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Reading diary 2018, #5

Bit of a cheat this one, as most of the books are either short or graphic novels – well, one graphic novel, two short collections, and a novella. One has also been shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Author’s Choice Monthly 7: Neon Twilight, Edward Bryant (1990 USA). I had one of my semi-regular outbreaks of completist-itis, and since I owned about half of the Author’s Choice Monthly issues, I decided I needed to have the rest. A full set. Even though many of the authors in the series I’m far from a fan of. Like Mike Resnick. Ed Bryant I knew nothing about. The name rang a vague bell, but if I’ve read anything by him in the past, I don’t recall doing so. Bryant’s introduction explains he’s better known as a horror writer, although he did write heartland sf once – and it’s three of the latter stories which are collected here. All three are set in the same space opera universe – the first story he set there, a later one when he decided to use the setting for a commissioned story, and a third written specifically for this short collection. They are… okay. The stories are set in some sort of interstellar polity – it’s all a bit vague – in which disputes are settled through ceremonial wars, in which mercenaries in fighters battle each other. And those who survive, and have the highest kills, become popular heroes. The second story was written for an anthology set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe, so the mercenaries have to fight off a giant machine intelligence bent on killing everyone. And they do it using the previously unknown telekinetic powers of one settled world’s indigenes. The whole fighter/mercenary thing takes some swallowing, because there’s nothing remotely plausible about using fighters in space combat, despite their prevalence in science fiction. The whole folk hero thing doesn’t really parse either – after all, who remembers the aces from the Vietnam War? From any war? These Author’s Choice Monthly have proven to be very much of variable quality. But they’re a set, so I’m going to buy them all and read them all, damn it. Even if they’re crap.

The Obelisk Gate, NK Jemisin (2016, USA). Do I need to explain that this is the second book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy – preceded by The Fifth Season and followed by The Stone Sky – which, like The Fifth Season, won the Hugo, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Stone Sky also won the Hugo this year… Making it the only trilogy to ever win the Hugo for all three instalments in consecutive years. Which says more about the Hugo Awards, to be honest, than it does the books. Social media these days is completely fucking useless for finding out what’s worth reading – and the Hugo Award never has been – as it’s all tribalism and self-promotion, but I’d heard enough rumbles about The Fifth Season to prompt me to buy it when it was £1.99, and I was pleasantly surprised enough (see here) to stick this second book on my wishlist. And so was given it as a Christmas present. It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow a phrase, that the second books of trilogies are generally the least satisfactory. After the tricks Jemisin had used in The Fifth Season, I had, to be honest, expected more of The Obelisk Gate. It is pretty much a straight follow-on. However, where the best part of the first book was its time-stacked narratives, that’s a not a technique that can be continued once revealed. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t even try. It’s a linear narrative covering events chronologically following on from The Fifth Season. It rings a few changes – which are to its credit – inasmuch as it introduces a separate narrative for Essun’s daughter, who was abducted by her father and proves to be an extremely powerful orogene; and it also breaks its narratives with first-person sections which directly address the reader whose narrator is not initially obvious. The worldbuilding is basically more of the same from the first book. The level of brutality remains high, although much of the invention was frontloaded in the first book. This is good solid genre fiction, a cut above the average, which can be read as both science fiction or fantasy. Are they the best two genre fiction novels published in 2015 and 2016? Of course they’re not. The Fifth Season probably deserved its Hugo – and certainly did given the shortlist – but The Obelisk Gate‘s Hugo was not so deserved (although, given the rest of the shortlist…). I’ll certainly read The Stone Sky, and I hope it picks up a bit after The Obelisk Gate – although I suspect that since the shape of trilogy is now becoming so much clearer, it won’t do. The strength of The Fifth Season was that its shape was there to be discovered. But we shall see.

Author’s Choice Monthly 29: Moonstone & Tiger-Eye, Suzy McKee Charnas (1992 USA). There are only two stories in this collection, both technically novelettes (I say “technically” because novelette is the most useless fiction category on the planet and we should really stop using it). The first, ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ I first read in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and I liked it enough to moan that Charnas had never revisited the setting. It was apparently her first piece of short fiction, since she’d only written, and was known for, novels prior to it. On reread, I’m less enamoured of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’. It’s heartland hard sf/space opera, the sort of stuff Cherryh, among countless others, is famous for, written in the first person, with an engaging narrator. But. The use of Nigerian culture feels a bit heavy-handed. It’s good to see something other than middle America as a cultural template in a science fiction story, but when you make use of someone else’s culture it has to be done very carefully. Her female narrator also has agency. In 1980, when this story first appeared, that wasn’t very common. The setting is all a bit identikit – Nigerians notwithstanding – and it’s still a shame Charnas never revisited it. The second novelette is ‘Evil Thoughts’, from 1990. A woman and her younger significant other have moved into a new house. Mushrooms keep appearing on their lawn, and the crazy lady just up the streets, with two yappy dogs, tells her they are “evil thoughts”. And the woman destroys the mushrooms, so the evil thoughts have nowhere to go… The story doesn’t make much of its conceit, and seems more concerned with the anxieties of the woman caused by other people’s thoughts on her having a younger partner. Disappointing.

Crosswind Volume 1, Gail Simone & Cat Staggs (2018, USA). Juniper is a Seattle housewife who is abused by her husband. Cason is a hitman for a mob boss in Chicago (I think), who seems somewhat more thoughtful and intelligent than is common for the breed. For reasons explained later, the two magically swap bodies. Cason finds himself in Juniper’s body; Juniper is now a male hitman. It’s hardly an original conceit – there’s a novel from 1931 which has exactly the same premise! – and it’s been used plenty of times since, both in cinema and written fiction. Simone and Stagg have bought a modern sensibility to the story, inasmuch as they were careful to consult trans readers in order to depict their characters’ experiences in an appropriately sensitive way. And yet… they marry this with a brutal mobster plot. Certainly, represent trans people as accurately and sensitively as posssible, but why do we need to have a story which features domestic violence and mobster brutality? Those earlier body swap stories? They were comedies. In Crosswind, it’s good the way the two principals adapt to their new situation… But I could have done without the clichéd violence – and using violence, by “Juniper”, to resolve the chauvinism she’d been experiencing? I’m not sure that’s a good message: woman experiencing chauvinism, can only be resolved by a man taking over the woman’s body and behaving like a man? Disappointing.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan). I’d not even heard of this, although I suspect it would have eventually come to my notice, when I saw it on the BSFA novel shortlist. Which was a surprise. No one I knew on social media had been talking about it. Who were the people who nominated it, enough of them for it to make the shortlist? Which, okay, might only have been half a dozen, given how poorly subscribed the BSFA is these days, and how few people bother to engage with the awards. Anyway, I picked up a copy, and pretty much read it on a train journey to and from Leeds. And… It’s good. It’s very good. In an unnamed Middle East city which is clearly modelled on Damascus, Saeed and Nadia meet. She wears an abeya from neck to toe although she is not religious; he does not believe in sex before marriage. A developing relationship in an Islamic society, in which moderates and fundamentalists coexist, is first upset by civil war, and then by the appearance of doors, existing doors, which now miraculously lead to doors in other, richer and Western, nations. And so refugees flood through them, and there’s no controlling them because they are never en route, or passing through somewhere else. Saeed and Nadia take advantage of this, and first move to Mykonos, and then to the UK, and finally to San Francisco. The premise is not thought through especially well, and the various Western nations’ responses to an unstoppable wave of refugees seems implausibly, well, accommodating – especially the UK, given the UK’s current policy of handling immigrants, as set out by Thereas May when she was Home Secretary, not to mention the whole Brexit fiasco… But Hamid focuses his story on the relationship between the two principals. On the one hand, Exit West makes an obvious point. And it’s a beautifully written novel – I really do like Hamid’s spare explicatory prose. But Exit West simply presents its premise, which doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and never really interrogates it. Nor does it really interrogate the West’s response to immigrants, especially unannounced or unwanted ones. If you want to read a novel which does an excellent job of commenting on that, then read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It is the much superior novel. But Erpenbeck wasn’t shortlisted for the BSFA Award – unsurprisingly, as her novel is not genre – amd Hamid was, and both tackle a subject important to our time. Much as I liked Exit West, I didn’t think it entirely successful. It’ll be getting the third slot on my BSFA Award ballot.

The Martian Job, Jaine Fenn (2017, UK). The title is a deliberate nod to the famous British 1960s movie, and the story even uses its own variant of Michael Caine’s famous line. But the plots don’t map precisely, nor the set pieces, and Fenn’s novella certainly ends in a completely different fashion. The famous car chase through the streets of Turin in Minis becomes a race through the tunnels of old Martian colonies in “tunnelbuggies”, and, yes, there’s a heist which kicks it all off… Lizzie Choi is a corporate administrator for one of the most powerful companies on Earth, the Moon and Mars, in a future doiminated by the Chinese. She has a criminal background, but walked away from it. Unfortunately, when her brother dies on Mars, she’s named as next of kin by her mother, currently in prison on the Moon, and so the company find out about her chequered past. Which results in her travelling to Mars to finish off the job her brother had begun: stealing the Eye of Heaven, the largest opal ever found and the property of her ex-employers. It’s all first person, and Choi is an engaging narrator and very much at the centre of the action. The Martian Job does a lot of things well, which mostly means deploys its tropes with assurance – not that any of the tropes are especially original. The references to The Italian Job are fun, but little more than easter eggs. The ending isn’t much if a surprise – it’s optimistic and well primed. This is solid feel-good sf, which might well be about a crime and feature criminals, but is not gratuitously brutal or right-wing. It’s a pleasure to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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You can never have too many books…

… but you can have not enough space for them. I’m going to have to have another clear out soon to free up some room. I’ve already boxed up some books, but I think more will have to join them… None of this is helped by me continuing to buy books, of course – although some of those below I won’t keep once I’ve read them… well, one of them, at least.

It might be time to write a sequel to ‘Wunderwaffe’… Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Strategic Bombers 1935 – 1945Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Fighters 1939 – 1945 and  Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Ground Attack & Special Purpose Aircraft I bought on eBay as a job lot for a really good price. Soviet Secret Projects: Fighters Since 1945 means I’ve now got both of the Soviet books. Um, perhaps I could write a sequel to ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’…

Some new genre fiction – well, Exit West isn’t category genre, but has somehow managed to make the shortlist for the BSFA Award. Oh, and the Man Booker too. Elysium Fire is a sort of follow-up to 2007’s The Prefect, which has now been republished under the title Aurora Rising, because. I liked The Prefect, it’s probably my favourite of Reynolds’s novels, so I’m looking forward to this new one. The Smoke I reviewed for Interzone; it’s excellent and one of my books of the year so far. Finally, Dun da de Sewolawen is by a friend, and it sounded interesting.

I bought some of the Author’s Choice Monthly books a while ago, and I’ve always been annoyed that I don’t have a complete set, because, well, sets are for completing, of course. Moonstone and Tiger-Eye (Charnas) I wanted to read, not so much Neon Twilight (Bryant) or Into the Eighth Decade (Williamson). But, well, sets. The same is sort of true for the two Mike Mars books: #6 South Pole Spaceman and #7 Mystery Satellite. I have a couple of them already, but I want to complete the set. But I’m also interested in the topic they cover: early space flight.

Some other books by, er, authors I collect. I’ve been a big fan of Blumlein since first reading one of hs stories in Interzone back in the 1980s. Charnas’s ‘Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast’ is one of my favourite genre stories and it appears in Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms. It and The Roberts I ordered direct from Tachyon Publications… and was delighted to discover on arrival they were both signed. Transit of Cassidy is one of George Turner’s mainstream novels. I think it’s the only one that was published outside Australia. (All of his science fiction, however, was published in both the UK and US.)

Finally, some books for the collection… US first editions of Whipping Star are usually really expensive, so this one was a really lucky find. I hadn’t known The Artificial Kid, Sterling’s second novel, had been published in hardback until I stumbled across a copy on eBay. I have The Women’s Press edition of The Two of Them, but I found this hardback for a couple of quid. In the Heart or in in the Head is a literary memoir, published by Norstrilia Press. Copies are hard to find. And, last of all, a signed slipcased edition of Visible Light, which a UK-based seller had up on eBay for a very reasonable price. I have the contents already in The Collected Short Fiction of CJ Cherryh, but, you know, sets


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May book haul

Not too many this month, so I appear to be getting my habit a little under control. More work still needed, however. On the plus-side, it’s getting harder to find irresistible bargains on eBay; on the other hand, it’s getting easier to find obscure books that look interesting…

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Three first editions. Amritvela is actually signed and was a couple of quid on eBay. It’s not sf, but I need to read more world fiction anyway. The Zanzibar Cat is Russ’s first collection. Arabian Nights and Days was given me by my mother. I’ve read several books by Mahfouz, and I have a couple more on the TBR. But I’ve yet to read his Cairo trilogy, as the only copies I have of it are in Arabic. That’s a project for one year – get my Arabic up to scratch so I can read them…

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The Novel To-day was a lucky (and cheap) find on eBay. It goes in the Anthony Burgess collection. Exploring the Deep was also from eBay (and also cheap), and is a pretty good overview of its topic. Useful research material, should I ever decide to write some hyperbaric sf…

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A pair of Tor doubles – No 12 He Who Shapes/The Infinity Box by Roger Zelazny and Kate Wilhelm, and No 15 The Last Castle/Nightwings by Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. I started collecting these after a bunch of them appeared in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi, and over the years I’ve managed to find 28 of the 36 Tor published. Some of them are quite good, but many are rubbish. The Invincible is more Lem. The Leopard and My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family were bought as a birthday present.

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For The Women’s Press sf collection – Across The Acheron I found on eBay, but Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Women as Demons, A Door into Ocean, The Judas Rose and The New Gulliver were all from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books.  I recently updated the list of The Women’s Press sf titles on the SF Mistressworks site – see here.


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17,500 words or more

A few weeks ago in a review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ – see here – sf critic Paul Kincaid mentioned it was one of his favourite novellas. He also provided a link to an earlier post on another blog giving his favourite science fiction novellas – see here. So, of course, I started thinking about a list of my own… and immediately hit a couple of snags…

I like the novella, I think it’s an interesting length. It gives you the freedom to experiment you don’t have in a novel, and the room to experiment you don’t have in a short story. The four books of the Apollo Quartet are novellas, and I plan to write further at that length. But. Novellas are not as common as short stories – because they’re harder to write and harder to sell – and, as I tried putting together a list of ten favourite novellas, I discovered that few of them are all that memorable. It’s likely down to pure numbers: I’ve read so many short stories that I can quite easily think of ten which have stayed with me over the years. But ten novellas? Have I read enough for a critical mass of favourites to form?

The first few choices were easy. But then I had to resort to various collections and anthologies to prompt my memory. I also discovered that some of my choices were actually novelettes…

I hate the novelette.

It is a completely useless category. According to the Hugo Awards, a short story is up to 7,499 words, a novelette between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and a novella between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Anything over that is a novel. Back in the day, magazines apparently offered different pay rates for short stories, novelettes and novellas, and some magazines – well, Asimov’s and Analog – still list stories by category in their table of contents. But the novelette as a category serves no useful function for readers. There are short stories and there are novellas. Why do we need something in between? So the Hugo and Nebula Awards can hand out more awards to the voters’ friends? Most genre awards only have a short fiction category, they don’t even make a distinction between short story and novella…

But, as I said earlier, I like novellas, and I think it’s important to recognise them in the annual awards merry-go-round. But, please, kill the novelette. Expunge it, exterminate it, marmelize it, remove it from every ballot and magazine TOC.

Anyway, my favourite novellas… After some research, I managed a list of ten, all of which were categorised as novellas by isfdb.org. But restricting myself to stories of 17,500 to 39,999 words meant I’d been forced to chose some novellas I would be hard-pressed to call favourites. So I thought, sod it. I don’t care if some of them are novelettes. I reject the bloody category anyway. Which is how I ended up with the following ten novella/ettes…

‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1959)
One of the things about a favourite piece of short fiction is that you can remember where you first read it. This was in an anthology called The Future Makers which I was given as a present one Christmas or birthday back in my early teens. The story itself is a piece of spy fiction with added aliens, and there’s something about its 1950s thriller template that makes it more memorable than it would be otherwise. It was also published separately as a novel under the same title.

‘Empire Star’, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Delany was one of my favourite writers during my teens and twenties, and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. Dhalgren remains a favourite novel. But I remember being really impressed by the Moebius strip-like structure of this novella when I first read it. And it still impresses me on rereads. I first read it as one half of a Sphere double with ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, and I’m pretty sure it was while on holiday in Paris with the family in the early 1980s.

‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading one of his Eight Worlds short stories, but I can’t actually remember when I first read him. Having said that, ‘The Barbie Murders’ is not an Eight Worlds story but an Anna-Louise Bach one – although like many of the former, it’s set on the Moon. There is something very creepy about the story’s central premise – a cult in which all the members have had themselves surgically remade to resemble Barbie; and Varley uses this idea to ask questions about identity. I also think this is one of those stories which exists in that Schrödinger’s-Cat-like area between utopia and dystopia.

‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
I read this is The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection, and it’s probably the premier work of time paradox fiction in the genre. It originally appeared in an author collection, Novelty: Four Stories, and has even been published as a standalone novella.

‘Identifying the Object’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
This story (it’s one of ones on this list that’s actually a novelette) first appeared in Interzone #42, December 1990, under the title ‘Forward Echoes’. It’s the story that turned me into a collector of Gwyneth Jones’ fiction, Later, she amended it and it was published under its new title as the title story in a chapbook by Swan Press of Austin, Texas. The story takes place in the same world as Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, Buonarotti stories and Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
I first read this in the collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, and of the four novellas in that collection, it’s the one that stood out the most for me. There are a lot of stories set in the Ekumen which could have made it onto this list, but most of them aren’t really long enough to qualify as novellas.

‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
I read this in the issue of Asimov’s in which it appeared, March 1996. In my contribution to the Acnestis APA a couple of months later, I described it as “brilliant” and wrote that “if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, then there’s no justice”. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Hugo as a novelette and the World Fantasy Award as a novella (which proves my point above), and shortlisted for the Tiptree.

‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
Science fiction is full of Big Dumb Objects, from Niven’s ringworld to Clarke’s Rama, but most are associated with quite dull pieces of fiction. Reed’s ‘Marrow’ is told with a very clinical, detached voice, which only heightens the impact of the BDOs which furnish this novella. There’s the Great Ship, a slower-than-light starship the size and shape of a gas giant, and there’s the title world itself, which exists at the core of the Great Ship. This novellas was later fixed up into a novel of the same title.

‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
When I first read this in Interzone #124, October 1997, I characterised it as one of Watson’s occasional completely-off-the-wall stories, the ones he churns out every now and again that are even more bonkers than his usual output. It’s about jigsaws, Vidkun Quisling, Nazi occultism, and getting naked in an Oslo park. I liked it a lot, and it was certainly memorable. And then it re-appeared as the first section of the novel Mockymen, and it seemed even more mad, and I liked it even more. It reads like fantasy, and to use it as the opener for a sf novel (about aliens invading Earth) demonstrates such an insane view of genre that it’s hard not to admire its brazenness.

‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
I read this as a standalone chapbook published by Phoenix Pick, which I’d purchased after being mightily impressed by Gilman’s fantasy Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social world-building Gilman does in the novel that, I think, most impressed me. It is certainly a novella that has haunted me since I read it.

So there you have it, ten pieces of long short fiction of novella-ish-type length. I suspect if I were to try the same exercise a couple of years from now I might come up with a slightly different list. But this will do for now. And I’m serious about getting rid of the novelette.