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Reading diary, #58

This is the last but one Reading diary post before my 2017 reading is all written up. And then, of course, I’ll have to start documenting my 2018 reading… Which I hope to do more frequently and more diligently than I did in 2017.

The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts (2015, UK). I have not in the past got on especially well with Adam Roberts’s novels. He’s an enormously clever bloke and has excellent taste in fiction, but I think there’s something in his approach to the genre which rubs me up slightly the wrong way. Except. I really did like The Thing Itself and thought it very good indeed. The narrator is a radio astronomer, wintering in Antarctica with a creepy geek. This is during the 1980s. The geek is secretly experimenting with perception – the idea that our senses mediate the world, that there is something there, in reality, an idea based on Kant’s Ding an sich, which our senses edit out… but what if we could actually perceive it… “It” all turns out to be a bit Lovecraftian and eldritch, but the geek’s unsuccessful attempt to kill the narrator, and the brief glimpse the narrator has of unadulterated reality, were enough to fuck him up. And now, decades later, he’s a complete loser (although the geek is in Broadmoor). But then he’s contacted by a secret thinktank – and it’s pretty obvious they’ve built themselves an AI, but the narrator is too dumb to realise this – because they need him to approach the geek… And, of course, everything goes horribly wrong and the narrator ends up on the run, not entirely sure who he’s running from and increasingly convinced the mad geek has developed some sort of superpower. There are also a number of historical sections, which better explain, and illustrate, the book’s central Ding an sich premise. I do have a couple of minor niggles, however. The narrator uses a cane, which he loses while fleeing from hospital… but mysteriously has it back a chapter or two later. And a female character changes name over a couple of pages. But that’s minor, trivial even. I thought this a very good sf novel.

Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson (2015, UK). The trade paperback of this, among several others, was being given away free at Mancunicon, the 2016 Eastercon, so I grabbed myself a copy because, well, free. And, you know, it’s twenty-first century space opera and I still pretend to like that – although it does seem like increasingly fewer of them float my boat, as it were. Crashing Heaven is a case in point. It ticks all the boxes for 21st-century space opera, but that to me felt like more of a handicap than an advantage. Forster is an ex-soldier and POW, returning home to the Station after the cessation of hostilities with a collective of AIs who apparently dropped a rock on a lunar outpost that happened to be hosting a children’s schooltrip. (They denied doing it, of course.) Implanted inside Forster is an AI called Hugo Fist, which was designed to kill AIs (in that sort of handwavey computing cyber warfare bollocks that sf seems to love) and which manifests as an old-style music hall ventriloquist’s dummy. Unfortunately, due to some contract shenanigans, Fist is due to soon take-over Forster’s body, effectively killing him. Worse, Forster thinks the AIs are innocent of the lunar rock thing (I mean, come on, it’s obvious right from the start they didn’t do it). It’s all a plot, of course, by the “gods” of the Station  – who are apparently uploaded humans so sociopathic they refuse the same existence and abilities to every other human, which to me is just putting a sf spin on slavery. And that’s pretty much the world of the Station – slavery, genocide, megaviolence, the usual 21st century science fiction crap. Not interested. Crashing Heaven is apparently the first book in a series. I won’t be reading the sequels.

Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (2012, USA). I read the first book of this series a while ago, and a conversation on Twitter in late 2017 persuaded me to carry on with the series. So I bought book two. Which is Glamour in Glass. (Amusingly, according to the spine, it’s the second book in the “lamourist Histories”. Oops.) At the end of the first book, plain-but-talented Jane married estranged-earl David, and the two make their living as among the best glamourists in England. One of their clients is the Prince Regent,. He reveals to Jane that she will finally get her postponed honeymoon. In Belgium. Ostensibly there to study a new glamourist technique which can make things invisible, it turns out David is spying for the British Crown – since Napoleon has escaped and is expected to retake France… The end result is less Jane Austen and more Georgette Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, but the Heyer of An Infamous Army rather than Cotillion. Which is no bad thing, although the change in tone between the first half of the book and the second did jar a little. And the final scene wasn’t quite as dramatic as the lead-up had suggested. (On the other hand, a modern eye does mean some of the more skeevy aspects of Heyer’s fiction are avoided.) But I did enjoy the book, and I’m glad I was persuaded to give them another go. I think I’ll carry on reading them.

Swastika Night, Murray Constantine (1937, UK). It says Murray Constantine on the cover but it’s sort of an open secret that Constantine was a pseudonym of Katherine Burdekin, so I have to wonder why Gollancz chose to use the pseudonym on the SF Masterwork edition. I mean, no one remembers either name these days, so it makes no fucking difference. Use her real name, make it obvious the writer was female. Anyway, the story is set 700 years after the Axis won WWII, and and Europe is all Greater Germany. People – well, men… as women are considered subhuman and treated like animals – are divided into Nazis, Germans and everyone else. A clever Englishman visits Germany on pilgrimage and hooks up with a German friend who had worked in the UK. Through him, he meets the local Nazi lord, who reveals a secret history. Hitler was not tall and blond and godlike, and women were once considered equal to men… There are perhaps a few people in the US, or members of UKIP, who may be surprised by these revelations, but to the human race it’s the sort of reveal which has almost no dramatic impact. It’s not helped by the fact the narrative consists mostly of characters lecturing each other. The misogyny is baked into the world but, despite suggesting homosexual relationships are both common and unremarkable, there’s a still a whiff of homophobia. Swastika Night is not a great book. Had its profile remained prominent in the decades since it was first published, it might have been considered an important book. Sadly, it was all but forgotten. It’s good that the SF Masterworks series has chosen to publish it – although it would have been better thad they used the author’s real name – and it is scarily more relevant now than it has been since the 1940s… It’s an historical document, it reads like an historical document… but it’s a sad reflection on our times that its premise is no longer historical…

Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983, USA). This is the second book of Van Scyoc’s Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which I have in the SFBC omnibus edition. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s fiction for a long time, and I’m not entirely sure why. Or rather, I hadn’t remembered why until I started reading this trilogy, beginning with Darkchild (see here), and now Bluesong. She was genuinely good. She built strange worlds and set stories in them that were predicated on that strangeness and yet had plots which explained the cause, and sometimes cure, of the strangeness. She was never especially popular, but I think I’d rate her one of the best female US sf writers of the 1980s. Sadly, her last novel appeared in 1991 (although she apparently had a couple of stories in F&SF about ten years ago). The Sunstone novels are set on the world of Brakrath which, although mostly low tech, was settled from another world centuries before and remains aware of them. The planet is a bit too cold to be comfortable for humans, so they hibernate during the winter. Even during the spring, the valleys would be too cold for agriculture… but for the barohnas, the female rulers of each valley, who have the power to focus and direct the sun’s rays… to defrost the land and provide sufficient warmth to grow things. In Bluesong, a young woman realises she is not one of the river people among whom she lives, runs away, and eventually ends up finding her father among the desert people… But she is actually a daughter of a barohna, and so will change into one herself. Van Scyoc draws her alien societies well, and this series is particularly good at dropping hints toward a story arc. I liked Bluesong more than Darkchild, but they’re both pretty good. Cherryh may have received more love during the 1980s, and, er, since, and was hugely more prolific, but Van Scyoc was just as good.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987, USA). I don’t think I ever doubted that Russ was an extremely clever writer, although it was more evident in some stories than others – some of her short fiction, in fact, was so much of its time, it was hard to see see past how emblematic of their period of writing they were. But it wasn’t until I read The Hidden Side of the Moon that I realised how consistently clever a writer was Russ. This is not a specially curated collection, but it’s so much more intelligent a collection than her The Zanzibar Cat. Perhaps it’s because not every story in it is genre, and it was not put together to showcase her genre credentials. Perhaps it’s because every story in it is fiercely feminist. I don’t know. I do know a collected works of Russ is long past overdue – not just the short fiction, but also the non-fiction, like the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, or her criticism. She is, like Samuel R Delany, one of the most important writers American science fiction has produced. And yet who is it who remains in print and has countless stories and novels adapted by Hollywood? Philip K Dick. A drug-addled hack. We are, I suppose, fortunate that Asimov, one of the most graceless prose stylists of his generation, has not been so enthusiastically adopted by Hollywood. And while I still have a soft spot for some of Heinlein’s works, he’s pretty much science fiction’s embarrassingly outspoken old uncle with all the offensive opinions at the family barbecue, who’s pretty harmless until he starts touching up his young nieces. It’s long past time science fiction stopped venerating skeevy old hacks like Asimov and Heinlein and Dick, and started lauding the real grand masters, like Delany, Russ, Tiptree and Le Guin.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary, #47

My reading slowed badly during March and April, so much so I’m ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge, and I picked a total ten less than the year before (which I just managed to reach). Partly it’s because I’ve been so busy at work, I’ve been eating my lunch at my desk, and so not reading during that break. But I’ve also found it harder to continue with the book I’m reading on the weekend. I really do need to pick up my reading pace.

The American Lover, Rose Tremain (2014, UK). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, I read several books by Tremain, both novels and collections, and enjoyed them. Since returning to the UK, I’ve not read anything by her, so I thought it time I rectified that and bought her latest collection. And… it was a good move. She’s worth reading. These stories are slight, it has to be said, but good, of a type I like and enjoy, but not exactly memorable. I find Helen Simpson’s short stories have more bite. The stand-out is probably ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, in which a dying Leo Tolstoy, fleeing from his wife, ends up at a nowhere railway stop “120 miles south-east of Moscow, on the Smolensk-Dankovo section of the Ural railroad line”, and spends his last few days there in the house of the station-master (aside, this is, from the use of the horrible Americanism “railroad”). I enjoyed The American Lover enough to decide to carry on working my way through Tremain’s oeuvre.

The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, Ken MacLeod (2016, UK). I’ve been buying and reading Ken’s novels since stumbling across a copy of his first novel, The Star Fraction, in Spinneys in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s. Throughout the years since, he’s published a variety of sf novels, and some I’ve liked a great deal more than others. Some have even been excellent – I still think his Intrusion is one of the best near-future sf novels of the past ten years. The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, on the other hand, has a title that really doesn’t appeal – it sounds like “Neoliberals in Spaaaace!” – and if it had been written by anyone other than Ken I’d have given it a wide berth. As it is… I’m unlikely to put it in my top five MacLeod novels. It’s a realistic treatment of robot sentience accidentally being created at a corporate mining site on a moon of Jupiter, and the team of avatars – virtual representations of dead human beings – who fight them. There’s a lot about simulated environments, a familiar topic to readers of Ken’s novels, and some intelligent treatment of the vast distances within the Solar System. But. Well, it never quite caught fire for me. The self-aware robots felt a bit clichéd, and the avatars were no better drawn. This is solid twenty-first century space opera, a bit more to the hard sf end of the spectrum than is usually the case, but I found it a little disappointing.

The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA). I forget who recommended the first book in this series, The Steerswoman, but when I came across a copy in a local charity shop, I bought it, later read it… and liked it so much I went and tracked down the remaining Steerswoman books (only the first was ever published in the UK, so I had to buy US editions… and there was such a long gap between books two and three that the first two were re-issued in an omnibus edition.) The Language of Power follows directly on from The Lost Steersman, but none of the books really make much sense unless read in order from The Steerswoman. Rowan is back in the seaport of Donner, trying to make sense of the events recounted in previous book. But her efforts to track down the records of a previous Steerswoman draw unwanted attention from the wizards… but then she stumbles upon Will, the boy genius who was taken on as apprentice by a friendly wizard, and it seems they’re trying to figure out the same things. These books are hugely likeable, and the presentation of science fiction as fantasy is perfectly pitched. It’s not a new idea, by any means – even Robert Jordan used it, for example – but Kirstein’s talent is in presenting understandable science fiction to the reader, not a handful of sf buzzwords or well-worn tropes, in such a way that it’s obvious this is sf to everyone except the characters. Sadly, the story is not yet complete and the recent installments have taken a while to appear. But it’s worth hanging in there, because these books are lots of fun.

Valerian and Laureline 15: The Circles of Power, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1994, France). Annoyingly, Cinebook have been prompted by the imminent release of Luc Besson’s Valerian film – which looks a bit dodgy as an adaptation, to be honest – to rerelease the Valerian and Laureline books in hardback omnibus editions. Argh. I’ve been buying the paperbacks as they’ve been published in English. And, as is evident in this blog post, I’m currently at volume 15. (Volume 16 will be published in April, but there are, to date, 22 volumes in French, the last published in 2013.) In The Circles of Power, the titular two find themselves on a world in which the city and society are organised into circles with increasing levels of authority and regulation. But something weird is going on in the highest circle, and since they need money to get their ship fixed, they’re forced to investigate. The solution to the mystery comes as no real surprise, but along the way – and this is where, on the strength of the trailer alone, I admit, I think Besson’s adaptation might fail – there is ample opportunity for Christin to display his mordant view of real world society and politics. And I saw nothing of that dry banter in the trailer for Besson’s film. Which is a shame – one of the joys of the Valerian and Laureline bande dessinée series is how it maps onto the its time of writing.

popCult!, David Barnett (2011, UK). I bought this at the Fantasycon before last, so it’s taken me about 18 months to get around to reading it. Which is actually pretty good – I have some books I bought over a decade ago I’ve yet to read. I can’t remember why I bought it, possibly because I know the author, but perhaps also because the blurb mentions a lost Carry On film as central to the plot… and for all their myriad faults I’m a reluctant fan of the Carry On series.  In the event, Carry On, You Old Devil!, the so-called missing film, turned out to be a maguffin. The actual novel is about the writer of the titular work – a non-fiction work on popular culture in the novel – and how he is recruited by the, er, titular underground organisation, which is dedicated to safeguarding popular expressions of mass culture – talent shows, reality television, anything which makes celebrities of nobodies, basically – against a mysterious and semi-immortal enemy. Unfortunately, the protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable, and his allies somewhat too perfect to be true, but there’s some excellent commentary on popular culture buried among the implausible goings-on. It’s a fun novel, but it’s one where the writer was clearly capable of better – and has subsequently proven so. One or two aspects proved uncannily prescience when I was reading it – especially the section where popCult! break into the Palace of Westminster… Worth reading, if you can find a copy.

Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scoyc (1982, USA). Many years ago, I decided I liked Van Scyoc’s novels – I forget which of her novels prompted it – and over a number of years I’ve picked up copies of all her books… and I’ve been very slowly reading them. Darkchild I actually read as the first part of SFBC omnibus edition, Daughters of the Sunstone, which also includes Bluesong and Starsilk. I was afraid I might have gone off Van Scyoc’s writing, but I was happy to find I still like it a lot. There’ll be a review of Darkchild on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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reading & watchings 6: the women-only month

As promised, during July I limited my reading to only books written by women. A dozen, in fact, which is about average for me; as are the subjects covered – science fiction, mainstream, crime, space, and autobiography.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004), was June’s book for my reading challenge, though I didn’t read it until July. I wrote about it here.

Hav, Jan Morris (2006), I’d been meaning to read for ages – ever since it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, in fact. But, well, I never got around to buying a copy. And that despite reading and very much enjoying Morris’ Fisher’s Face back in 2000. I found a copy of Hav on bookmooch.com last year, and picked it up this month to read as the book is actually an omnibus of two books, and the first was originally published in 1985 and so could be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. The more recent section, ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, I found less successful. It takes place after the “Intervention”, in a state now booming under the control of a secretive council of Cathars. Quite what is driving the economy is never really revealed, though Morris suggests it may not be entirely legal. Morris visits old sights (almost all gone) and old friends (almost all changed). Progress has been good to Hav – it is now prosperous – but Morris mourns the old Hav, with its rich mélange of culture and history. Which does sort of make the piece read like a paean to nostalgia.

Bluebeard’s Egg , Margaret Atwood (1983), is a collection of short stories. Some I like more than others. The title story especially stood out. I also liked ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’ a great deal. One of my favourite mainstream short story writers is Helen Simpson, because her stories seem to capture real experiences. Her stories are about the quotidian, but they are written with intelligence and a lightness of touch which belies their content. Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg , by contrast, seems more focused on the emotional landscapes in her stories and that, perversely, often makes them seem less real. True, the stories in this collection are chiefly focused on relationships and sexual politics, but even so, some of them felt more like plays than attempts to depict slices of life. There was a studiedness to the situations they describe, and I found that a little distancing. I have yet to make up my mind about Atwood’s fiction, though I’ve only read three of her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is superb, and I remember enjoying The Blind Assassin. I still have plenty more by her on the TBR (for a while, it seemed every local charity shop had one of her books), so we shall see how it goes…

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s writing for many years, and have collected all of her books.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010), I bought because I’d heard good things about from several people. They were wrong. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh (1992), is al-Shaykh’s second novel. I thought her first, Women of Sand & Myrrh, very good indeed, but this one was, to be honest, a bit of a slog. It’s structured as a series of letters by a woman called Asmahan – to her childhood friend, to an ex-lover, to her mother, to Billie Holliday – in which she recounts incidents, and feelings, of life in war-torn Beirut. Some of the writing is lovely, some of the story is quite heart-breaking, and al-Shaykh is extremely good at getting across the realities of the life she describes. In that respect, Beirut Blues provides an excellent window on a place, its people and events that readers in the West probably know little about – and certainly very little about what it was actually like for those who suffered through those times. The format unfortunately does distance the reader somewhat and nothing has quite the impact it feels it ought to. Despite this, worth reading.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. The Goda War was, I think, the first book I read by Blakeney. I vaguely remember looking her up afterwards on The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which reccommended her The Children of Anthi / Requiem for Anthi duology. I hunted down copies of those two books, and they are indeed good. The Goda War, unfortunately, isn’t. She wrote a fourth novel, The Omcri Matrix, which I will no doubt reread and review for SF Mistressworks sometime.

Desert Governess, Phyllis Ellis (2000), is a slim autobiographical book about the one year spent in Saudi by the writer. Originally a dancer/actress, Ellis turned to TEFL as a career after the death of her husband. She spent a year in Hail, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, as English teacher – not really a governess – to the son and two daughters of HRH Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of ibn Saud. Ellis seems eager to learn and understand Arab/Muslim culture, but equally unwilling to accept some of its elements – resulting in incidents which caused offense and could have been avoided. She is homesick for much of the time and, unsurprisingly, finds the life too restricting. To some extent, Desert Governess provides an interesting insight into the lives of Saudi princesses – particularly the sections set in Jeddah. The writing is mostly acceptable, and there are some mistakes in the transliteration of the Arabic (though they might have been typos). The book is a quick easy read, spoiled somewhat by Ellis’ reluctance to either accept or respect the culture in which she found herself.

Resurrection Code, Lyda Morehouse (2011), is actually a prequel to Morehouse’s AngeLINK quartet, which I’ve not read. I think Amazon recommended it to me when I purchased Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (see here), and it looked sort of similar so I bought it. It’s an interesting mix of cyberpunk and, er, angels, set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo. Odd, but in a good way. I plan to write about it here soon-ish. Meanwhile, I plan to hunt down copies of the original AngeLINK books: Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node and Apocalypse Array..

City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris (2011), is her second crime novel set in Saudi, featuring the same two characters from her first, The Night of the Mi’raj: Nayir Sharqi, Palestinian desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, forensic scientist. I thought that first book interesting, though somewhat flawed – and I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. City of Veils is a much better book – perhaps because it has a larger cast and a much more satisfying central mystery (most of which proves to be a sub-plot, but never mind). A young woman’s body is found washed up on a Jeddah beach. She is later identified as Leila Nawar, a young film-maker who seemed determined to court controversy by filming subjects certain to offend the Saudi authorities. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker, an American, has returned to Jeddah after a month’s leave back home, and hours after she arrives home with her husband, he vanishes. Miriam doesn’t live on a camp, and can’t speak Arabic. Ferraris weaves the two incidents together into a mystery, one which drags in both Katya and Nayir. The characters seem better-drawn in this novel, but the plot does get wrapped a little two quickly. Still, I enjoyed it and I’ll read the next one when it’s published.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010), was July’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002), I found in a charity shop, though it’s a US paperback. I read and enjoyed Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, back in 2008, and Solitaire is a novel that had been much praised. I’m surprised I didn’t read it earlier. Because it is very good indeed. In a nearish-future in which Earth has finally acceded to a single global government, Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is a Hope – i.e., a child born in the first second of the EarthGov era, and trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. She works for Ko, the planet’s only nation-corporation, and so is under more pressure to succeed than other hopes. On a visit to Hong Kong, she inadvertently causes the deaths of a group of people – an elevator fails in the city’s tallest tower, killing all those in it – including a Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of friends or “web”. When a terrorist group claims responsibility for the sabotage, Jackal is arrested and charged. Her Hope status is revoked and, so that her parents are not fired by Ko, she does not contest the charges. She is put in experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement – eight months real-time, eight years VR elapsed time. Somehow, while in VR solitary, she discovers how to edit her environment, and creates a simulation of her home on Ko’s sovereign island. So when she finishes her sentence and comes out of “prison”, she is less damaged psychologically than others who had served sentences in the same fashion. The title of the book refers to a bar Jackal discovers some weeks after her release, which caters to “solos” – i.e., those who have served VR solitary confinement sentences. And is the events, and the people, there which lead to the story’s resolution. Solitaire is beautifully-written – this is not the prose you expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are a few hand-wavey moments here and there, but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even after a month of women-only writers my reading is only 32% female and 68% male. So I need to do more. From now on, I’m going to try and alternate with each book I read, though I’m not going to be obsessive about it.

Oh, and no watchings this time, I’m afraid. I’m saving them up for the next readings & watchings post.