It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no reader is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they turn out to be terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and eventually arrest him. The CIA uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf fandom than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Publisher: make it one. Publisher (later): it’s going really well, we’ve sold loads, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Publisher (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we’d not read the preceding five books, these might be useful. But we have! Because who the fuck starts reading a fantasy series at volume six? And, if we had, Jordan explains what happened in the preceding five volumes. Several times. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them all. It’s proving, entirely predictably, easier said than done. Sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Anyway. Zen Cho is not an English author, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and so is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the best of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than English aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… But Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (what would be a billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I’ve not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap, but I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics (because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish) and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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The Hugos 2019, novelettes

Apologies for the inadvertent silence. I moved to a new apartment across the city a few weeks ago and the new place didn’t have internet access. So I had to order broadband service and buy a router, and then resolve a few technical issues (which we won’t go into). But the good news is: I’m back online. Obviously. And the new apartment is very nice.

But on with the post…

Let me get this out of the way first: there is no such thing as a novelette. There are novels, there are novellas and there are short stories. I don’t know when the novelette was “invented” but I understand it chiefly came into being in order to pay some writers on a different scale to others. These days, it’s just another category to hand out prizes to friends. The only places you’ll see the term novelette used is on the contents pages of US print genre magazines – and how relevant are they these days? – or on the shortlists of US genre awards – and how relevant are, er… It’s a completely meaningless category. Kill it now.

We still have it among the multitudinous Hugo Award categories. Many of which, incidentally, should also be binned. But that’s an argument for another day. Officially, a novelette is a piece of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500, although I do like Wikipedia’s definition that it’s a “novella, especially with trivial or sentimental themes”. Sounds about right.

I should also point out that while my taste in genre fiction differs from those who currently nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards, there is plenty of sf available that is to my taste. It just doesn’t get nominated for the Hugo Award. Fans of the Hugo like to think they speak for the entire genre, but they don’t. And the award itself likes to think it’s representative, if not emblematic, of the genre, but that’s just marketing bullshit. The Hugo Award is a small oxbow lake in the river of genre, and if it keeps its fans happy then all to the good. But it’s also an award it’s hard for me to escape as I attend conventions and follow the genre on social media. My decision to read, and blog about, the fiction nominees this year was prompted chiefly by a desire to see how far it had drifted from my taste (or vice versa). I admit I read critically. It’s almost impossible not to when you’ve spent decades reviewing books for various magazines, and even written fiction yourself. Not everyone who votes reads critically. Which does not invalidate their vote. Or my comments.

As with the previous post, here are the six nominees, in the order in which I read them:

The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander. Unlike the other nominees, this is the only novelette to have been published independently as a book. By Tor.com. Like a novella. All the others appeared in magazines, online or otherwise. Except this is not entirely true: the Connolly and Gregory below may not have been published in paperback, but they were published as independent pieces of fiction on the Tor.com website. So that’s five of six novellas and three of six novelettes published by Tor.com. Anyway, during WWI the US used women to paint glow-in-the-dark radium on watch-faces and the like, and many of them died from, or were disfigured by, cancer. Bolander has taken this historical fact and run with it. In her story, elephants were involved – and were smart enough to be communicated with using a special sign language – and an attempt by the US to train elephants to work with radium instead of young women results in the death of a nasty piece of work supervisor and the public execution, by electrocution, of the elephant responsible for his death. This is juxtaposed with a near-future narrative in which a young woman wants to genetically engineer elephants to glow in the dark as a warning of the nuclear waste buried beneath land which will be bequeathed to them. None of this last narrative makes the slightest bit of sense, but it’s presented as if its the anchoring narrative thread. Another thread is told from an elephant’s POV and, well, it doesn’t really work. Or feel necessary. There’s a really cool story somewhere in The Only Harmless Great Thing but the way it’s been presented doesn’t to my mind do it any favours. Too much of it is unnecessary – and while I’m all for writers being clever, in fact I both relish and admire it, the cleverness here lies in the narrative set in the past, which are handled well, and not in the near-future narrative or the elephant POV ones. Which is a roundabout way of saying that The Only Harmless Great Thing really didn’t work for me.

‘When We Were Starless’, Simone Heller (Clarkesworld Oct 2018). A friend complained about the lack of translated fiction in this year’s Hugo Award shortlists, which is certainly true. However, Aliette de Bodard is not an Anglophone, although she writes in English; and neither is Simone Heller, who is actually Germanophone, or whatever the appropriate phrase is. Anyway, Heller, although German, writes in English, or certainly has done for this novelette. It’s set on an unnamed planet, perhaps even a future earth, in which the dominant species are some form of chameleon-like lizard, if that makes sense, who make their living from salvaging tech and materials from a dead civilisation. The main character is a scout for a nomadic band, and she stumbles across what appears to be a planetarium with a controlling AI. Everything is filtered through the character’s worldview – so she doesn’t recognise what the building is, and she thinks the AI is some sort of spirit. Anyway, it’s all somewhat predictable: her views are not in step with the rest of the tribe, she strikes a deal with the AI, is subsequently censured by tribe, but when they’re attacked by an endless horde of ravening beasts, she strikes a deal with the AI, which helps save the day. It’s all nicely done, and very science-fictional, but the world-building doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it set on a post-apocalypse earth? Where did the lizards come from? Or the monsters which attacked them? ‘When We Were Starless’ feels a bit, well, flash. It’s all surface: a standard plot, a setting that makes little sense… but nice visuals and a nice turn of phrase. I can see how it might appeal to some people, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 11 Jul 2018). There’s this baker in this random fantasy world who discovers how to bake memories – or rather, triggers for memories, because the memories are personal – into cakes, and the nasty regent forces him to work in the royal kitchens and employs his wife as taster so the baker doesn’t poison the regent. There’s a joke about herbs and thyme buried somewhere in the world-building here, but it’s not worth mentioning and while it may have inspired the novelette the end result is a great deal more, well, something. From the first paragraph, it’s clear the wife has some plot in hand to have her revenge on the regent. But first we have to go through a bunch of recipes, plus associated back-stories for each, as lead-up to the resolution. Which pretty much means your mileage is going to depend on how much you enjoy all the guff about the various cakes. Which I didn’t. I like landscape writing, not culinary writing, And while there’s a clear conceit here that works through its ramifications with admirable rigour, I’m one of those people who find writing about baking pretty dull. And the fantastical conceit here doesn’t make it any more interesting. If anything, its focus on taste and memory tends to overshadow the actual situation – evil regent, brother held to ransom to produce pastries, wife employed as taster, etc. Not my, er, cup of tea.

‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 19 Sep 2018). The idea of following a character over a lengthy period by describing selected periods in their life many years apart is hardly a new one. I used it myself in a story that was published in a literary magazine (although the story was science fiction). Gregory makes good use of it here in his description of an invasion of Earth by alien “invasive” plant species. And it works, because the alien plant is integrated into the life of the narrator. I don’t have a problem with episodic narratives, whether they have a clear through-line or not; and ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ certainly has a clear through-line. The story opens in 1975 and ends in 2028. The author was apparently ten in 1975 (he’s a year older than me), so it’s unlikely he remembers enough about the year to do a good job of evoking it. And so it proves. (Of course, 2028 is nine years in the future, so how is he supposed to “remember” it?) But this is not a story that bothers much with time or place, using labels to signal setting to the reader. It doesn’t actually matter that much, because the narrative is chiefly focused on LT’s relationship with his partner and their life together. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ I thought slow to start, but once it got going it was pretty good reading. I liked its episodic narrative, I liked its central relationship, and I liked the way it linked the alien plant to the relationship. Often, genre stories literalise metaphors, or are based around thumpingly obvious metaphors of their premise. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ falls into the latter category, but it doesn’t make a meal of its metaphor, and leaves it sufficiently open to interpretation. It’s nice to see some restraint.

‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Nov/Dec 2018). That’s not a title that’s going to make me rush out and buy a copy of the magazine – but that’s because I’m not a fan of ghost stories. Which just goes to show you, as this was the best story on the shortlist. By quite a margin. The narrator is a folkorist who’s studying ghost stories. But the novelette is also about her life and her relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother. As part of her work, the narrator meets a number of mediums (the only time “mediums” is permissible as the plural of “medium”), but of course she is sceptical about their abilities. Her work allows her to come to terms with her mother’s death, as well as celebrate the relationship they had before her death. The story drops in lots of authentic-sounding detail about the folkloric study of ghost stories – which convinced me, and may well have been completely made-up. But the story also handled its central premise extremely well, maintaining a sceptical tone throughout but hinting perhaps there was some truth to it. ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ really is a cut above the rest of the shortlist. It’s not like the prose on a sentence level is that much more impressive – it’s good, without being showy (whereas far too much genre short fiction these days is showy without being good); but it unfolds its plot, based entirely on its premise, in an almost textbook-like fashion. Some stories simply strike you as well-crafted, and those are the ones that should be appearing on genre award shortlists. This is definitely that. The last genre work I remember reading that was put together so well, despite being something that would not ordinarily appeal, was Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, which I read years ago and even wrote about for Locus magazine.

‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog 29 Nov 2018). Unlike the other nominees, this novelette wasn’t published in an explicitly fiction-publishing venue. As far as I can work out, the B&N blog is more of a house magazine, and ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’ is the second of its “SFF Originals”, with one by Ursula Vernon published in 2017. The title refers to an imugi’s attempts to become a dragon (this is Korean mythology), and after two failures, a thousand years apart, it’s inadvertently witnessed by a young American woman of Asian extraction. The sight is enough for her to turn her life around. The imugi, disguised as a human woman, visits the American woman, now an astronomy professor, but is surprised to discover that astronomy is the very subject, “the Way”, it has been studying in order to make it to heaven and become an actual dragon. So it stays. And enters into a relationship with the professor. And the two live very happily for many decades. It’s all a bit glib and the imugi’s characterisation is simplistic at best, but the story has bags of charm and makes good use of its premise. I don’t think it’s especially good, but I enjoyed it – to a degree it overcame its weaknesses, unlike a couple of the novelettes above. I’ve not read anything by Cho before, although I’ve heard mostly positive noises about her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown (and I do like me some Regency). I’m tempted to give the novel a go. As for ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, it’s hugely likeable, if not especially impressive on a technical level.

The novelette category, despite my refusal to admit the form has a right to existence, has, for the Hugo Award this year, I think, produced better fiction than the novella category. Which is sort of ironic given the Wikipedia quote above. But some of the above, had they been nominated as novellas, would have made that category much stronger.

As in my novella post (see here), if I were going to vote on the Hugo Award novelette category, I’d put ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ at number one, followed by ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ and then ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’. The Only Harmless Great Thing, ‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’ and ‘When We Were Starless’ would all go below No Award.