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Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


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Books to look forward to

There have been a few posts on anticipated genre 2013 releases around and about the internet, but most have either been uncritically exclusive, or squeeing fannishly over volume umpteen in various piss-poor epic fantasy series. Which is not to say the outlook for 2013 is entirely glum. Yes, there will be the usual badly-written tomes of badly-mangled mediaevalish adventure, all of which are interchangeable: swords! rape! magic! feisty princesses! rape! war! rape! But there are one or two books upon which I have my beady eye…

January
ROBOTSAdam Robots, Adam Roberts
A collection of Mr Robot’s stories. Who could not want this? I’ve appeared in a couple of anthologies alongside Adam, which has sort of forced me to read his stories. But what I’ve read I have liked and thought very good, so I’d like to read more of them. I seem to react better to his short fiction than his novels. And, it has to be said, that is a pretty damn cool cover.

the-explorer-by-james-smytheThe Explorer, James Smythe
Astronauts are definitely in – what with Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine (see here) and Christian Kiefer’s The Infinite Tides last year. The Explorer looks pretty much like genre heartland, although it seems to be marketed on the edges of science fiction. Given my own fascination with astronauts – Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, ‘Faith’ (PDF), etc –  it’s certainly a book I plan to read.

February
bestofallpossibleworldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord
This has been getting lots of good press and looks like one of the year’s more interesting sf releases. I’m not sure the précis on Amazon makes it sound wholly appealing – remnants of the galaxy’s once ruling elite is short on women, and a civil servant must accompany one such male on his search for a mate – but it all depends who’s writing it…

disestablishmentThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann
I’ve been a big fan of Mann’s fiction for decades (oof, that makes me feel old) – see here – so I’ll buying this one in hardback the moment it is released. It will be Mann’s first book since 1996’s The Burning Forest, the final book in his A Land Fit for Heroes alternate history quartet. That’s quite a long silence – seventeen years. Alexander Jablokov spent a decade not writing before Brain Thief was published. I thought it very good, but it didn’t seem to do very well. Let’s hope Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise does better…

March
Life-after-life-cover-194x300Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I’ve not read any Atkinson, though I understand she’s quite good. I did watch the television series with Jason Isaacs, however (though, to be honest, it clashed with Scott & Bailey, which I thought much the better series). This book, about a person who serially reincarnates, sounds like it might be worth a go. I’ll wait for the paperback, though.

NecessaryIll-cvr-low-resNecessary Ill, Deb Taber
According to Suzy McKee Charnas, this novel “offers hopeful glimpses of alternatives to the current cultural barrage of post-Apocalyptic savagery and regression to warlordism”. Am sick to bloody death of post-apocalypse novels in which people turn into animals and only some warped version of right-wing US society offers hope or a way forward. So, want.

April
sereneinvasionThe Serene Invasion, Eric Brown
Eric has been churning out quality sf for more than two decades, and his novels and short fiction are always worth reading. It’s a shame his books seem to cause few, if any, ripples. Except, of course, he’s been shortlisted this year for the Philip K Dick – albeit bafflingly for Helix Wars, rather than the year before for The Kings of Eternity, which is by far the better book.

prophetofbonesProphet of Bones, Ted Kosmatka
To be honest, I’d sooner see a collection from Kosmatka. I’ve only read a handful of his short fiction, but what I’ve read I’ve thought very good – I even picked his ‘Divining Light’ for the Locus All-Centuries Short Fiction Poll. I’ve been meaning to pick up Kosmatka’s first novel, last year’s The Games, in paperback, and whether or not I get Prophet of Bones will depend on my reaction to that book.

June
shininggirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
I really liked Zoo City (see here), so I’m keen to read this one, even if the plot has been described as “The Time Traveler’s Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“. Ugh. But I trust Lauren to produce something good despite that. (Incidentally, it really annoys me they never bothered correcting the spelling mistake in the title of The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, it’s the american spelling; but I don’t live in the US, and we use British English here).)

The AdjacentThe Adjacent, Christopher Priest
I’m always late reading Priest’s novels, though I usually get there in the end. It’s useless speculating what it might be about, because Priest’s novels generally defy summary. This one is allegedly his “most complex yet”, although if anyone knows of a simple Priest novel I’ve yet to hear it. Santa brought me The Islanders for Christmas, so I’ll be reading that soon… two years after everyone else and a year after it won the BSFA Award…

July
Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley
The fourth book in McAuley’s hard sf nearish-future series. I really must read Gardens of the Sun

August
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
The second book of Poseidon’s Children and the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I liked the first book, I liked its optimism and its avoidance of sf’s usual panoply of magic bullshit technology. This one I will certainly be buying in hardback on its release.

September
Proxima, Stephen Baxter
There’d be something wrong if there wasn’t at least one Stephen Baxter novel out each year. It’s deep future sf, with humans living on a dead world orbiting Proxima Centauri, and all sounds very Baxterian.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts
A sequel to The Asylum’s “mockbuster” of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Sea by Adam Roberts has to be worth a go. Though, to be fair, I did think the ending to the film was pretty unequivocal – the Nautilus was destroyed by the nuclear warheads Nemo had planned to launch against the US, and everyone aboard, including Nemo, was killed. But I’m sure Adam will come up with some cunning trick to show how Nemo escaped death in a nuclear explosion at the very last second.

December
Equilateral-Kalfus-Ken-9781620400067Equilateral, Ken Kalfus
I saw mention of this on io9, and its description sounded interesting: British scientists at the turn of the century have come to believe there’s life on Mars, so they propose to build a massive triangle in the Egyptian desert. Yup, I’d read that. (io9 gives the publication date as April, but according to Amazon it’s December in the UK. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer than them, then.)

No doubt there will be more titles I want to read appearing throughout the year, but these are the only ones that have been announced so far that appeal to me. I’ll also probably end up reading other new books recommended to me but which, at first glance, I hadn’t thought worth trying, or hadn’t known about. So it goes.


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Looking ahead

This year is almost over, but what will the new year bring? I already have more than a dozen titles from 2012 on my wish list. They are (in alphabetical order by surname of author):