolan is a Scottish journalist, currently unemployed in the US. He is approached by a billionaire, who wants him to write a book about the his pet project, a supercollider built under a town in Iowa. It’s all a bit shifty, and various personalities seem to both hinder Dolan and make his new life more bearable. It feels a little like a pastiche of US life, albeit from a UK perspective, and it takes a good three-quarters of the novel before the plot even gets going. But it’s a fun read, the dialogue is snappy, and even if the central premise is somewhat familiar, the book is still entertaining. Basically, it’s Doctor Manhattan. They turn on the supercollider, something goes wrong, and Dolan turns into Doctor Manhattan. But there’s been a sort of plot leading up to that point, and the novel after the event is pretty much Dolan repeatedly resolving the after-effects of switching on the supercollider – or, at least, one particular after-effect. The end, however, is surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works – The Comeback of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Reappearance of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Return of the Return of the Incredible Exploding Man? Anyway, worth reading.