It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #7

I used to be quite disciplined about making time to read, but since I’ve been working from home I’ve been finding it harder. Some books are easier to read than others, of course, and if I limited myself to those I might perhaps get more reading done. But I like difficult books, and I find them more rewarding to read. I just need to be a bit more, well, disciplined about making time to read them…

Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990, USA). This is the second book in the Arbai trilogy, although it might as well be a standalone as knowledge of the previous book, Grass, is not needed, and any references to it in this one barely affect your understanding of the story. I’m not entirely sure when it takes place – clues seem to suggest several thousand years after the events of Grass, although human society seems pretty much unchanged. Which is part of the problem. Tepper’s targets are plain – abundantly so – which means the societies she depicts have to hew closely to present day ones, or rather ones derived from those extant at the time of writing. And Tepper was never afraid to push something into implausibility in order to make a point. So, on the one hand, we have the peaceful agrarian settlements of Hobbs Land, who have found themselves building temples to alien gods (actually some sort of alien fungus), but since it makes them happy and productive, where’s the harm in it? Meanwhile the patriarchal sexist slave-owning violent (seriously, they couldn’t be made more worse) Voorstodders, inhabitants of a region on another planet of the system, have triggered the final stages of their plan to attain apotheosis by killing all the unbelievers. Tepper was not one for subtlety and there’s certainly an argument the sf audience is incapable of processing subtlety – just look at the current crop of genre award winners… For me, Tepper’s novel are like a brick in the face, but I’d sooner there were writers like her than the books appearing on award shortlists these days. I plan to read more Tepper. You should too.

Panic Room, Robert Goddard (2018, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s thrillers since stumbling across one of his books in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. They’re easy reads, and generally quite entertaining – although there’s always something about them that never quite fits together, as if they’re 90% of a well-plotted thriller. In this one, a newly-fired high-end estate agent is hired by his lawyer ex-wife to do a valuation on a billionaire’s retreat in Cornwall. He finds evidence in the house of a panic room, but it’s sealed. This somehow catapults him into a conspiracy involving the billionaire’s theft of huge amounts of money from the US corporation which bought his company, some secret project that has been running for years out of Switzerland, and the suspicious death by drowning of a teenage boy decades before… Goddard keeps the mystery going quite entertainingly for three-quarters of the book, but his resolution spirals off into the sort of science fiction no self-respecting sf author would use. Still, it’s a Goddard novel, you should know what you’re getting when you open the book.

A Sea-Grape Tree, Rosamond Lehmann (1976, UK). I’ve been meaning to try something by Lehmann for several years as she’s one of the more prominent British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. (She was also an anti-fascist.) I’m a big fan of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, who were active from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and Lehmann’s career covered pretty much the same period. But she also had a twenty-year hiatus between 1953 and 1976, and A Sea-Grape Tree was her first novel after that – and by all accounts something of a change of style, despite making use of characters from earlier novels… So perhaps it wasn’t the best book to choose as an introduction to Lehmann’s works. On the other hand, it was on offer. The novel takes place among the British expat community on a Caribbean island – and I use the term “expat” deliberately. I am myself a migrant, although I grew up as an expat. To me, the difference is plain: a migrant integrates, an expat does not. In A Sea-Grape Tree, it is the 1930s and a woman has recently arrived on the island and been accepted into the expat community there. It turns out someone she knew earlier in her life – the details of which are the subject of an earlier Lehmann novel – endear her further to the local expat community. This is a novel about larger-than-life characters and their interactions within a constrained community. It feels… weirdly like it was written at the time it is set, rather than 40 years later. I’ve no idea what to make of it, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be a complete change of style for Lehmann. I suspect I’ll have to read more by her. There were a number of British women writers active in the first half of last century who also agitated for women’s rights and/or against fascism, and how many present day writers can say the same? There’s a heritage to be proud of, and to build on. We should read more of those writers. I know I plan to.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (2019, Israel). Originally published in F&SF, but then as a stand-alone by JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. The story is set several centuries hence, after climate crash and wars have depopulated the earth. The narrator, who lives in, I think, what is currently Israel, is invited to New Atlantis, which proves to be an archipelago that was once the United Kingdom. Much of the story is a travelogue, but once she arrives in London, she’s taken to see the time-vault whose discovery prompted her journey. The story is filled with references to other sf works – including the chapter titles – but, to be honest, Tidhar has written better. For much of its length, the narrative feels like it’s treading water, holding off the reveal on what a “time-vault” actually is. Unfortunately, the path the story takes is well travelled, and while spotting Easter Eggs can be fun, it’s not enough to maintain interest. Tidhar seems to have three modes: genre piss-take, genre Easter Egg hunt, and the interface of Jewish and Nazi history. When he’s working in the first and last, he produces good material; less so the middle one.

Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). Major déjà vu reading this, as the first section is basically the novella The Enclave, which was published in 2017 and won the BSFA Award (I seem to remember voting for it, too). Three years later, and child slavery and human trafficking is not what I want to read about in a sf novel, but then Bridge 108 abruptly flips POV to that of an undercover immigration agent and we get some actual commentary on the world being described. I understand that to write from the POV of a child slave would mean the narrative accepting the situation – but it also normalises it. Science fiction, especially US science fiction, which this is not, I hasten to add, has an extremely bad habit of normalising the worst excesses of humanity in pursuit of “drama”. It’s s complete bollocks stance. If you write a fascist story with no commentary, you’re writing exactly what a fascist would write. Your personal politics are irrelevant. Charnock presents a UK in which refugees end up living illegally in “enclaves” alongside legal residents who do not have implanted chips, but then shows these enclaves are breeding-grounds of illegality and immorality. Sadly, too many people are like those fuckwits who voted for the Tories and now clap for the NHS. Or worse, voted for Brexit and now clap for the NHS – that £350 million a week would be fucking useful now, you hypocritical morons. British – and American – politics are perhaps extreme examples, but something similar exists in science fiction: authors saying, “look at me! I’m left-wing!” and then they write the most fascist space opera you could imagine. The genre is inherently right-wing, but they take it to excess. They’re a blight on the genre, and there are far too many of them and they’re far too popular. The Sad Puppies were right that the heart of science fiction had been colonised, but were too stupid that to see that it was their stories which had done so. They looked only at the politics of the writers. Had they based their argument on the politics of the stories, perhaps they might have kept their mouths shut.

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson (2018, USA). Robinson’s first book was first published in 1984, and there are many sf reviewers and voters these days who won’t read him for that reason. It’s true that Robinson writes a particular type of science fiction, but after nearly forty years he’s got pretty damn good at it. Better than some random debut author, anyway. Not every Robinson book has impressed me, although he has consistently produced work that I think speaks more to science fiction than many sf writers. Red Moon is… mostly a good sf novel. It reads, in parts, like off-cuts from the Mars trilogy. And the whole set-up does seem somewhat… accelerated for being set thirty years from now. Red Moon is definitely techno-utopian, and I’d sooner see sf like that than some jack-booted interstellar slavery space opera, which is all too sadly common these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise its vision or the points Red Moon makes. A US engineer who works for a Swiss firm delivers a qubit-entangled phone to the head of the Chinese settlement about the south pole of the Moon. Except the Chinese official dies seconds after meeting the engineer, who himself is rendered seriously ill, and he’s charged with murder by poison. It’s all about factions within the Chinese government, and partly related to the daughter of one minister who is the figurehead of a movement to seek justice for internal migrants within China. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, mostly to do with China’s recent history and its government; but there’s also a lot about the colonisation of the Moon – not just by the Chinese, but also the Americans and a group of techno-utopian freethinkers who run their own lunar colony (whose precepts I don’t think actually work because they rely on defined identities). I think Robinson’s timeline for the novel is somewhat unrealistic, although I can see how his story forced him into that situation. And I can disagree with the political arc of the story. I likely can’t say this enough: Red Moon is a novel about politics, and the politics in the novel are laid out for discussion. Unlike far too many sf novels where the politics is baked into the world-building, and a rejection of the politics is by definition a rejection of the entire novel. Red Moon is not the best novel Robinson has written, but is ample demonstration of why his novels are worth reading. Each new one has added something to the genre ur-conversation, whether you like them, or agree with them, or not.


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Post-war women writers of the twentieth century

One type of fiction I enjoy reading as much as science fiction is British post-war literary fiction, but most of the authors of this type I know are male – Lawrence Durrell, Paul Scott, Malcolm Lowry, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, etc. The only two women writers which fit my somewhat arbitrary definition of “post-war” – ie, started sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, active until the 1950s or 1960s – whose books I keep an eye open for are Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor. (Although there are a few women writers who started writing later that I’ve read, such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Bernice Rubens.)

Recently I decided it was time to remedy my ignorance of women writers of this period and, with the help of a few people on Facebook and Twitter, I put together a list of seventeen female authors who had books published between 1925 and 1969 (and one or two earlier than that). Two of the authors I’d heard of before – Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a well-known novel, and I’ve seen the film adaptation; and I have the Women’s Press paperback of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (but I was astonished while researching this list to learn how many books she’d had published). The remaining names were completely unknown to me. And, I hasten to add, my list is undoubtedly incomplete, even given that I excluded some writers because they weren’t published after WWII, or because they published exclusively in genre, either science fiction, fantasy or crime.

The plan is to read something by each of these writers – it’s unfair to describe them as “forgotten”, as several still have books in print, either as Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage Classics, Virago Classics, or even by small presses such as Persephone Books. A few, however, will require some patient hunting on eBay and ABEBooks. If I like what I read, I may well consider those writers alongside Manning and Taylor as ones whose oeuvres I plan to work my way through.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973)
Born in Ireland, but married an Englishman – although the marriage was reportedly never consummated (but she did have numerous affairs). Her first book, The Hotel, was published in 1927, and her last, Eva Trout, in 1968. She wrote ten novels, a children’s book, and twelve short story collections. Many of her books are still available as Penguin or Vintage Classics. Eva Trout was shortlisted for the 1970 Booker Prize, but lost out to Bernice Rubens’ The Elected Member.

Lettice Cooper (1897 – 1994)
Grew up in Leeds, where she briefly worked for her family’s engineering firm, but she spent most of her adult life in London. I’m not entirely sure how many books she wrote – Wikipedia only gives a “Selected Works” listing a dozen books, beginning with her first, The Lighted Room (1925). She never married, was the book reviewer for the Yorkshire Post between 1947 and 1957, and was awarded an OBE in 1978 for her work as leader of the campaign to secure Public Lending Rights.

O Douglas (1877 – 1948)
The pen-name of a Scottish novelist, Anna Masterton Buchan, the younger sister of author John Buchan. Her first novel, Olivia in India was published in 1912, and her last, The House that is Our Own in 1940. She also wrote a dozen other novels, a memoir of her brother, and an autobiography. Her novels were mostly set between the wars in small Scottish towns and villages.

the-day-of-small-things-o-douglas-2

Susan Ertz (1894 – 1985)
Born in the UK to American parents, and spent much of her life shuttling between the two countries. She wrote twenty novels and two short story collections, beginning in 1923 with Madame Claire. Her last book was The Philosopher’s Daughter in 1976. Her novels are allegedly “sentimental tales of genteel life in the country” (according to Wikipedia). One, In The Cool of the Day (1960), was made into a film, starring Jane Fonda, Peter Finch and Angela Lansbury.

Pamela Frankau (1908 – 1967)
Born in London, the daughter of novelist Gilbert Frankau, she was extremely prolific, writing thirty-seven books between 1927 and 1968 (the last was published posthumously). Her novel, The Bridge (1957), which I’ve bought, has the following on the cover-flap: “The bridge spans the distance between this world and the next. A writer called David Nielson walks across the bridge, after the moment of his death. On the way, he meets his past selves, from the child he was, to the man who died in middle-age. He re-lives with each of them, a high moment in his life, a moment of adventure, sin and tragedy, unresolved then, awaiting his judgment now.”

Frankau, Pamela - A Wreath for the Enemy old paperback cover

Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989)
Best-known for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), she wrote a further twenty-three novels, three collections of short stories, a children’s book and four poetry collections. Her last novel, The Woods in Winter, was published in 1970.

Storm Jameson (1891 – 1986)
Born in Yorkshire, she moved to London and lived there for the rest of her life. She was married to the writer Guy Chapman, and wrote two sf novels: In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country (I’m not aware of these books being claimed by science fiction; perhaps they should be). She also wrote a couple of books under pseudonyms – two as James Hill and one as William Lamb. I have A Month Soon Goes (1962), which is “a light comedy with a chorus … Sarah Faulkner, celebrated diseuse, who has come home to rest after four years of touring in Europe and America…”

Rosamond Lehmann (1901 – 1990)
The daughter of the man who founded Granta magazine, her first novel, Dusty Answer (1927), apparently caused a bit of a stir with its frank depictions of schoolgirl sexuality. Two of her novels were made into movies, The Echoing Grove (1953) and The Weather In The Streets (1936). The latter novel sounds especially interesting – according to Wikipedia: “Stylistically, the novel uses techniques and forms that were pioneered by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, with a fragmented narrative style building up a complex interiority that helps us to explore subjects that were relatively taboo during the 1930s such as female sexuality”.

Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999)
Born in Edinburgh, and originally a scientist like her elder brother JBS Haldane, but with the outbreak of WWI she turned to nursing. She wrote over 90 books, and was made a life peer in 1964 with her husband, Labour MP Gilbert Richard Mitchison. Her novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) was in the Women’s Press sf series, and her The Corn King and Spring Queen (1931) is seen by many as the best historical novel of the twentieth century.

E Arnot Robertson (1903 – 1961)
The pen-name of Eileen Arbuthnot Turner (née Robertson). A journalist and film critic, she wrote eleven novels, beginning with Cullum in 1928 and ending with The Strangers on My Roof, published posthumously in 1964. She was known as a popular “middlebrow” novelist, and one of her early novels was adapted into a movie by Cecil D BeMille.

GB Stern (1890 – 1973)
Gladys Bronwyn Stern wrote around forty novels, several books of literary criticism, half a dozen plays and ten autobiographies. Like many of the women in this list, she lived in London for much of her life. The National Portrait Gallery holds four portraits of her, and her novel The Ugly Dachshund (1938) was made into a film of the same name by Disney in 1966.

Jan Struther (1901 – 1953)
The pen-name of Joyce Anstruther, best-known for her character Mrs Miniver, who first appeared in a series of columns in The Times in 1937, were collected into book form in 1939, and made into an Oscar-winning film starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in 1942. She also wrote a number of hymns. In the 1940s, Struther moved to the US, where she remained until her death.

MrsMiniver

Hilda Vaughan (1892 – 1985)
A Welsh writer who began writing in 1925 with The Battle to the Weak and whose last novel was The Candle and the Light in 1954. She was married to the writer Charles Langbridge Morgan. Due to ill-health, she did not write anything for the last two decades of her life, although she did try to get her earlier novels re-issued – unsuccessfully. Many of her books are now back in print as she is considered a prominent writer of Welsh literature in English.

Rebecca West (1892 – 1983)
Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, and described by Wikipedia as “widely considered to be among the important public intellectuals of the 20th century”, she wrote a dozen novels between 1918 and 2002 (her last two books were published posthumously). In 1947, Time described her as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer”. She also wrote a lot of non-fiction, and was an active feminist and liberal. She was made a CBE in 1949 and then a dame in 1959 for contributions to British literature.

Dorothy Whipple (1893 – 1966)
A Lancashire-born and -based writer of some eighteen books and described by JB Priestley as the “Jane Austen of the 20th Century”. She was very popular in the 1930s, and two of her novels were made into films. Five of her short stories were recently broadcast on Radio 4 in The Afternoon Reading.

Every Good Deed

Antonia White (1899 – 1980)
Born Eirine Botting, she wrote a dozen books. She seems to have had a somewhat tempestuous personal life, having been married three times by the time she reached thirty, and spending a year in a public asylum. She was expelled from school at age fifteen for writing a novel, which she planned to give to her father, and which apparently featured characters indulging in bad behaviour. She did not write again until after her father’s death in 1924.

EH Young (1880 – 1949)
Emily Hilda Young wrote eleven novels between 1910 and 1947, and a pair of children’s books. In 1980, the BBC broadcast a television adaptation of some of her novels, chiefly Miss Mole (1930), under the title Hannah. Originally from Northumberland, she moved to London after the death of her husband at the Third Battle of Ypres, and moved in with her lover and his wife. She was a best-selling novelist in the 1920s and 1930s.

This will be, I think, a long-running project. I’ve already bought a couple of books on eBay – first editions, too, because first edition. And they proved cheaper than brand-new paperback editions from Amazon. I’ll also be keeping an eye open in charity shops. I’ll initially try one book by each writer, and see how that goes.