It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary, #44

Having found myself no longer enjoying genre fiction as much as I once did, I went and read a load of it – four science fiction books and one fantasy novel. The lone mainstream is by a Norwegian writer, and I doubt I’ll be bothering with any more books by him.

memoirs_spacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962, UK). One from my Women’s Press SF collection and read for review on SF Mistressworks – see here. It felt more fabulist than science-fictional, with a chatty narrator and an almost childish approach to genre trope, although the book is anything but childish. The prose is a good deal sharper than is typical of the genre, but not, it must admitted, of the novels published under the Women’s Press SF imprint. I’d like to read more Mitchison, I think, and her The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century”.

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989, USA). Also read for SF Mistressworks, although the review has yet to appear there. I’ve always been a fan of Cherryh’s writing, and have been reading her books since first stumbling across them in the early 1980s. She used to be ubiquitous in the UK back then, you’d see a dozen or so titles in your local WH Smith, back when WH Smith was better known for selling books than selling stationery. I’ve got quite a few Cherryh first editions, some of them signed. When I lived in the UAE, I used to order her books from Amazon as soon as they appeared, and I’ve been half-heartedly collecting her ever since. I really ought to see about completing the collection – but the science fiction only, I’m not interested in the fantasy novels.

marauderMarauder, Gary Gibson (2013, UK). I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and I’ve been buying his books and reading them right from the start. Marauder is a return to the universe of Stealing Light (2007), Nova War (2009) and Empire of Light (2010), and is in part an extension of that trilogy’s plot. Gary does some things very well, sometimes a little too well, and that can result in him over-doing it. And the thing he does well is: scale. These are stories that cover thousands of light years, that throw out mentions of histories going back millions of years. But this sense of scale is also one of the things that really annoyed me about Marauder… and which also fed into some thoughts I’ve been having recently about science fiction in general. The title refers to a vast starship from a machine civilisation – so we’re in Fred Saberhagen, Greg Benford and Alastair Reynolds territory here – which once aided a civilisation hundreds of thousands of years before and raised its tech level substantially in a short period of time. Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Three Star Alliance has had to hand over its FTL starships to the Accord, a much larger and more powerful human polity, because the FTL nova drive is also the deadliest weapon known to humanity, the nova mine. This seriously pisses off the plutocrats who run the TSA and they decided to try and negotiate with the Marauder, having figured out where it is, for some of that ancient high tech. The pilot on their mission is Megan, a machine-head (ie, she has implants), and the leader of the expedition uses her best friend as a conduit to speak to the Marauder, burning out his brain in the process. The mission is a failure and the Marauder destroys their starship. Megan manages to escape. Some years later, her new ship is hijacked by the same people (who, it seems, were eventually rescued), because they’re determined to try again. Meanwhile, there’s Gabrielle, who has been born for a specific purpose and now, aged twenty-one, it has come upon her: she must go to the Magi (another ancient alien race with FTL, now extinct) starship which crashed on her planet, Redstone, and try to eke more technological goodies out of its AI’s databanks for her theocratic regime. This is all good stuff, and the two plots not only slot together pleasingly but there’s a nice twist that serves to tighten the links between them. It’s all good space opera, but sometimes the vast distances feel a bit too much and the sense of scale sort of fades from 3D to 2D, if you know what I mean. But that over-egging of scale is also what spoiled the novel for me, as mentioned earlier. Gabrielle, it transpires, is important to the TSA’s return visit to the Marauder. But they can’t just invite her along, because of her role in the theocracy. So they kidnap her. But they don’t just send in a special forces team and abduct her. No, they arrange for something – a huge starship carrying antimatter – to crash into the planet and cause a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people, just so they can kidnap Gabrielle in the confusion and hope everyone assumes she died in the disaster. This is one of the things that pissed me off about Leviathan Wakes, and why I’ve never read further in the series. Seriously, killing tens of millions of innocent people just to kidnap one? WTF? I find it hard to believe someone would consider that a defensible plan. I get that the leaders of the TSA are desperate (and, from their later actions, it must be said, also unbelievably psychopathic; but even with the Accord running things, they’d still be rich and powerful, so why behave like monsters?), but when your story covers millions of years and thousands of light years there’s a tendency to upscale the villains too. And I think that’s not only wrong, it also feeds into the whole right-wing mindset of science fiction. Good sf is not about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – and that includes the villains too. Science fiction needs to scale back on the bodycounts and fascism, otherwise it’s just one of the many things in popular culture normalising such behaviour.

rubiconRubicon, Agnar Mykle (1965, Norway). My mother found this in a charity shop somewhere, and asked me if I’d be interested, I said go on then, so she bought it and gave it to me. And… Well, after going on a rant about normalising fascism, Mykle sets a quarter of his novel in your actual Nazi Germany of 1939 and doesn’t manage more than a handful of back-handed criticisms. True, the book is more about the narrator’s home circumstances, from which he is fleeing, and his romantic ideas about Paris, and clearly positioned as comedy – there’s even a scene in which he encounters a French toilet for the first time. The narrator is painted as part-naïf part-idiot part-bumpkin, and while his romantic misconceptions provide a good base for some of the humour, some of it is also a bit too, well, adolescent, male adolescent. Mykle died in 1994, and his last novel was… Rubicon – chiefly, it seems, because of the controversy caused by an earlier novel, 1957’s The Song of Red Ruby (which resulted in an obscenity trial in Norway). I’m tempted to have a go at that controversial novel – secondhand copies in English seem to be readily available – but I can’t say that Rubicon motivates me to track down a copy. Rubicon is a well-crafted novel, with a good control of voice, but it all felt a bit meh to me. Incidentally, inside the book I found an Air France boarding card dated January 1978. It’s not the oldest bookmark I’ve found in a book. I found one once dated 1945…

elegy_angelsThe Graveyard Heart / Elegy for Angels and Dogs, Roger Zelazny / Walter Jon Williams (1964/1990, USA). I have almost a complete set of the Tor doubles, which I started collecting after finding half a dozen of the early ones in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I’m not convinced there’s been a consistent editorial agenda with this series – which topped out at 36 books in two years – given that earlier volumes were just two novellas back-to-back (tête-bêche, to be precise), but that was dropped in favour of printing both the same way up, as if it were an anthology of two stories. Some of the later ones also featured classic novellas with modern sequels by another hand, as this one does. ‘The Graveyard Heart’ by Roger Zelazny is from 1964. ‘Elegy for Angels and Dogs’, a direct sequel, is from 1990. To be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Zelazny’s fiction. He’s reckoned to be one of science fiction’s great wordsmiths, and while he may be a great deal better at stringing a sentence together than many of his peers, I’ve never really understood why his prose is held in such high regard. It’s… okay. And in ‘The Graveyard Heart’, some of it is actively bad. In the novella, a subset of the jet set, a group of rich young party animals sleep in cryogenic suspension for most of the year, and only appear for exclusive and expensive social events. They are the Party Set. So while they live the sort of life capitalist society continues to valourise, they also travel forward through time, experiencing years in subjective weeks. But then one of them is murdered and… yawn. Dull murder-mystery in totally unconvincing setting ensues. Williams’s sequel moves the action forward a couple of centuries, tries to show the changes in Earth society the Party Set are missing (and that does, in fact, drive part of the plot), but also throws in a couple of murders for good measure. The result is something which isn’t sure how direct a sequel it should be. It’s more inventive than its inspiration, the language is plainer and better for it, but its lack of focus tells against it. Both are no more than average.

lord_slaughterLord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK). I bought the first book of this series, Wolfsangel (2010), at a convention after meeting the author, and got it signed. But I’ve been continuing with the series, despite my general apathy toward fantasy, and especially urban fantasy, because they’re actually bloody good. They’re more like historical novels, but based on Norse mythology and featuring werewolves. This one is set in Constantinople during the reign of, I think, Basileios II, 953 – 1025 BCE, certainly an  emperor of that name appears in the book. A wolfman sneaks into the emperor’s tent just after a battle and asks the emperor to kill him. Instead, he takes him prisoner, and throws him into the Numera, Constantinople’s chief prison. Somewhere in the caves under the Numera is the well of knowledge, from which Odin drank, and for the privilege he paid with an eye. And that’s how the story plays out. Aspects of Odin, hidden in two of the characters, along with aspects of the three Norns, all descend on the well, while chaos rages in Constantinople. Because the Norns want Fenrir released so he will kill Odin, but Odin is not ready to die just yet and is happy for his aspects to be reborn throughout history, all with a vague desire to cause death and destruction. The story’s told from a variety of viewpoints, some of which are instrumental in the final showdown, some of which are just enablers. The setting is convincing, and if the characters have a tendency to blur into one another a little, it doesn’t detract from the story. This is superior fantasy, assuming you can define historical novels with werewolves and Norse gods as fantasy. And why not. There’s a fourth book available in the series, Valkyrie’s Song, which I plan to buy and read. Good stuff.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Summer harvest

I have been mostly very good of late and have managed not to add more books to the TBR than I read per month, so it is slowly – very slowly – dwindling. This doesn’t however, prevent me from buying better editions of books I’ve already read – because, of course, they don’t count. There have also been a couple of lucky finds in local charity shops since my last book haul post.

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The aforementioned charity shop finds: Rites of Passage and The Inheritors I’ve always fancied reading, but had never come across copies before. And the Sword of Honour trilogy was another on my wants list that I’d never expected to find. (Yes, yes, I know; I could have bought the books new from a bookshop, but there are some books you fancy reading but not enough to buy them new.) I stopped reading Gibson after Virtual Light, but I really ought to read him again, so The Peripheral was a fortunate find. Tor double No. 24 Elegy for Angels and Dogs / The Graveyeard Heart was, unlike the others, an eBay purchase. Four more and I’ll have all 36 of the series.

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And speaking of series… Now that I have The Submarine Alliance, I only need one more and I’ll have all of the Anatomy of the Ship books (all, that is, of the twentieth century ships; I’ve not bothered with the sailing ship ones). The University of Toronto Press collected all of Malcolm Lowry’s letters in two volumes, under the title Sursum Corda! (it means “lift up your hearts”, but I don’t know – yet – what the Lowry link is). This is volume 1, found on eBay. Both books are pretty scarce, so I’m still trying to track down a copy of the second volume. Science Fiction is an actual new book, bought at whatever price it was the (online) retailer had set. I’m mentioned in it too! It’s only in passing and in reference to SF Mistressworks, but it’s my first appearance in an actual critical work on science fiction in book format.

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A pair of bandes dessinées from series I’ve been reading: The Wrath of Hypsis is the twelfth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series (there are 23 in print so far in French). Antares Episode 6, however, is the latest volume in both French and English in the Antares series. I wrote about both of these here.

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Mention of Delany somewhere recently reminded me that I wanted a copy of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which I’d negelcted to buy when it was published… and wow, copies are dear now. I eventually found one on eBay for a reasonable price. It’s a surprisingly fat book. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Twitter with Steve Savile about collecting books, and mentioned I had all of Banks’s in first edition (some signed) except his debut, The Wasp Factory, which had always been too expensive. To prove the point, I searched on eBay… and found a copy going for much less than I’d expected (roughly half of what it had been the last time I checked). Reader, I bought it. The Caryatids I reviewed for Interzone – and interviewed Sterling as well – back in 2009, so I only had an ARC. But I always fancied a proper first edition, and when a signed one popped up on eBay for $15, I snapped it up. I also wanted the slipcased edition of Globalhead… and when a copy popped up on eBay for $30, I snapped it up. It’s even shrinkwrapped! Results all round.


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

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.


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The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life

I saw Martin Lewis and Niall Harrison tweeting about this in response to, I think, this post from Aidan Moher. And since I love me a good book-related meme, I thought I’d have a go. It would have been too easy to pick the books I admire the most and claim they have influenced me in some fashion – which no doubt they have. But they’ve hardly directed my reading, or helped form my taste in literature, or shaped my conception of science fiction. Of the following five books, three I do indeed admire. But two are bad. They all, however, led to what I read and how I read it.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein
The first sf novel I recall reading was a novelisation of Doctor Who and the Zarbi, which my parents bought me for Christmas. For years afterward, I received Dr Who novelisations for Christmas and birthday. I’d also buy them with my pocket money. I think I had about two dozen by the time I eventually grew out of them. However, the first proper sf novel I read was by Robert Heinlein. I remember it quite clearly. It was 1976, I was in Form 3A at prep school. A lad in the same class pulled a book out of his desk and gave it to me because he thought I might like it (I think we’d been discussing Dr Who or something). It was Starman Jones. I loved it. Later, a second former introduced me to the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and from then on I was hooked on science fiction. And I’ve been reading it ever since – but not Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
Some time during the mid-1980s, the family went on holiday to Paris. We stayed in a flat belonging to a director of the company for which my father worked. I vaguely remember buying an English book in a book shop somewhere in the city. It was Driftglass, a collection by Samuel R Delany. I bought it because I was reading The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star, a Delany double, and I thought it was brilliant – especially ‘Empire Star’. Delany’s fiction showed me that sf wasn’t all Heinleinesque rational men heroes and Asimovian cardboard-cutouts characters, it didn’t have to privilege the central idea at the expense of everything else, it could be beautifully written. I was a big fan of Delany’s writing for many years, but nothing blew me away as much as ‘Empire Star’ had done… until I read Dhalgren. It was just so completely not everything I thought sf was – it was wilfully irrational, it was immediate and real and dirty, it wasn’t about manly, or intellectual, white men doing manly and intellectual things in space or on some alien planet… Dhalgren is still one of my favourite novels, and I’ve probably reread it more times than any other book I own – yes, even more times than Dune.

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams
I’ve never been a fan of Williams’ books, though I’ve read several of them over the years. I think Knight Moves might be the first book by him I read, however. It was published in 1985, and I’m fairly sure I read it in 1988. I’d joined the British Science Fiction Association that year, or perhaps the year before, and when Paperback Inferno – the BSFA’s paperback review magazine as was – put out a call for more reviewers, I volunteered. Andy Sawyer, the editor, asked me to send him a sample review, so I did a demolition job on Knight Moves. I can remember almost nothing of the book – except that I thought it was terrible – but as a result of my review of it I became book reviewer for the BSFA… and I’ve been reviewing books and commenting on science fiction ever since.

The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
As a teenager, my first choice of reading had always been science fiction, but I didn’t always have access to it. When I spent the holidays with my parents in the Middle East, my reading was often limited to the books they owned. Which meant I read some right crap – Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Nelson DeMille, Eric van Lustbader – and a few good books (though none of the titles immediately spring to mind). When I moved to Abu Dhabi in 1994, one of the first things I did was join the Daly Community Library. It had only a small number of science fiction titles, so I was forced to widen my reading. That’s how I discovered Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat, Rose Tremain, Lawrence Norfolk, Hanan al-Shaykh, Helen Simpson, Margaret Atwood, and several other authors I still read. One of the books I took out of the library was The Alexandria Quartet. But I didn’t actually get around to reading it, and eventually took it back unread. So I bought paperback copies of the books on a visit to Dubai. I read it, and immediately became a fan of Durrell’s writing… and subsequently a collector of his books. Durrell is not the first author I hunted down first editions of their books so I’d own them all – that would probably be Gwyneth Jones – but my book collecting certainly turned more serious as a result of reading Durrell. so much so, in fact, that I now own a first edition of Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, which is extremely rare…

Moondust, Andrew Smith
I was only three when the late Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon – in fact, the only Apollo mission I recall watching was ASTP in July 1975. But I was very much fascinated by space exploration as kid. I remember having a large poster of a Saturn V and an astronaut on my bedroom wall in Dubai. But then I become more involved in science fiction and lost my interest in science fact. Every now and again, I’d read something related to space exploration – one year as a Christmas present, I was given one of those big Octopus coffee table books on the topic; while I was living in Abu Dhabi, a local book shop stocked a number of Apogee Books’ NASA Mission Reports, and I bought several of them; I read At the Edge of Space by Milton O Thompson, about the X-15 programme, and found it surprisingly interesting. Then, five years ago I read Moondust. I no longer recall what prompted me to read it. But it re-ignited my interest in space exploration, and especially the Apollo programme. So I started buying books on the subject – often signed first editions. I created a blog, A Space About Books About Space, to review the books I bought. I built up quite a library – and it’s still growing – on human space exploration and spacecraft. And all those books have also come in really useful in my science fiction writing (just look at the bibliography in Adrift on the Sea of Rains).