I spent much of February catching up with 2013 novels for my Hugo ballot. While this included a number of books by authors I usually read and enjoy, I also chose a number of edge cases that had looked interesting. I also didn’t have a computer at home during two weeks of February, which is why I was uncharacteristically quiet during the latter half of the month… It also meant I got a lot of reading done – nine books in four days at one point – so I’ll keep my comments on each book short as there’s more than the usual number of them. Incidentally, I’m still sticking to alternating genders in my fiction reading.
Proxima, Stephen Baxter (2013). Not sure what I was expecting this to be like – the publicity suggested I might like it… but I found it more like Exultant (see here) than Coalescent (see here). In other words, I thought it juvenile and thick with indigestible lumps of exposition; and while there was plenty of invention on display, no single idea was neat enough to make the book stand out. Criminals are transported to an inhabitable exoplanet in the titular star system, and what a surprise they prove completely unsuitable as pioneer colonist material. We’ve got rape and violence and warlordism in a century that has settlements throughout the Solar System and can even send spacecraft to another planetary system. But those criminal types do stumble across an enigmatic alien device which links the exoplanet with Mercury. This novel won’t be going on my Hugo ballot.
Red Doc>, Anne Carson (2013). This was shortlisted for the Kitschies earlier this year, which is why I bought a copy and read it. It’s a poem, told in a mix of styles, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. While I find its genre aspects all a bit wishy-washy, there are moments of great beauty in it, and the dialogue in the told sections reads truer than anything you might find in a category genre novel. Since it’s not a novel, novella or short story, but a poem, I’m going to put it on my Hugo ballot as a related work. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the rules which says a related work has to be non-fiction.
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds (2013). This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth and the middle book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Much of it concerns a covert war prosecuted by Arachne, an AI built to monitor a huge space-based telescopic array, because of course all machine intelligences are completely fixated on destroying non-machine life. There’s also a convoy of “holoships” – hollowed-out asteroids – en route to an exoplanet, on whose surface is an enormous enigmatic alien feature, the Mandala. The story focuses on three “clones” of Chiku Akinya, labelled Red, Yellow and Green – it’s a bit more complicated than cloning, something called “Quorum Binding”, which allows them to update each other’s memories, as is helpfully explained to one of the Chikus early in the novel by another character, even though, of course, she already knows how it works. One of the Chikus stayed on Earth; one set off in pursuit of Eunice Akinya’s space craft, Winter Queen (from Blue Remembered Earth); and one joined the fleet of holoships heading for the exoplanet Crucible. There are some nice set-pieces – I liked, for example, the one set on the surface of Venus, even if it didn’t seem to add much to the plot. The societies in the holoships turn totalitarian because, of course, totalitarianism is the default setting of any society in a science fiction novel – much as I disagree that hard sf is inherently right wing, the preponderance of right-wing societies in it is tiresome. There are also some uplifted elephants, a genius scientist who has a set of pronouns all of “vir” own, more about the mer people from the first book, and even some giant enigmatic alien machines orbiting Crucible, the presence of which had been hidden from humanity by Arachne. It’s certainly a polished novel,and what Reynolds does he does well, but it doesn’t quite meet the promise suggested by the first book of the trilogy. Of course, there’s still a final book to come, so perhaps that will do the trick. This book is not going on my Hugo ballot.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013). I’d never heard of Atkinson until her Jackson Brody books were adapted for television – even though her debut novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and she’s a pretty big-selling author in the UK. However, it was hard not to be aware of Life After Life, her latest book, as it’s already won the Costa Novel Award, is arguably genre, and has been talked about by a number of my online friends and acquaintances. A young woman born in 1910 dies at various times during her life, each time being reborn back in 1910 and somehow – sometimes only through some subconscious prompting – each time managing to avoid her fate from the previous time around. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a pleasantly engaging protagonist, nicely witty prose, and a very smooth read without being as bland as commercial fiction. Recommended. I’ll be putting this one on my Hugo ballot.
The Machine, James Smythe (2013). Smythe is banging out books like they’re an endangered species, but if the two I’ve read are any indication he’s no hack. The machine of the title of this novel is used to remove troublesome memories, but it’s later discovered that prolonged use puts the patients into a persistent vegetative state. Like Vic, Beth’s husband, a soldier who returned from the war with severe PTSD, turned increasingly violent and so opted for treatment with the Machine, but is now in a nursing hostel, oblivious to everything. So Beth buys a black market Machine, “kidnaps” her husband, and uses her Machine to restore his memories and so restore him. The name “Ballard” has been thrown around a lot in reference to The Machine, and certainly the setting – a sink estate on a post-global-warming Isle of Wight – feels very Ballardian, although the story itself doesn’t feel much like a Ballardian commentary on society. The prose is good, written in present tense with no quotation marks – which, obviously, is a style I’m all for… but why does it feel like everyone is doing it these days, eh? The ending may not come as much of a surprise, although perhaps reading Smythe’s The Explorer I’d been primed to expect a twist. Good stuff – and I have one spot left on my Hugo novel ballot and this is the current front-runner for it.
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (2013). After Beukes’ Clarke Award-winning Zoo City, we have a high-concept commercial thriller, though the concept is enough to make it genre: a time-travelling serial killer. There’s a house in Chicago, and the killer can use it to access any time from the 1930s, when he discovers the house, to the 1990s. He jumps back and forth through the decades, stalking and killing young women, often ones he has previously visited while they were kids. They are the “shining girls”, so called by him because they have some quality which would have led them to live remarkable lives had he not murdered them. The Shining Girls is a fast, pacey read with a good sense of time and place, but the plot feels a bit too choppy to gel in places and the whole never feels quite complete somehow. This one will not be going on my Hugo ballot.
The Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (2013). I’m a fan of Mann’s science fiction – I have all of his novels in hardback. So I was particularly happy to discover he had something new out, seventeen years after his last novel, 1996’s The Burning Forest. But, oh dear. The Disestablishment of Paradise refers to the final months of the Earth colony on the exoplanet called Paradise – this is what disestablishment is, the removal of a colony from a world – and the scientist, and her “assistant”, who remain behind and learn something more about the planet and its flora (it has no fauna). Particularly the Peripatetic Dendron, which is a sort of giant animated three-legged tree, and the Michelangelo-Reaper, which is a plant with psychic powers of some sort. There’s no denying that Paradise is a fascinating place, and that Mann draws a beguiling picture of it; but the human dynamics in The Disestablishment of Paradise are woefully old-fashioned (especially in regard to the female characters) and the dialogue is stilted at best. The story is framed as the novelisation of the reminiscences of the scientist, as told to a writer best-known for dark and edgy children’s books; and I’m not entirely sure what that conceit adds. There are occasional asides to the reader – and several appendices of supplementary material, which are referenced in the narrative – but it’s not enough to jolly along the somewhat plodding pace. One of the longest set-pieces is the “saving of the Dendron”, which seems to go on and on and on, with an excess of detail into Dendron physiology. After reading The Disestablishment of Paradise, I’m going to have to reread Mann’s earlier novels, as I don’t remember them being as dull or stodgy as this one. The Disestablishment of Paradise will not be appearing on my Hugo ballot.
The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) I read this for review on SF Mistressworks.
Martian Sands, Lavie Tidhar (2013). Or Tidhar does Dick. Again. I am not much of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work – there are a couple I like, but the only reason I own so many of his damn books is because almost half of the SF Masterworks series consisted of works by him. Martian Sands reads like a pastiche of Dick – and for me, that’s its biggest problem. It’s as if the plots and settings of a dozen of PKD’s novels were glommed together, and then roughly stitched into a single narrative using a magic chest full of sf references and in-jokes. I know some preferred this to The Violent Century, but I thought the other book much the better of the two. I won’t be putting Martian Sands on my Hugo ballot
Countdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962). I couldn’t resist this when I saw it on eBay, chiefly because it offered a 1960s take on women in space – which is something I’d covered in Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The “MOON NURSE!” on the back was just a bonus. Interestingly, according to a foreword the author interviewed both Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, both of whom appear in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (actually, Cobb is one of my novella’s two protagonists). I’m working on a full review of Countdown For Cindy, to be posted here soon-ish.
After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (1930). It was M John Harrison who recommended Jean Rhys on Twitter – some time last year, I seem to recall – during a conversation about women writers. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across this book in a charity shop, and decided to give it a go. Julia has left her husband after the death of their baby, and is now living hand-to-mouth in a Parisian fleapit hotel. Desperate for money, she returns to London, hoping to sponge off relatives and/or past lovers. There’s a distant tone to this short novel, a weird lack of affect, as if Julia didn’t quite fully inhabit her life or the story – and, as a consequence, it’s hard to really care if Julia is successful or not. There’s an admirable clarity to the prose, and some nice turns of phrases in the descriptions – like “Behind the curtains was a green and optimistic sun-blind, faintly irritating, like a stupid joke” – and it all adds up to a curiously timeless prose-style. The sensibilities and lifestyles being described might be from the Thirties, but the language feels like it could belong to any decade of the Twentieth Century. That’s pretty impressive. If I see any more books by Rhys in charity shops, I’ll probably take a punt on them, but this one feels a little too languid for my tastes so I’ll not be in any rush to track down her work.
The Man from Charisma, Ted Mark (1970). I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, or one of its sequels, Rip It Off, Relevant!. Perhaps I read something somewhere that suggested it might be amusing. It wasn’t. Jonathan Relevant is discovered naked on an iceberg after test missiles launched by a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine accidentally collide and explode above it. Relevant appears different to different people – to Soviet scientist Dr Ludmilla Skivar, he’s a studly Gagarin; to US Paper Clipped scientist Professor Von Schweindrek, he’s a model of Aryan masculinity; to African-American student activist G-for-George Pullman Porter, he’s Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver… The Soviets lay claim to Relevant, but the CIA steals him from them, and hides him in a CIA-sponsored research institute at Hartnell University… whose admin building has just been occupied by radical students protesting a number of different things. Relevant gets dropped into the middle of this, and tries to resolve it – which shouldn’t be that difficult given how everyone sees him as what they want to see. But this is the late 1960s, so… “Every man sees him as his hero. Every woman sees him as her lustful dream.” Sigh. We’re strictly in right-on “comedy” territory from the Swinging Sixties, with all the bad and borderline offensive jokes that entails – not to mention some outright offensive characterisations of various groups of people. I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, and now I’ve read it I wished I hadn’t bought it. We’ll have to see if the sequel is any better – but I’m not holding my breath….