It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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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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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Clarkes announced

Yesterday, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist was announced. And it goes like this:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

Well, I didn’t see that coming. I was expecting a more literary shortlist, but this one is definitely more core genre. So much so, in fact, that at least half of the books harken back to much older sf. Hull Zero Three is a generation starship story (with, apparently, a resemblance to Pandorum), and The Waters Rising is a sequel to a book published in 1993. Embassytown I’ve read (my review here), and thought it somewhat 1970s in story and style.

The remaining three at least appear to be more relevant. I’ve read The Testament of Jessie Lamb and thought it very good – well, I thought the first half excellent, and the second half less good. Rule 34 I may try reading, but The End Specialist doesn’t appeal at all.

Anyway, once again the Clarke Award has confounded expectation, something it has done since it was first inaugurated. I am, perhaps, a little disappointed in the shortlist – there were, I thought, better books than some of the ones chosen. Interestingly, Nicholas Whyte guessed four of the six, and could have guessed five of them, simply from their popularity on Goodreads.com and LibraryThing.com. Does this mean the Clarke was looking for “readability”, just as the Booker judges foolishly claimed to be last year? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I do think there was an attempt at narrowing the definition of science fiction after previous years’ occasionallly bizarre flexibility over the term.

And no, I’m not going to predict the winner. I just hope it’s not Miéville.