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Reading diary 2020, #14

There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.

Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.

But on with the relatively recent reads…

The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.

The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.