Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.
Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.
The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.
Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…
Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.
The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.
Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.
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
More books read. Not as many as I’d like. Especially when I see the size of the TBR…
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014). According to my records, I read Cloud Atlas back in April 2009, likely as a result of recommendations by friends and acquaintances. I thought the novel good, but it didn’t quite gel for me. I then worked my way through Mitchell’s oeuvre – number9dream, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – over the following three years. Last year, The Bone Clocks was published… Initial noises were good, but then a few dissenting voices appeared… What was clear, however, was that it was structured as a series of linked novellas and that it moved deeper into genre territory as it progressed. I was, I admit, expecting a novel not unlike Cloud Atlas, one that had many impressive pieces but together left me feeling a little disappointed. Happily, this wasn’t the case at all. True, you wait for a book about conspiracies of body-hopping immortals and three come along at once – there are elements of The Bone Clocks that are reminiscent of Claire North’s Touch and of Marcel Theoux’s Strange Bodies – although for secret wars masterminded by hidden groups, you might as well go all the way back to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians. The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes from her teen years in southern England, when she runs away from home, through to a post-apocalyptic Ireland some thirty years from now. Along the way, other voices occasionally take over the narrative, such as egocentric author Crispin Hershey (based on Martin Amis?), a well-handled pastiche although it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer in Betrayals; and even one of the immortals, who is, at that time, occupying the body of a black Canadian psychologist. The two factions at war are the Horologists, who are serial reincarnators and seem to have arisen naturally among humans; and the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, who are able to “decant” souls in order to extend their own lives. Holly becomes inadvertently involved with these two groups, partly because one of the immortals reincarnates in her younger brother, partly because the Horologists prevent her from being groomed to be “decanted”, and partly because she has a brief fling with Hugo Lamb, who is recruited by the Anchorites. Holly is a great character and Mitchell handles her brilliantly. Some of the other elements I found less successful – the Anchorites reminded me a little of the baddies in the bande dessinée L’Histoire secrète by Jean-Pierre Pécau (both have chief villains with no eyes); and the post-apocalypse scenario hewed somewhat too closely to the common template. Much has also been made of those characters which have appeared in other Mitchell novels and stories, but this is hardly unique nor does it add much to this novel. Nonetheless, a very good book, and I’m looking forward to reading Slade House.
The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960). This is another book I bought at Archipelacon in Finland. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here. To be honest, the cover art is probably the best thing about it.
The Echo, James Smythe (2014). Twenty years after the disastrous mission to interstellar space described in The Explorer, a pair of Swedish twins organise a second mission. This flight’s purpose is to investigate the “anomaly”, a “blackness of space” thought to be the cause of the loss of the previous mission. This new spacecraft, Lära, however, is not as “Hollywood” as the previous one, it’s smaller and much more compactly designed (although it still has room between the outer hull and the walls of the inner chambers for a member of the crew to hide). One of the twins, Mira, is leader of the expedition aboard the spacecraft, the other twin, Tomas, remains on Earth at mission control. The Echo is told entirely from Mira’s point of view, and this is stuff Smythe does really well. I’m still not convinced by his spacecraft (it’s unlikely, for example the twins would have had to invent a thruster system as all present-day spacecraft have used reaction control systems for close manoeuvring for decades) – or indeed some of the science in the book – but there’s an increasing level of creepiness as the novel progresses and that’s where the novel shines. It’s not just the anomaly itself – the title of the book pretty much signals what the crew of the Lära find when they arrive at it – but Mira himself and his thoughts and relationship with his twin brother, and the way he deals with the deaths of Lära’s crew. I think I could have done with a little more verisimilitude, something that nailed down the tech and science, but that’s a personal preference (and, to be fair, no one is selling The Echo on its scientific credentials, unlike the not-as-scientifically-correct-as-advertised The Martian (and that’s a completely unfair comparison anyway, because Smythe is a very good writer and Weir is a shit writer)). The Explorer and The Echo form the first half of the Anomaly Quartet, and I’m very much intrigued to see what the next two books will do.
Orbital 6: Resistance, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2015). Cinebook have been publishing bandes dessinée in English-language editions now for a decade, and while a number of their titles have in the past appeared intermittently in English – Valérian et Laureline, Lucky Luke, the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, Yoko Tsuno – there are now extended runs of these comics in English published by Cinebook. The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, for example, currently stands at twenty of twenty-three volumes, Valerian and Laureline at nine of twenty-two… Orbital, however, is one of the several series published by Cinebook which had previously never seen publication in English. It’s a space opera, in which Earth has joined a federation of planets but xenophobic feeling runs high, and Earth is likely to either secede, revolt or just harbour terrorists. There are, of course, a number of alien factions, all with their own agenda. Orbital follows the careers of a diplomatic troubleshooting team comprising a human and a sandjarr (the alien race which defeated Earth). By this sixth volume in the series, everything’s got a bit pear-shaped, and the human member of the pair has developed weird powers and… The artwork is good, the story works, and the background interesting. As a novel this wouldn’t be bad, as a bande dessinée it’s pretty good.
One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Everybody knows about the Alf Layla wa Layla, how a king would marry a young woman each day and then have her executed the following morning, until Scheherazade asks to marry him and then spends the night telling stories but ending on a cliff-hanger – so he keeps her alive to find out how the story ends. Most people probably also know some of the 1001 Nights’ more popular stories, such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I actually have a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, although I’ve yet to read it. I am, however, a fan of Al-Shaykh’s novels, ever since reading Only in London back in 2002. I believe Al-Shaykh’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights – and it’s only the first few stories of the first volume – started life as a play, but happily it doesn’t read like a play. One thing I hadn’t known until I read this book was how… bawdy the stories are. And how inter-nested. While Scheherazade opens the book, the story she tells contains characters who tell stories which contain characters who tell stories… I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. There are that many levels of framing narratives it can get a little confusing, but the individual tales are amusing and well-told. Recommended.
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts (2014). Roberts is a very clever man, and a thoroughly nice chap. But for some reason I’ve never quite connected with his novels. The closest I’ve managed to date was Jack Glass, although I did really like the first half of Yellow Blue Tibia – but, I hasten to add, I’ve not read every novel he’s written, and I still have a few on the TBR. However, I do admire and enjoy his short fiction. Unfortunately, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a novel. A very nicely illustrated novel, too. In 1958, France’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Le Plongeur, is on its sea trials when something goes wrong during a dive, and the submarine continues to descend… to an impossible depth, tens of thousands of kilometres. The meagre crew aboard speculate on their predicament, there are small mutinies, and many mysteries. I very much liked this story – I have in fact written something similar myself in short story form – but felt Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was marred by too many things that were just plain wrong. Not only does the novel claim nine thousand metres is “nearly a full kilometre”, or that titanium is stronger than steel, or that no part of the sea-bed is deeper than 10,000 metres (Challenger Deep is nearly 11,000 metres, as recorded by a 1951 survey), but a French naval officer would have known of the Trieste, given that the French Navy bought August Piccard’s earlier bathyscaphe FNRS-2 in 1950 (and operated it under the name FNRS-3, even setting a new depth record of 4,050 metres in 1954)… Besides all that, the novel repeatedly confuses metres and kilometres. Le Plongeur sinks at one metre a second, so attaining a depth of 90,000 km in three days is impossible. Ninety thousand metres, yes. But not ninety thousand kilometres. But not only does the prose repeatedly refer to this figure, it also compares it to the diameter of the Earth. There are other small details, like a hatch that open inwards, and so the pressure of the water would be continually acting to force it open; or an airlock on the keel of the submarine; or even a nuclear reactor directly driving the propeller (that’s not how nuclear-powered submarines work – the reactor generates heat, which powers a turbine, which turns the propellor shaft). These slips (also, a character briefly possessing two left hands), which should have been picked up by an editor, aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a typical Roberts piece. There’s a reason Le Plongeur is where it is, and even a sort of scientific explanation for the presence of so much water. There are some odd bits, like carnivorous fish which don’t appear to have an ecosystem to support them, before the submarine and its remaining crew reach their (unbeknownst to most of them) planned destination and the, er, whole point of the book. Given the novel’s title, the identity of the person they meet there should come as no surprise. The reason for the journey relies on a somewhat stretched scientific analogy, but it’s easy enough to swallow. In fact, for a tall tale, and it is very much a tall tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is very easy to swallow. Perhaps it feels a bit over-long in places, but the cast of (mostly) grotesques are amusing and well-written, and the final pay-off is worth the long descent. Oh, and the illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very good.
In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986). I bought this recently to review as it was on the SF Mistressworks list but we had yet to write about it. Mid-eighties space opera, I thought, should be okay. Seems to be well-regarded. But I do wonder how many of its unchallenged assumptions are still acceptable in the twenty-first century. A review will appear on SF Mistressworks soon.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116
I was really good in August, and bought only two books during the entire month. So, of course, I went a little berserk this month – and we’re barely a week into it! Ah well.
Some first editions for the collection. I have rather a lot of Ian Watson first editions, many of them signed, but a copy of his first novel, The Embedding, had always eluded me. I found this one for a reasonable price on eBay. Which is where I also found this first edition of DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude, although it was a good deal more expensive than the Watson. Worth it, though.
One each for the space books and the deep sea books collections. The title of Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini pretty much describes the contents. A companion volume on Apollo will be published later this month. It’s on the wishlist. Conquest of the Underwater World I found cheap on eBay. It seems mostly to cover underwater archaeology, and I’m more interested in much deeper exploration. Never mind.
Some proper literature: In Ballast to the White Sea is a lost novel by Lowry, believed to have perished in a fire, but decades after his death it was discovered his first wife had a typescript. Selected Letters is another volume in the DH Lawrence white Penguin series, which brings my total up to twenty-two (of, I think, twenty-seven). Given these editions all date from the 1970s, finding good condition copies is quite an achievement. Not sure where I saw My Fair Ladies mentioned, but it looked like an interesting read so I bunged it on an Amazon order. The subtitle pretty much explains the topic, “Female robots, androids and other artificial Eves”.
Here’s some recent “genre” novels. Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine I’ve been meaning to pick up for ages, and now I’ve finally got around to it. It says “fantasy” on the spine, so it’s definitely genre. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award earlier this year, but it wasn’t published as category sf. I read Faber’s Under The Skin shortly after it appeared and didn’t like it one bit. I also have several Faber novels sitting on the TBR. I expect this one to be a difficult read. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, which mystifyingly seemed to miss out on quite a lot of award shortlists this year. I’ve tried VanderMeer’s fiction before and not got on with it, so we’ll see how this ones goes. Finally, the latest volume in a space opera bande dessinée, Orbital 6: Resistance, and it’s clearly one long story but I think I’m following it. They’re short, so I could always go back and read the preceding five books…
And here are some books for SF Mistressworks. In Conquest Born is on the actual SF Mistressworks list, but no review of it has yet to appear, so I thought I’d read the book myself. I’ve liked Scott’s two previous novels I’ve read – and it’s a shame I didn’t discover her back in the 1980s as I suspect she would have become a favourite writer – and I saw Dreamships going very cheap on eBay… except it turned out to be an ARC and not the described hardback. I have contacted the seller. I bought Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah at Archipelacon, read it in Helsinki Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, and reviewed it on SF Mistressworks (see here). I liked it a lot, so I thought it worth trying something else by her – and I found these two, Aventine, a linked collection, and the bizarrely-titled, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree.
… Although, strictly speaking, this isn’t the first book haul of the year as it includes a few books I received for Christmas. But it’s certainly the first book haul post of 2014. I also seem to have gone a little mad in the past three weeks, and bought more books than usual – and some of which, I must admit, I’ve no idea why I purchased… Still, so it goes.
Some graphic novels to start: I liked Léo’s Aldebaran series so much (see here), I bought the follow on series, Betelgeuse: The Survivors, The Caves and The Other (and I’ve already written about them here). I’ll be picking up the next series, Antares, soon, although it’s not yet complete in the original French. Apparently, the English versions have also been censored, with underwear added onto nude characters. Orbital: Justice is the fifth in the space opera bande dessinée series, and while it looks great and has an impressively twisty plot, it does owe a little too much to big media sf.
Imaginary Magnitude, Fenrir and High-Opp were all Christmas presents. I’ve already read Fenrir – while I really liked Wolfsangel, I found this one a little too long for its story, and it didn’t really pick up until two-thirds of the way through. High-Opp is a previously-unpublished Frank Herbert novel; should be interesting. Europe in Autumn I have to review for Vector; and New Adventures in Sci-Fi is an early collection by one of my favourite sf writers, Sean Williams (it was also incredibly hard to find a copy).
These are the “wtf was I thinking?” books. Mostly. The Rose of Sarifal is a Forgotten Realms novel, which I normally wouldn’t touch with a bargepole a good kilometre or so in length, but Paulina Claiborne is, I am reliably informed, a pseudonym of Paul Park. Chauvinisto I spotted on eBay and it sounded so awful I couldn’t resist it. I’ve been picking up the Hugh Cook fantasies when I see them, as I’ve heard they’re quite interesting. The Wordsmiths and the Warguild is the third in the ten-book series, and also the third book I now own. The Red Tape War is definitely a wtf purchase; it was very cheap. The two Ted Mark novels, The Man from Charisma and Rip It Off, Relevant!, are 1960s 007 pastiches with added rumpy-pumpy. Or so I believe. Goodbye Charlie is the novelisation of a quite silly film from 1964 starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis.
Four hardbacks for the collection. I already have a first edition of Monsieur of course, but this one is signed. The first edition of The Jewel In The Crown was a bargain (first editions are normally not cheap at ll), as was the first edition of The Clockwork Testament, the third of Burgess’s Enderby novels. (I suspect the first, Inside Mr Enderby, will continue to elude me as it was originally published under the name Joseph Kell and first editions are hugely expensive.) Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is a new novella in signed limited hardback by one of my favourite genre authors and published by PS Publishing.
I had a Women’s Press SF copy of Native Tongue but it was really tatty, so I gave it to a charity shop. But now I have a copy in really good condition. Zoline’s collection, Busy About the Tree of Life, I will be reviewing for SF Mistressworks (that has to be one of the worst Women’s Press covers, though). Having heard so much about Joyce Carol Oates, I decided to give something by her a go, and Man Crazy was the first book by her I stumbled across. I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s fiction for many, many years – Breakdown is not her latest, there was one published last year, but it is the one before that. I’ve also been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series for a long time. I’m up to V is for Vengeance, but W is for Wasted was published last year. Only three more letters to go. What will Grafton do after that?
Three things that interest me: Brutalist architecture, and there’s lots of lovely photos of it in Concrete (I actually bought a copy for my brother-in-law for his birthday, and over Christmas I had a look in the book and liked it so much… I bought myself one); the Cold War, and Fear and Fashion in the Cold War, covers, er, fashion inspired by the promises of bases on the Moon and the threat of nuclear armageddon (see my The future we used to have posts for more); and finally, the works of Paul Scott, in this case his most famous work, the Raj Quartet, as the title Paul Scott’s Raj, er, indicates.
Lumières I bought on eBay for not very much because its introduction was written by Lawrence Durrell. The art in it is also very good. Lenae Day I stumbled across while researching Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. She restages photographs from 1960s magazines with herself as the model, and accompanies them with autobiographical text. One of her shows was ‘Space Cadette’ and in it she restaged a photograph from Time Magazine of Mercury 13 candidate Rhea Hurrle preparing to enter an isolation tank (Day’s version here). So far, Day’s work has only been published as Day Magazine and Modern Candor, but she recently ran a kickstarter for her next project, based on invented 1930s movie studio Prescott Pictures – see here.
Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft I bought specifically for research for my Gagarin on Mars story, but it’ll also go in the Space Books collection. N.F.Fedorov is research for a novel I’m working on, but it’s not going to be about what you think it might be about. Or something.
And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.
Exultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.
Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes: La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.
Unexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel – a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself – including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.
On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.
Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.
The Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.
A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.
Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.
A bit of an epic post this, partly because in my last readings & watchings I only gave the books I’d read and not the films I’ve watched. But how can more be bad, eh?
Books Troika, Alastair Reynolds (2010), is the first piece of fiction Reynolds has had shortlisted for a Hugo. It lost out on best novella to Ted Chiang, which is unfortunate. With Chiang on the shortlist, everyone else stands little or no chance of taking the award. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Chiang’s award-winning The Lifecycle of Software Objects, though I have the Subterranean Press edition on my book-shelves. And the copy of Troika I read was also the Subterranean Press edition, although the novella originally appeared in Godlike Machines, a SFBC-only anthology. Clearly the US Science Fiction Book Club is quite influential in Hugo nominations. Troika is BDO sf meets alternate Soviet space history, but is not, I think, Reynolds’ best work to date, despite being short-listed. The BDO itself feels too enigmatic, and the final twist on the “present day” sections doesn’t quite make sense of the whole thing. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have nominated (had I chosen to pay for the privilege of doing so).
SVK, Warren Ellis and d’Israeli (2011), was sold on a gimmick: it requires a black light torch (packaged with the comic) to read some of the speech balloons. It is otherwise a fairly typical Ellis sf piece, with a nice twist in the end. A freelance fixer is called in by a government department to recover a piece of technology, which, it transpires, allows a person to read the thoughts of other people (and it’s those which are printed in invisible ink). D’Israeli’s art is good, Ellis’ dialogue is also good, but it all feels a little thin and a bit overwhelmed by the invisible ink gimmick.
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen (2006), I picked up in a local charity shop because I remembered enjoying her The Rapture (2009) (see here). That later novel had been marketed as literary fiction – Jensen herself is marketed as a literary fiction writer – but was plainly sf. And so the title of My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time suggested the same also held true for it. And so it does. A prostitute in late 19th century Copenhagen goes to work as a cleaner for the widow of an inventor who vanished several years before. In the basement of the widow’s house, the prostitute finds a strange device… and is inadvertently catapulted to modern-day London. There she discovers the inventor and a colony of time-displaced Danes, all of whom have chosen to build new lives in twenty-first century Britain. All have been warned, however, to keep their contact with the locals to a minimum. But then the prostitute falls in love with a London man… The story is told entirely in the prostitute’s voice, which gets a little wearying after a while, but it’s well-handled. I think I’ll seek out some more of Jensen’s books.
Silversands, Gareth L Powell (2010), is Powell’s first published novel. It was published by Pendragon Press – and Powell’s first novel by a major publisher, The Recollection, has just come out from Solaris. Something similar happened to Mark Charan Newton. Perhaps it’s a pattern. Silversands is a solid sf mystery set on a a colony world. When a ship from Earth arrives – it’s important to the plot that the wormholes which connect the colonies can’t be navigated – it triggers a series of events which threaten to bring down the colony’s government. Though only short, the novel is well-paced, the characters rounded, and the setting sketched in with skill. Despite all this, it’s not especially memorable, perhaps because its one big idea is peripheral to the plot and only impacts at the end.
Adventures in Capitalism, Toby Litt (1996). To be honest, the most interesting thing about Litt’s career so far has been his intention that each of his book be alphabetically titled. Which is not say that those of his books I’ve read so far have been bad. I quite enjoyed Corpsing (2000), and while Journey into Space (2009) was a little old-fashioned I did think it nicely-written. But the stories in this collection, Adventures in Capitalism, are somewhat variable, and several of them are, well, a bit dull.
Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2003), was August’s book for the reading challenge, and I wrote about here.
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955), is the seventh Narnia book by year of publication, but the first according to internal chronology. In fact, it’s a prequel and explains the origin of Narnia. Which is that, well, Aslan made it. Just like that. But in a lot less time than six days. Neighbours Digory and Polly use one of Digory’s uncle’s magic rings and find themselves in a strange wood. In the wood are pools of water, and each pool leads to a different world. Unfortunately, the first world they visit is in some sort of magical stasis, after evil witch Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word in order to defeat her ruling sister (I can think of many deplorable words, so I’ve no idea which particular one Jadis actually used). Digory foolishly wakes Jadis, who follows them back to Victorian London, and promptly wreaks havoc as she tries to conquer it – despite her magic powers not working. In desperation, Digory and Polly use the rings… and send themselves, Jadis, a cabbie, his horse, and their uncle to a land of nothingness. Then they hear singing, light appears, and so too does Aslan, and Narnia is created. There are some nice touches: a piece of a street lamp used by Jadis as a weapon in London is dropped by her, and becomes the street lamp in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Jadis becomes the White Witch; and the cabbie and his wife become the first kind and queen of Narnia, despite being working class.The dialogue throughout is quite fun, although, the Garden of Eden rip-off was blatant and the general tone of the book is very preachy. Definitely one of the better books of the series, though I still wouldn’t recommend them to a kid.
From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957), is the fifth 007 book, but was the second film to be made. It was also a far more successful film than its predecessor Dr No, and so probably responsible for the existence of the franchise. Given that I’d previously read four Bond novels, you’d think I’d know what to expect from the fifth one. Admittedly, my memory’s vague on the plot of the film – I remember only the periscope, the attack in the gypsy camp, and the iconic punt through the Basilica Cistern. The first two certainly make an appearance in the book, but not the third. And if I’d thought the other Bond books contained an uncomfortable strand of misogyny, in From Russia with Love it’s downright offensive. Not only does Istanbul station chief Karim Bey insist that all women want to be raped, but the scene at the gypsy camp sees the women present treated as nothing more than amusement for the men. Then there’s the racial stereotyping and racism… Bond was better when he stayed in the UK. I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone, and the more of them I read the more I’m convinced they only remain in print because of the film franchise.
Orbital Vol 4: Ravages, Sylvain Runerg & Serge Pellé (2010) is, I think the last of this series – at least the ending suggests as much. Though it’s been sold as the fourth book of a series, it’s actually the second in a two-part story – with Volume 3 Nomads – as the story continues on directly from that earlier volume. Something alien and mysterious has been killing fish – and now people – in the mangrove swamps near Kuala Lumpur, just as the preparations for a celebration of the Human-Sanjarr alliance (they fought a war not so long ago) are in full swing. The locals are revolting and convinced some alien nomads who have settled in the swamp are responsible. They’re not, of course. At least, not directly. I’ve enjoyed this series – it’s good solid sf, nicely drawn and well thought-out. If it seems a bit abrupt in places, or choppy in others, I suspect that’s more the style of bandes desinée than it is the fault of the writer.
Films What A Way To Go, dir. J Lee Thompson (1964). Every now and again I like to watch a bit of fluff. Once, my preferred choice had been crap science fiction films – of which there are very, very many – but watching them is actually hard work. Now, I’d much sooner watch something from the 1950s or early 1960s – they’re far more entertaining, there are no bad special effects to burn out your eyes, the acting is of a much higher calibre, and the scripts actually display some wit. Having said all that, What A Way To Go is a bit of an odd beast. Shirley MacLaine plays a young woman who inadvertently inspires each man she marries to become successful and rich. So much so, in fact, that on her last husband’s death, she is determined to give away the vast fortune she has amassed. But the government won’t accept it. (Things were clearly very different in those days.) Her husbands are played by Dick van Dyke, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Robert Mitchum – so this is a star-studded comedy. There’s even an extended dance number – with MacLaine and Kelly, of course – in the middle. It’s quite a strange film. I enjoyed it, though.
…All the Marbles, dir. Robert Aldrich (1981), was Aldrich’s last film, and while it has its moments, it’s not especially memorable. Peter Falk plays the manager of a female tag-team wrestling duo. Most of the matches are fixed, but the two wrestlers are determined to make it to the final in Las Vegas. And so they do – though not without Falk making some enemies along the way. This is a pretty grim film. The characters are just about hanging on, and the story takes them through some of the grimmer parts of the United States. I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, though there aren’t many laughs. At least, some of the characters are so broadly-drawn, they belong in a comedy. The wrestling itself reminds me wrestling on British telly back in the early 1980s, during the heyday of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the like. Although, of course, they weren’t women.
Where The Sidewalk Ends, dir. Otto Preminger (1950). I do like Preminger’s movies. I’m not so keen on Dana Andrews as a leading man, however. He always strikes me as a bit too louche and expressionless for the roles he plays. In this film – consider a classic noir – Andrews is a police detective who accidentally kills a suspect. He tries to cover up the death by accusing a cabbie who called on the victim. Except the cabbie is actually the victim’s father-in-law, and Andrews’ detective falls in love with the estranged wife (played by Gene Tierney). This is classic twisty-turny stuff, all baggy suits and trilbies and mean streets. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Skyline, dir. the Strause Brothers (2010), is, as far as I understand, a rip-off of Battle: Los Angeles, for which the Strause brothers provided special effects. For whatever reason, they decided they could do a better job themselves, and made their own film. Perhaps they should have stuck to special effects. There are some mysterious aliens. And they have attacked Los Angeles. And there is a bunch of bad actors stuck in a penthouse apartment, who try to escape. Er, that’s about it. Avoid.
Shirin, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2008). I’ve now seen three films by Kiarostami – and several more by other Iranian directors – and I’m still not quite what to make of him. Certified Copy (2010) was a clever and accomplished drama (see my VideoVista review here); Taste of Cherry (1997) was odd but entertaining, though the ending was near-genius; but Shirin… The film takes place in a cinema with an entirely female audience. The camera moves from face to face, while the dialogue from the movie being shown is heard (it’s the story of Khosrow and Shirin, a 800-year old Persian tale). That’s it. A series of close-ups of faces, many in hijab. For 92 minutes. I don’t think it works as a concept.
Brief Encounter, dir. David Lean (1945). I’d never seen this before. I know, unbelievable. But there you go. And now that I have seen it… I was disappointed. Perhaps because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Celia Johnson travels regularly into town on the train. One day, she meets Leslie Howard. They enjoy each other’s company, so they meet whenever they’re in town. It goes further. Meanwhile, both have families at home. I actually felt sorry for Johnson’s husband – he seemed like a decent sort. And she was so drippy, the whole affair felt about as __
Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983), is another film I’ve somehow not seen in the twenty-seven years since it was released, though I have seen many of Cronenberg’s other films. It is… odd, though it hasn’t aged well. All that snuff television, screwing with your minds stuff is a little old. I suspect some of it was back in 1983. The weird organic gun was peculiar, as was the body-horror bits. Sometimes they felt like they belonged in a different film. And there was a surprising cheapness to the production, which I hadn’t expected – perhaps because Cronenberg’s later films have better production values. Oh well, I’ve seen it now.
Moolaadé, dir. Ousmane Sembène (2004). I’ve found myself watching a lot of African cinema in recent years, particularly North African. So when Lovefilm threw up Moolaadé – set in West Africa – I wasn’t especially interested in seeing it. But I stuck it on my “world cinema” list, and several weeks later it was sent to me. And i thought it excellent. It’s set in a small rural village in Burkina Faso. Three girls have run away from the traditional female circumcision ceremony and seek protection from Collé, who had refused to have her daughter’s genitals mutilated a few years before. Collé use moolaadé, magical protection, to ensure the girls are kept safe within her house – or rather, the house of her husband, which she shares with his other two wives. The men of the village are not amused, as they consider female circumcision necessary for marriage, as well as required by Islam (neither, of course, is true). In an effort to control the women of the village, the men gather up all their radios and destroy them. A visiting trader – a veteran of the local civil war – takes the side of the women, as does the headman’s son, who has recently returned from working in France. But the women are not empowered, and it does not go well. This is an excellent film, a definite contender for my best of the year. I’d like to see more by Sembène but, unfortunately, Moolaadé is the only film of his available on DVD in the UK. Make more available, please.
Star Trek: The Next Generation season 4 (1990), in which the Enterprise-D boldly goes on and on and on, in its continuing mission to provide bland science fiction television entertainment with the occasional episode which makes you sit up and take notice. Not to mention the several episodes which are downright embarrassing – like ‘Brothers’, in which Picard returns home to France and argues with his brother. Or ‘Data’s Day’ – but then, I never liked the character of Data. Or the one with Lwaxana Troi in it, another character I dislike. On the other hand, Legacy’, in which Tasha Yar’s sister plays one faction against the other against the Enterprise isn’t bad. And ‘The Drumhead’ manages a consistent feeling of paranoia throughout. But the overwhelming sense seems to be of blandness – bland uniforms, bland characters, bland stories. Four seasons in it and it feels like the programme is already well settled into a rut. It needs jollying out of it. Perhaps that happens in season 5. I can but hope.
Kiss Them for Me, dir. Stanley Donen (1957), I watched most of on Film4, but then ended up buying the DVD for a couple of quid. What an odd film. It’s ostensibly a screwball comedy, set during World War II, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Cary Grant plays a war hero Navy pilot who’s had enough, and wangles a week’s furlough in San Francisco with two buddies. The trio plan to get drunk and party the entire time. And so they mostly do. Jayne Mansfield plays a dumb blonde, with a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, as comic relief, but Grant has his eye set on Suzy Parker (who, for some bizarre reason, had her voice dubbed over by Deborah Kerr), the fiancée of an industrialist who could arrange for Grant and his buddies to sit out the rest of the war. Grant leers a lot, there are some strange comic turns, and the natives of San Francisco don’t exactly seem brimming over with patriotism.
Next, dir. Lee Tamahori (2007), stars Nicolas Cage, who perhaps in some alternate world hasn’t turned into a parody of himself. Perhaps in that same alternate world, Philip K Dick’s stories won’t have been bent and twisted in the service of Hollywood, and he’s mostly remembered as a sf author and not a provider of glossy middle-brow concept movies. In Next, Cage can see two minutes into the future, and the FBI are after him because they’ve figured this out and are convinced his talent can help them find the nuclear bomb terrorists have hidden somewhere in the US. It’s all very silly, Cage plays his part with a sort of wooden-faced intensity, and Tamahori manages some good action set-pieces. Dick’s stories demand you think about them; the films they’ve made of his stories demand you don’t.
Caramel, dir. Nadine Labaki (2007), was a surprise. It’s about three women who work in a beauty salon in Beirut. One is in an affair with a married man, and hasn’t noticed that the local policeman is in love with her. Another is a lesbian, and fancies one of the salon’s customers. And the third is engaged but has not told her husband she is not a virgin and is afraid of the consequences should he learn so. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The cast play their parts well, and there’s much about the story that is very Lebanese. While Caramel may be a feel-good movie, it’s not insultingly so.
The Stoning of Soraya M, dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh (2008), I had mixed feelings about. Like the female circumcision in Moolaadé, stoning is barbaric and unjustifiable. The Stoning of Soraya M is apparently based on a true story. It’s set in a village in Iran, where a man falsely accuses his wife of adultery because she won’t divorce him and allow him to marry a younger woman. Stoning is barbaric. Any justice system in which women are judged more harshly than men is barbaric. any justice system which sentences people to death is barbaric. It doesn’t need for Soraya M to be innocent and virtuous. So what if she had committed adultery? The fact she was stone is condemnation enough of the village and its justice. Making the husband out to be a manipulative moustache-twirling villain is entirely unnecessary and feels like the story is pandering to people who might consider adultery crime enough – for a woman only, of course – to require severe punishment. The Stoning of Soraya M is a film worth seeing but, sadly, it undermines its own argument.
Twelfth Night, dir. John Gorrie (1980), I’m fairly sure I saw when I was at school, though the Shakespeare play I studied for English O Level was Henry IV, Part 1. It’s another typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities and cross-dressing. Felicity Kendall plays Viola/Cesario, Robert Hardy is Sir Toby Belch, Clive Arrindell is Orsino, and Sinéad Cusack is Olivia. Alec McCowen plays a good Malvolio, both unctuous and creepy. I was, incidentally, surprised to discover that the line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is from this play – specifically from a love letter written by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the jester, but purpotedly from his mistress, Olivia, as revenge on Malvolio. In context, it seems an ironic choice of phrase for people who use it to justify their own over-inflated sense of worth. Much Ado About Nothing remains the best of the comedies I’ve seen so far, though this one comes a close second.
Blake’s Seven series 4 (1981) feels like an unwanted coda to the first three series. And so it was. The makers had not expected to be renewed after series three, and so had to quickly cobble together something for an additional thirteen episodes. Including a new spaceship, since they had blown up Liberator. Plus a new base. And several new additions to the “Seven”. The base is underground and belongs to a salvage-man of dubious legality who Avon’s gang defeat and kill in a story entirely ripped off from The Picture of Dorian Gray. His lover and partner, Soolin, joins Avon, and the obsequious computer of his ship, Scorpio, makes up the seven. The Federation/empire ruled by Servalan which Blake and co had destroyed is now busy recreating itself, but Servalan – believed dead – is reviled. So she has re-invented herself as Sleer, a police commissioner, and is busy planning a return to power. It’s as well Blake’s Seven finished after this season. The special effects are embarrassingly cheap, the sets more so, the stories don’t make much sense, and the story-arc seems to lurch about without coming close to any sort of end. So they killed everyone off. They should have kept it to three series.
Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, dir. Michael Apted (2010), led to a small discussion on Twitter. I maintain the films are better than the books – I find the books deeply patronising, and their old-fashioned sensibilities often offensive. The films at least have modernised the books’ attitudes. However, as was pointed out to me, this has not always been done for the better. When on the island of the invisible Dufflepuds, in the book a magic tome allows Lucyto hear what everyone else thinks for her, whereas in the film she imagines what her life might be like were she as beautiful as her sister, Susan. It’s a step backwards as Lewis was mostly evenhanded in his treatment of gender, with the girls as noble and heroic as the boys. But then, the best bit of the Narnia books is that the Pevensie children remained in Narnia as kings and queens, grew up and ruled wisely… and then returned to their real lives as children, no more than minutes older than when they had left. Lewis throws all that away in a single line. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a string of minor adventures, in which Prince Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and cousin Useless Eustace try to discover the fates of the seven lost Lords of Narnia. Which they do.
Only Angels Have Wings, dir. Howard Hawks (1939), is the sort of Hemingway-esque movie they don’t make any more. And with good reason: it’s mostly nonsense. Cary Grant plays the manager of a small fleet of aeroplanes which carry mail over the Andes. It’s a dangerous job because they don’t have radar, or even planes powerful enough to fly over the tops of the mountains. So they have a tendency to crash in the passes when the weather is bad. And it’s often bad. There’s lots of macho posturing, the dialogue is snappy, Cary Grant makes good fist of his role despite the part not requiring debonair charm, Rita Hayworth smoulders, and the model-work for the aeroplanes almost convinces. I do like the Silver Fox’s movies, and many of them are classics, but I’m finding that the ones I like are not always the ones everyone else likes…
30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, dir. Gabriel Bologna (2007), was produced by The Global Asylum. So when I sat down to watch it I knew I was going to get a shit film. I was not disappointed. It’s allegedly an update of Verne’s classic, though how increasing the number of leagues signals that fact is a mystery. A US ballistic missile sub has sunk in a deep marine trench, and so the Navy calls in Lieutenant Arronax and his deep sea submersible. To make matters more interesting, they put the submersible under the command of Arronax’s ex-wife, Lieutenant Commander Conciel. The submersible descends from the USS Abraham Lincoln (an Iowa-class battleship that can somehow manage 75 knots) to 20,000 feet, where the missile sub lies. Bizarrely, there is a bubble of reduced pressure there, which allows the crew of the submersible to use ordinary scuba gear. It doesn’t explain how the missile sub didn’t implode on its way down, however. Also down there is a vast submarine, commanded by Captain Nemo, who wants to use the sub’s nuclear missiles to destroy the world above the waves. Arronax must stop him, even though some of his crew have been brainwashed by a device of Nemo’s. This film has no redeeming qualities – the CGI is crap, the acting is worse, the script is dreadful – with exchanges such as “I want it soon.” “How soon?” “Immediately!” – and the story makes no sense. How The Global Asylum remains in business is a mystery.
Mammoth, dir. Lukas Moodysson (2009). I was not very impressed by Moodysson’s Container – although I like his other films, especially Lilya 4-Ever – so was somewhat afraid I’d feel the same about this film. But I actually thought it was superb. A young dotcom millionaire files out to Thailand to sign a deal with some venture capitalists. His wife is a surgeon in the ER at a New York hospital. Their nanny is a Filipina, who has left her two young sons back in the Philippines. But it’s a film mostly about children. In Thailand, the millionaire heads for the beach, bored by the negotiations, and there meets a young prostitute. He pays her to go home, rather than sleep with him. But she returns the following day and offers to be his guide. Meanwhile, the wife objects to the nanny introducing the couple’s young daughter to Filipino culture. While in the Philippines, the older of the two boys tries to make extra money by selling his body. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good as the young millionaire, but the rest of the cast are also very good. An excellent film, and another contender for the best of the year.
Moonwalk One, dir. Theo Kamecke (1970), I will be reviewing at some point on my Space Books blog. It’s a strangely hippie documentary of the Apollo 11 mission, which gives a very real idea of contemporary reactions to it.
Dark Descent, dir. Wilfred Schmidt (2004). When I saw a description of this, I thought it might prove interesting as it’s set in an undersea habitat in the Challenger Deep. What I hadn’t expected it to be is a complete rip-off of Outland (which was itself “inspired” by High Noon). Dean Cain (how the, er, super have fallen) plays the marshal of the aforementioned habitat, which is actually a mining-town. He’s cleaned the place up as it was a hive of scum and villainy – well, drunken violence, the occasional murder, prostitution and vice. Days before he is due to be relieved, he learns that three villains he put away are on their way back to take their revenge. But everyone else in the facility is afraid of them. There is too much in this film which makes no sense. The facility is at the deepest part of the ocean, and the pressure outside is seven tons per square inch. It’s such a dangerous place, in which survival is so totally dependent on machinery, you wouldn’t put there the sort of people who would booze it up, get violent, and behave like criminals. Stupid. The rest of the plot involves some drug which allows humans to take the pressure – water pressure or the stress of the job? Can’t be the water pressure, because no pill is going to make seven tons per square inch survivable. As is later proven when a jet of water at that pressure goes straight through a man. Anyway, the local doctor has been secretly trialling overdoses of the drug, and this has led to a series of suicides. When Cain gets suspicious, the company hires the three villains to sort him out. A film to avoid.
Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.