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Reading diary 2019, #8

After cracking through a bunch of novels, I hit the last book of the half-dozen below and ground almost to a halt. Possibly a result of its size as much as its extremely poor writing. Not to mention that the main characters are annoying as hell. Why on earth did I decide to reread the series?

Permafrost, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). I picked up a copy of this at the SF-Bokhandeln in Stockholm while meeting up with family over on a visit to Sweden. It’s not Reynold’s usual fare, but a near-future time travel story. The human race is pretty much over, killed off by its appalling lack of husbandry of its environment (that’s pollution, Global Warming, germ warfare, hunting to extinction, etc, etc), but a group in Russia have perfected time travel and send someone back into the past to make enough of a change to allow humanity a small chance at survival. It’s not actual physical time travel – which means it’s at least free of the risible technobollocks in Avengers: Endgame – but the consciousness of the tempunaut is sent back to occupy the mind of a person of the target period. (A similar conceit, I believe to Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.) Of course, as is ever the way, nothing goes as planned, and protagonist Valentina must race across Russia to deliver the maguffin, only to learn how the future has changed when she returns to it. I thought Permafrost pretty good, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it was set in Russia, or what the setting brought to the story, other than, well, the title. Reynolds has never had much luck with the Hugos, but given that Permafrost was published by Hugo darlings Tor.com then perhaps he stands a chance next year.

Big Cat and Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). A new book by Gwyneth Jones, whether a novel, novella or collection, is cause for celebration in this house. She’s been my favourite sf writer since reading Kairos in the early 1990s, and I’d even go so far as to say sheäs the best science fiction writer who is still writing the UK has produced. Big Cat and Other Stories collects eleven stories originally published between 2007 and 2016 (and one original to this volume), only two of which I’d  previously read. Three of the stories are set in worlds from Jones’s novels, although one of those novels was published under Jones’s YA pseudonym, Ann Halam. This does mean for those three that you get more out of them if you know the original novels, more so for the story which lends the collection its title as it’s set in the universe of the Bold As Love quintet and features its central triumvirate of characters. The stories are chiefly science fiction but spread  widely across the genre, from the slightly off-kilter pulp adventure on Venus of ‘A Planet Called Desire’ and the Leigh Brackett/Lovecraft mashup of ‘The Vicar of Mars’ to the near-future of ‘Stella and the Adventurous Roots’, ‘Emergence’ and ‘Bricks, Stick, Straws’, although they depict worlds not quite the same as our own. All of the stories are a hit of the pure Jones, and if you appreciate her science fiction then Big Cat and Other Stories is as good a selection as any other. Recommended.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas (2018, USA). I’m not sure why I bought this. I guess the blurb must have caught my fancy or something. Although that doesn’t seem right, because, well, “near-future dystopia”. I mean, who reads them anymore? With the actual shit that’s going down in Trump’s US and Brexit Britain, literary dystopias are starting to look like weak sauce. In Red Clocks, the Republican Christian nutjobs are firmly in charge, abortion is illegal, and only families of one father and one mother can adopt kids. Which is unfortunate for a couple of the characters in Red Clocks, a pregnant schoolgirl and a single teacher desperate for a child (and whose numerous tries at IVF have all been unsuccessful). Zumi chooses to tell her story from the viewpoints of each of her characters, but in their viewpoint chapters they’re not identified by name, only by their role in the story – so “the biographer”, “the wife”, and so on. It doesn’t work. It’s an unnecessary hurdle – although it does successfully disguise for at least the first quarter of the book quite how ordinary its story is. I was also annoyed by the attempt at found documents pertaining to the historical figure who is the subject of the biographer’s unfinished, er, biography, a female polar explorer from the turn of the twentieth century. She’s named Eivør Minurvasdottír – and  the first time I saw it I thought, there’s no ø in Icelandic. But there is in Faroese. Which is where she’s from. But the accent on the surname is in the wrong place. It should be -dóttir. The name is misspelt throughout the novel. Didn’t the author check? Didn’t the editor? The publisher? It’s not like it’s hard to find out. It’s a minor complaint – and from someone who chiefly reads science fiction! But for all that Red Clocks was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, the first time an Orwell Prize has been offered for fiction, there didn’t seem much to me that stood out. (The Orwell Prize is probably best remembered for giving an award to Johann Hari, only to demand it back when it transpired Hari had plagiarised and misrepresented facts in his articles. He returned the prize but has never returned the prize money.) But Red Clocks. Dull and unoriginal. Not worth reading.

Breakwater, Simon Bestwick (2018, UK). A Facebook friend has been working his way through the works shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, and I saw this novella in my timeline and since it’s set in an underwater base, something I find fascinating, and was extremely cheap on Kindle, I decided to give it a go. And… oh dear. The title refers to an underwater complex just off the the coast of the UK. Originally built for research, it has been taken over by the military as a first line of defence against a mysterious underwater race who, we are told in an infodump, are now at war with humanity because of humanity’s history of polluting the oceans. The widow of the man with whom she co-designed Breakwater still works there. With the Royal Navy. And, wouldn’t you know it, the underwater people decide to attack a couple of pages into the novella, and this time it’s the biggest attack ever. The woman manages to escape, with the help of a female petty officer. They run through an empty complex, staying just ahead being drowned. But then the petty officer lets slip she’s one of the underwater people – or rather, one engineered to look human – and she belongs to a faction that wants to open dialogue with humanity… And, well, that’s it. The author doesn’t seem to understand how depth works – there’s a few mentions of airlocks and ears popping; oh, and the woman’s husband died of the bends – otherwise, changes in pressure are blithely skated over. There’s a bit of authorial prurience over the two female leads, which reads a bit old-fashioned. And something I’ve not seen in a book for years: a detailed description of the protagonist’s appearance. Who still does that? The British Fantasy Awards are, like the Hugos and Nebulas, prone to logrolling, and it’s not unusual for people well-known and well-liked among the voters to have their works find their way onto the shortlist irrespective of the quality of the work. The voting pool for the BFA is very small, probably even smaller than the average attendance of the annual Fantasycon (ie, a couple of hundred).

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (2018, USA). I had sort of avoided reading this as I’d covered similar material myself, although with a considerably lower profile and less commercial success. But then it was nominated for the Hugo, and so was made available in the Hugo Voter Pack, and a quick look persuaded me that there’s actual very little overlap between The Calculating Stars and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. In Kowal’s novel, a large meteorite strikes the earth in the early 1950s, crashing down somewhere in the north Atlantic and so kicking off an accelerated greenhouse effect. Elma York is a gifted mathematician and a pilot. She and her husband, a rocket engineer at NACA, survive the meteorite and are instrumental in the creation of an international space agency to lead the quest to settle another world so humanity survives once the earth as become uninhabitable. So this is the very early days of the Space Race, more Hidden Figures than The Right Stuff. But Elma also wants to be an astronaut, so there’s also a lot of the Mercury 13 in the story (and several names familiar to me from my research; but, strangely, not Jerrie Cobb). There’s much to like in the novel: the swing about halfway through to a Mercury 13 narrative (although Kowal characterises Jackie Cochran as a much nicer person than she was – it was Cochran who famously said that women shouldn’t be taking jobs from men but should “follow after and pick up the slack”). I liked Kowal’s stand-in for Al Shepard, Stetson Parker, although the narrative seemed curiously ambivalent about him, feeling like at times it was trying to make him sympathetic. I thought the anxiety aspect overdone, but I’ve been told by sufferers they thought it accurate and found it welcome. On the other hand, I’ve heard there has been grumbling about the presentation of Judaism in the novel (York and her husband are Jews). In hindsight, The Calculating Stars is a novel that wants to tell a story about a space programme created in response to an extinction-level meteorite strike, but it also wants to be Hidden Figures and feature women computers… Which gives it a slightly anachronistic feel despite the very good period detail. In the real world, women went on to become programmers, too, but were then supplanted by men – in many cases, the female programmers were moved to assistant positions despite being better qualified and more experienced. That, I think, might have made for a more interesting story, and would not have meant pulling the start of the space programme back to the early 1950s. (On the other hand, having it when Kowal set it meant there were lots of ex-WASP female pilots around, as well as the women computers.) The Calculating Stars won the Hugo last weekend. Should it have done? I’m told Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is the better novel, although I’ve not read it yet, but The Calculating Stars was certainly my choice to take the award.

The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). I’ve been told the Wheel of Time was originally pitched as a trilogy but then cut down to a single novel, but proved so successful the trilogy was reinstated, before mutating into the bloated fourteen-volume beast it eventually became. Certainly the pacing in The Eye of the World is so bad it’s entirely plausible its story was intended to stretch over several books. You have ten percent introduction to the world and characters, then 80% travelogue, and everything gets wrapped up in the last ten percent. The Great Hunt has slightly better pacing, and a great deal more happens in it, but there’s still a lot of travelogue. And padding. Reams and reams of padding. There’s even three or four pages where Rand experiences the same thing over and over again. It makes for a dull read. The one thing I’m noticing about these books during my rereads – other than the derision of friends when I tell them I’m rereading the Wheel of Time – is that the world-building is a strange mix of identikit sword-and-sorcery and weird but interesting original touches. It also feels strangely “lived-in”, with its various parts slotting together in a way that doesn’t feel entirely the result of authorial fiat. Having said that… the characters are still as annoying as shit. Rand al’Thor reads like a thirteen year old and his friends are no better. An important minor character turns out to be a Darkfriend (ie, agents of the the Dark Lord) but it comes totally out of left-field. The actual Darkfriend the protagonists spend the entire book chasing is far too pantomime. And another character do be talking like this all the time and it do be fucking irritating. The Great Hunt is a great improvement on The Eye of the World, but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. There are some enjoyable set-pieces and some good hooks set for later in the series. But the praise this series received back in the 1990s still astonishes me. It’s a poor piece of work – and that in genre not known for the high quality of its prose or plotting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135

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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134