Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.
The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.
While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.
However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.
Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.
Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.
This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.
Yet more culture – or its complete opposite – devoured by Yours Truly in the past four weeks or so. Someone, incidentally, needs to invent a way to upload books directly to the brain. Reading them is too low-bandwidth. I’m never going to be able to get the TBR down to manageable levels if it takes me two to three days to take in a book by scanning and parsing each page serially.
Books Wormwood, Terry Dowling (1992). I was intrigued by the story Dowling contributed to The New Space Opera 2. While I found it a little too dependent on familiarity with the setting, I did think that setting worthy of further reading. But all I could find reference to was a single collection, Wormwood, published by Australian small press Aphelion, in 1992. It contained seven stories set in the same universe, most of which appeared in Australian sf magazines. After some searching, I tracked down a copy of the book – the signed hardback, as I couldn’t find any copies of the paperback – bought it, and read it. And… The future Earth Dowling has created is indeed fascinating. A mysterious alien race, the Nobodoi, has remade the planet, chopping it up into regions with different environments (some of which are lethal to humans). Several other alien races have also settled Earth, and humanity has found itself no longer ruler of its planet. The stories set in this world are not entirely successful. ‘Housecall’ is quite good, a haunted house story, in which two thieves must break into an alien’s booby-trapped house. ‘A Deadly Edge Their Red Beaks Pass Along’ is similar, and quite effective. Not a bad collection, and I’d certainly read more if Dowling revisited the setting.
Easy Meat, John Harvey (1996). I used to rattle through Harvey’s novels when I was living in the UAE. I’d get them out of the subscription library to which I belonged, and read them the same day. Their chief attraction was that they were set in Nottingham, a city I used to know well. The main character, Charlie Resnick, is a police detective, a lover of jazz and exotic sandwiches, and has ties to the local Polish community. He’s a bit of a glum sort too. In this one, a young offender dies in custody. Resnick is worried the investigation will result in a whitewash, but is taken off the case to investigate a fatal mugging. Then the near-retirement officer who replaces Resnick on the first case is murdered – and it looks like it was by the same people who committed the mugging… They sort of keep you entertained books like this, but only while you’re reading them. As soon as you finish them, they’re gone, forgotten. Resnick doesn’t especially stand out as a character, and the crimes are usually the sort of every day stuff you can read about in the Daily Fail. I think I’ll call it a day on this particular series.
Midnight Fugue, Reginald Hill (2009), is by another crime author whose books I used to read for light relief when I was in the Gulf. I also enjoyed the Dalziel & Pascoe television adaptations when I was back in the UK on leave. But the quality of the books has sadly declined over the years – this one reads as though Hill knocked it out between cappuccinos – so I’d not bothered keeping up with the series. But then my mother lent me Midnight Fugue, so I decided to give it a go. I read it in a single day. It all feels a bit perfunctory. Dalziel, who was always more of a caricature than a character, is a shadow of his former self. The invented town of Wetherton (allegedly based on Wetherby, although I know Wetherby well and have never been able to spot the similarities) could be anywhere in the UK, and the crime which drives the plot comes across more like an intellectual exercise than something involving human beings and death. So, another series I’m going to have give up on. Again.
CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), may have a somewhat forced title, and is a pretty huge coffee-table book – 26 x 34 cm – but it’s also full of amazing and wonderful photographs. Over the course of more than a decade, Chaubin travelled around East Europe, and photographed modernist buildings. Not all of them still stand today. Many of them are very strange, but also quite beautiful. You can page through it here. I’m pretty sure CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed is going to make my Best of the Year list.
Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres (2007), the first book of the Sentients of Orion tetraology, was March’s book for my 2011 reading challenge. I wrote about it here.
Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers (2010), is the book of Kempenaers’ photography exhibit about the eponymous objects. Spomenik is Serbo-Croat for “monument”, and that’s what the exhibit was about. Monuments to those lost in World War II built built during the 1960s and 1970s throughout the former Yugoslavia. Many were destroyed when Yugoslavia collapsed, many have been allowed to fall into disrepair, but some still remain in good condition. Spomenik contains photographs of twenty-two of them. They are weird, modernist sculptures, many on a huge scale, baffling and weirdly beautiful.
Pig Tales, Marie Darrieussecq (1996), I scored from bookmooch.com because it was on that list of 1001 books you should read published by the Guardian a couple of years ago. I’ve no idea why, because it’s complete rubbish. The narrator of the story is a dim-witted young woman in Paris who slowly turns into a pig, and back again, several times. The whole thing read like it was made up by a kid. None of the details convinced – I don’t mean the narrator’s transformation, obviously that wasn’t intended to be “convincing” – but the details of her life, first as a shop assistant, then as a prostitute. None of it was even remotely realistic. Then about halfway through the novel some plutocrat seizes control of the French government and ushers in a collapse of French civilisation. The language throughout Pig Tales was no better, and I’m not sure it can be entirely blamed on the translator. The narrator is clearly meant to be unsophisticated, but that doesn’t explain all the horrible clichés Darrieussecq uses. Complete and utter, well, tripe. Avoid.
Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan (2011), I’m working on a review of this SFF Chronicles.
Blindsight, Peter Watts (2003). I’d been told many times by many people that this was a novel I would like. Earlier this year, I finally got round to picking up a copy. And now that I’ve read it… Good, but it may have been oversold to me. Sometime toward the end of this century, the Earth learns it is not alone – but quite what the “Fireflies” were, or what they were for, is anybody’s guess. When an artificial signal is detected from near the edge of the Solar system, a ship is sent to investigate. It finds a Jovian planet, and in close orbit about it, an alien ship. But Blindsight is not your typical first contact novel. The aliens are really very alien. Blindsight is filled with interesting ideas, but as I read it something about it kept on bothering me. It was a while before I figured it out. It read like a sf novel from the mid-1990s. It was the little things – a character who smokes like a chimney, the use of the word “spam” as a euphemism for human beings plugged into machinery, the tone of the story… It also reminded me a little of Williams & Dix’s Heirs of Earth.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004), is only Robinson’s second novel, twenty-four years after her first, Housekeeping. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead is framed as an extended letter from a dying reverend in 1950s Iowa to his young son (although he is not intended to be given it until he’s much older). There are some lovely anecdotes, and some interesting – and very personal – history. But. I was never really convinced by the narrator. He’s meant to be a pastor in his sixties or seventies, and yet he seemed a bit too, well, maternal in places. He seemed too sensitive, too considerate, to actually be a man, especially a religious man of the 1950s. Having said that, the writing throughout is beautiful. I might try Robinson’s other two novels.
Ghostwritten, David Mitchell (1999), is Mitchell’s debut and, like his other novels I’ve read, isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It opens in Okinawa, with the first-person narrative of a terrorist hiding out after a gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The terrorist is quite bonkers – completely in the thrall of a cult leader. The next section is set in Tokyo, and the narrator is a young slacker who works in a jazz record shop, and falls in love with a half-Chinese half-Japanese young women visiting relatives. She lives in Hong Hong. Which is where the following section is set. The narrator this time is a bent broker, like Nick Leeson, who comes a cropper when he loses the money he’s laundering for a Russian mobster. And so on… The book is structured as these short, mostly independent sections. There are links between some – and occasional events and characters do cross over. About halfway through, we’re suddenly introduced to an “incorporal”, a bodiless person who inhabits the mind of one of the characters, and can transfer from person to person. The final section features what is obviously an AI, tasked with preventing wars from ever recurring, but having trouble meeting this objective. Those two genre elements are just too odd and disconnected to sit comfortably in what had initially seemed a series of linked stories with an implied story-arc. There is, it has to be said, some really nice writing in Ghostwritten, and it’s a very readable novel. But it just feels like it doesn’t quite add up.
Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), was Herter’s second novel, and I bought it when it was published. Why it’s sat on my book-shelves unread since then, I’ve no idea. I thought Herter’s debut, Ceres Storm, excellent. Perhaps it was because it was fantasy, rather than the sf of his debut. Whatever the reason, I shouldn’t have left it so long. Because Evening’s Empire really is very good indeed. Russell Kent is a composer, working on an opera inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Needing somewhere quiet and inspiring to work, he returns to the small out-of-the-way Oregon town of Evening. During his last visit there several years before, his wife slipped and fell to her death from a bluff overlooking the sea. Evening’s Empire begins in a very Crowley-esque vein, but somewhere in the middle it takes a strange left-hand turn – strange in a good way. It is not the novel I expected it to be when I started it. It is also beautifully written. A definite contender for my top five best of the year.
Say Goodbye, Lewis Shiner (1999). I’m a big fan of Shiner’s writing, and own all his books. Say Goodbye, subtitled The Laurie Moss Story, is not genre. It is, like Glimpses, a mainstream novel about music. In this case, Laurie Moss, a young hopeful who moves to LA to make it big. Opening in the form of reminiscences by a journalist about his writing the Laurie Moss story, it soon moves into a more traditional narrative. Moss hooks up with some important people, and her career gets an impressive kick-start. But she doesn’t, as the first half of the book implies, make it big. Her band suffers while on tour, and then the record company shafts her. Say Goodbye is a good novel, but it does feel a bit lightweight.
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi (2010). I hadn’t intended to do a full-on review of this, but after thinking about it decided it was worth one. You can find my review on SFF Chronicles here. It’s a book which can probably be studied in more depth than I did, but never mind.
Films Millennium season 2 (1998). Frank Black is an ex-FBI profiler with a psychic gift: when in the presence of a victim, he can see in his mind what the killer saw. In season one of Millennium, he had returned to Seattle with his wife and young daughter, and begun working for the Millennium Group, consultants who help the police solve crimes. The seasons was basically crime-of-the-week, with a slow-burning story-arc based on the Millennium Group. In season two, the Millennium Group’s history – and the series mythology – begins to dominate. The Millennium are not just a bunch of ex-law enforcement professionals with weird apocalyptic ideas, they’re actually a bizarre cult, descended from the knights templar or something, and charged with protecting an important holy relic (which they had actually lost). I still like Millennium, and Lance Hendrickson successfully carries the series as Frank Black, but all the historical conspiracy stuff, and the schism within the Millennium Group, did start feel a bit silly and over-the-top. We’ll see if the third and final season can rescue it.
Sans Soleil, dir. Chris Marker (1983), is a very strange film. Which is not unexpected. Marker, after all, directed Le Jetée, a film entirely comprised of black-and-white stills with a voice-over (but likely best known these days as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys). Sans Soleil also stretches the definition of a “film” inasmuch as it is presented as a series of short linked filmed vignettes from around the world, over which a woman reads a series of letters to the cameraman. Some of the footage is very good, but the lack of narrative, or even drama, makes it a difficult movie to watch to remain focussed on. It’s probably going to need a second sitting before I have it entirely clear in my head. Unfortunately, it was a rental.
Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Stuart Burge (1984), was a surprise. I knew of the play, of course, but nothing of the story. It turned out to be typical Shakespearean fare: star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, Elizabethan banter, sword-fights… But it was so much better than some of the other Shakespearean plays I’ve seen. The wit was, as usual, a bit heavy-handed in some scenes. But in others, it was very nicely done. Benedick (Robert Lindsay) doesn’t believe in love; neither does the shrewish Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). So their friends tell each one that the other is madly in love with them, and so trick them into actually being so. Meanwhile, Claudio and Hero are madly in love, but evil Don John (he even has a goatee) plots to scupper it. Wandering around the play are the watch, led by Dogberry (Michael Elphick), who talks in really obvious and heavy-handed malapropisms. Elphick was not especially good in the role either, and seemed perpetually covered in sweat. Happily, Lindsay and Lunghi were excellent, and the banter between the two was done well. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve found the other Shakespearean comedies I’ve seen to be a bit obvious and blunt-witted, but this one was a real charmer.
Trafficked, dir. Ciarán O’Connor (2004), I reviewed for VideoVista here.
The Runaways, dir. Floria Sigismondi (2010), is based on a real-life group of the same name, the first successful all-female rock group. It’s where Joan Jett’s career began. As did Lita Ford’s. I saw Lita Ford live back in the late 1980s at Coventry Polytechnic. I don’t remember the gig being especially good. But The Runaways… The cast played their parts well, bit it never really felt like it was based on a true story. Perhaps that was because the story Sigismondi wanted to tell wasn’t the actual story of the band. It was an entertaining film, and the music was quite good. I was actually surprised at how good the Runaways had been as musicians – you usually expect garage bands of that sort to be pretty bad to begin with. The film did wander off on some weird dream-like sequences on occasion, which added very little to the story. But a film worth seeing.
Against All Flags, dir. George Sherman (1952). They don’t make films like this anymore. Which is probably just as well. It’s about as historically accurate as the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but, well, silly. Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn plays an officer aboard a British merchant ship en route to India, who goes undercover on pirate haven Madagascar. His task is to spike the island’s guns, as these have prevented the Royal Navy’s previous attempts to clean out the hive of scum and villainy found there. When Flynn and a pair of fellow seamen turn up at the pirate base of Diego-Suarez, not everyone welcomes him with open arms. Anthony Quinn, for one, believes him to be a spy. But Maureen O’Hara, who is a Captain of the Coast, but not a pirate per se – she owns a ship, but mainly looks after her gun and sword shop – believes Flynn to be on the level. And he fancies her. And from there it’s all Hollywood pirate shenanigans, with everywhere proving remarkably clean and the violence unsurprisingly sanitised. Flynn’s Australian accent is quite noticeable, but he acted better than I’d expected. Quinn just chews the scenery, and the rigging, and the everything else in sight. O’Hara’s character is called “Spitfire”, which tells you all you need to know about her characterisation. Even for a Sunday afternoon movie, this is risible stuff.
Ink, dir. Jamin Winans (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.
Our Man in Havana, dir. Carol Reed (1959), is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name, and was adapted by him for the screen. Alec Guinness plays the title character, Wormold, a vacuum salesman in the Cuban capital. Desperate for money to keep his nubile teenage daughter (who looks suspiciously adult) in the style to which he is accustomed, Wormold agrees to act as a paid spy for HMG. Not actually having access to any useful intelligence, he makes stuff up. And one such “coup”, drawings of a secret project hidden in the hills outside Cuba, which he actually made up by sketching vacuum cleaner parts, gets the British secret services in a tizzy. It all comes to a head, of course, and Wormold has to come clean. But not before a few friends and acquaintances have died. As a comedy, it’s a bit grim. Guinness is great as Wormold, a proper thesp, with a lightness of touch that steals the film. Maureen O’Hara plays his no-nonsense assistant, sent out from London to help him manage his (non-existent) ring of agents. A sharp script, some excellent acting, and directed by Carol Reed: a film certainly worth watching.
Lady Godiva, dir. Arthur Lubin (1955), is yet more proof they made crap films as well as good ones fifty years ago. Hollywood has always had a creative approach to history, especially other countries’. Well, they don’t have any of their own to garble, I suppose. In Lady Godiva, Maureen O’Hara plays the title character, a Saxon noble lady who marries Lord Leofric of Coventry (George Nader, who seems to have plasticised hair). He has been imprisoned in her father’s jail – he’s a sheriff somewhere in Lincolnshire – after refusing to marry a Norman woman when told to by King Edward the Confessor. Happily, the king soon comes to appreciate Lady Godiva’s good qualities. Unhappily, neither Leofric, nor his rival Lord Godwin, are especially big fans of the king, who they can plainly see is overly influenced by his Norman advisors. Eventually, a cunning plot is hatched which sees Edward reconciled to his Saxon barons, the Normans out of favour, and Godwin’s son, Harold (played by Rex Reason of This Island Earth fame), as the heir to the throne. Harold, of course, gets in the eye a few years later, and the Normans end up in charge anyway, but never mind. Historically, Godiva’s famous ride was in protest against punitive levels of taxation (I can’t quite imagine Kate Middleton doing the same today in response to Tory policies), but in the film she rides naked through the streets to show Saxon support for King Edward. Or perhaps the opposite. I went to uni in Coventry, incidentally. Not much of the city from the eleventh century has survived, but even so there wasn’t much that looked mediaeval about the Coventry of the film. These days, Lady Godiva is chiefly notable for an uncredited early appearance by Clint Eastwood as “First Saxon”.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington, dir. Frank Capra (1939). I’ve yet to get a handle on Capra’s politics. He seems at times like the archetypal Hollywood liberal, and yet an occasional streak of Randism often seems to surface in his films. Perhaps that’s simply US politics, which is, naturally, foreign to me. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is a case in point. It’s clearly a paean to the venerable tradition of democracy as practiced in the USA, yet it goes about praising the institution in a peculiar way. A senator dies in office, and the state governor must appoint one for the interim. A local plutocrat, who controls the governor, doesn’t mind who providing the candidate rubber-stamps a scheme he has cooked up for a hydro-electric dam (which will profit him, and the state’s other senator, Claude Rains, greatly). They chose James Stewart (the Smith of the title), a popular and woefully naive scout master, as their new senator. Unfortunately, once in Washington Smith stumbles across their scheme and tries to prevent it. But Rains and the plutocrat drum up support against him, and fabricate evidence showing he is corrupt, in an attempt to have him removed from office. Smith responds by “filibustering” – keeping the floor of the Senate as long as he can talk, while his friends hunt for evidence to exonerate him. Which, of course, they do. Smith is clearly an everyman – committed to the ideals which founded the US, firmly against corruption, and yet willing to bend the system to ensure justice prevails – and in this case, justice aligns precisely with his own wishes. Stewart comes across as a little too desperate to right wrongs, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Rains is good as the urbane, experienced senator who is both party to the scam and yet reluctantly involved. I’m not entirely sure why Mr Smith Goes to Washington is considered a classic, and these days it’s more of an historical curiosity than a meaningful melodrama. Nevertheless, my soft spot for Capra’s films remains untarnished.
A Summer’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1996), is the third of Rohmer’s quartet of films named for the seasons. It is also the best of the ones I’ve seen so far. Gaspard arrives in Breton seaside resort Dinard expecting his girlfriend Lena to arrive a few days later. Unfortunately, she’s not very reliable – or indeed entirely his girlfriend as she doesn’t want to commit fully. Shortly after arriving in Dinard, Gaspard meets Margot, a doctoral student who is working as a waitress in her family’s restaurant over the holiday. The two spend their days together, but merely as friends. As Lena’s arrival is further and further delayed, Gaspard and Margot discuss relationships. Margot introduces Gaspard to Solene, a friend of hers. Solene wants to go out with Gaspard, and, since Lena doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon, Gaspard agrees. And then Lena does appear – and she’s decided she wants to commit to a relationship with Gaspard. Unfortunately, he’s made plans with Solene to visit a nearby island, assuming Lena would not arrive on time. And he’s promised to take Margot if Solene doesn’t want to go… A Summer’s Tale is one of those stories the French do so well, a beautifully judged romantic triangle, played with an astonishingly light touch.
The Space Race (2007) is a compilation of newsreel footage from the 1940s to the 1960s covering assorted events related to space exploration. There’s the two failed Vanguard launches, of course; Telstar; Yuri Gagarin; Alan Shepard meeting JFK; and John Glenn being recovered after splashdown. Some of the footage about the Soviets uses a V-2 launch instead as they, unsurprisingly, had no footage of a Vostok rocket. Also included, to give the flavour of the times, I suppose, are some unrelated news items, such as a bad railway accident in London, which I think was the Lewisham rail crash of 1957.
The Rare Breed, dir. Andrew V McLaglen (1966), is an odd film. I’m not a big fan of Westerns (with the notable exception of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo), but I do find James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara very watchable actors. But I had to wonder why either was cast in this film. Notto mention Brian Keith’s presence. Stewart plays ‘Bulldog’ Burnett, so called for his talent at ‘bulldogging’ or bringing down a steer by wrestling its horns. O’Hara is Mrs Price, a recently widowed English lady, who has brought her daughter and a prize Hereford bull to the US. She is convinced the US Longhorn cattle would benefit greatly from being crossbred with her Hereford. She sells the bull to a broker who is more interested in forming an attachment with her. To escape his advances, she agrees to accompany the bull to its new owner in Texas, Brian Keith. Meanwhile, the broker has hired Stewart to take the bull to Texas, but Stewart also agrees to rustle it for another rancher. There are some impressive landscapes on display in The Rare Breed, but little else that can be said about it. Stewart is plainly too old for his role. O’Hara plays an English lady with a marked Irish accent (not implausible, but it does undermine the character a little). And Brian Keith, who plays a rancher who looks like Yosemite Sam, puts on one of the worst Scottish accents I’ve ever heard. The two romantic subplots are also about as convincing as Keith’s accent, as are those scenes filmed on a soundstage. Watch it for the Texan countryside, ignore everything else.