Archive for the ‘books’ Category
A couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in its incredibly clumsy handling of issues like race and politics. Still, Gee is well regarded (she was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 1983) so when I saw a copy of The Ice People in a secondhand bookshop I thought I’d give her a second chance.
The book gets off to a unfortunate start with the way the publisher has truncated its cover quote from Jeremy Paxman: “A remarkable novel… very funny.. up there with Orwell and Huxley.” Well known jokers, both. Inside, Gee’s own words are equally unintentionally eyebrow-raising. The issues are back and they are back in abundance. Here we have narrator Saul reflecting on his childhood in the future (AKA pretty much now):
I started to hate these foreigners. There wasn’t enough to share with them. We lived in a three-bed brick twentieth-century cottage with plasterboard doors that never quite shut, and my parents worked harder than anyone.
One day when my mother had come home exhausted from an all night run to Edinburgh, I told her I hated black people. She came into the garden in her dingy pink nightgown, and begged me to stop slamming my football against the shed. I did three more kicks, then went and lay down on the prickly yellow lawn, ignoring her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘For heaven’s sake.’
‘I don’t like black people,’ I said. ‘The screen said even more of them are trying to get in.’ To me they seemed like liars and scroungers who would keep my family poor for ever. ‘I hate black people. Why must they come here?’
She looked at me with a little frown, a puckered white thread in her sun-reddened forehead. ‘Saul – they’re not all the same, you know. You can’t go hating black people.’
‘It’s true, Mum. I saw the pictures.’
‘You don’t understand.’ She sounded peculiar. ‘Saul, listen … look … there’s something …’ She stared at the ground, her mouth working. Then something burst out like a stone at a windscreen. ‘Haven’t you noticed your father’s black?’ (p.7)
Actually, I take it back – this isn’t eyebrow-raising, it is agonising. Our narrator continues: “In the bathroom mirror I looked for the truth. My skin was golden, as it was before, but I watched it change and become light brown. Spots, I saw, and curly black hair, and features broadening with adolescence. My nostrils, flaring. Yes, and my lips. I saw Dad’s face behind my own.” (p.8) We then skip forward ten years to the 2020s and from race, we move to gender:
…the fashion was for shaving, of heads and bodies. Why was that? Hard to recall now, but it lasted for decades, that egglike baldness. Perhaps it was a kind of streamlining, an attempt to keep cool at any cost. And the style appealed to both men and women. The fashion of the time was for androgyny, so hair was suspect, for it signalled gender.
And yet, though our clothes and hair denied it, a great gap had grown up between the sexes. Segging we called it. From segregation. Almost everything we did was segged. Girls with girls, boys with boys, great droves of animals bypassing each other, eyes darting across, wild in the neon, jostling, signalling, twisting through the night, two big streams that couldn’t make a river. (p.12)
George Melly says the book can be read as “an analysis of the widening gulf between men and women.” I must have missed that. Saul’s role in the novel is to represent men in this laughable gender wars set-up. In particular, he embodies pig-headed conservative masculinity which means that he has to fall in love with Sarah, the first woman with hair that he sees:
‘Oh god,’ the woman said. I looked at her. She had long hair. Most females under fifty had short hair, unless they were under ten, that is. She was small, slim, in a loose white dress, not fashionable, a ‘pretty’ dress. What my mother would have called a pretty dress… That weird waterfall of hair. Such childish hair. Reddish-brown, shiny, glinting like conkers against their white shell, and her skin had tiny freckles like dots of honey. She looked miserable, but her eyes were very blue. She came closer. The music gathered and poured. My heart swelled absurdly. (p. 14)
Sarah is a new type of teacher for this brave new world where humanity has spontaneously given up on heterosexuality:
‘It’s a new post,’ she said, shy. ‘I’m something called a Role Support Officer.’
‘What does that mean, then?’ I asked her.
‘The government’s decided that boys and girls have to be taught to get on together. It’s partly political, I’m afraid. They’re making appointments all over the country. Because the fertility figures are down again, and they have to seem to be doing something. Elections next year, of course.’
‘How do you mean, get on together?’
‘Well – I mean – you know – ‘ She was intensely embarrassed. ‘Live together, I suppose. Try to get them living together again.’ (p.15)
I was pretty intensely embarrassed by this point too. Is Gee joking? The tone isn’t comic and there is nothing to indicate satire but this can’t be meant seriously, can it? (As with The Flood, you can tell when Gee is doing satire and it is bloody awful: the Conservative Party have become the Conserver Party, theatres have become lloydwebbers, etc, etc.) If it is a joke, it is in pretty poor taste:
‘I like the look of you. You’re – different. You’re not just English, are you? What are you? French? Spanish?’ She looked straight at me. Her curiosity was like a kiss. Then she lit up. ‘You’re beek, aren’t you. You must be, of course! Tell me I’m right.’
And she had seen the thing that I wanted her to see. Beek was short for bicolor, the French insult that black people themselves had taken over to mean ‘mixed race’, and she used it so easily.
‘Yes, I’m beek. Most people don’t notice. My father’s half-African, my mother was white.’ Had I ever said it straight out before? She made me feel I could be myself.
‘That explains why – well, you look good to me.’ She finished the sentence in an awkward rush. ‘I’m very interested in all that. It was part of my Ethnicities diploma course.’
I’d always disliked the word ‘ethnicity’ – it sounds like someone cleaning their teeth – but on her lips, it seemed tolerable. (p.16)
This would be bad enough in its own right but Gee seems not to have considered that it might be problematic to make your misogynistic avatar of everything that is primitive and base about masculinity a black man. This is how Saul acts when they are first together: “She made the food; I ate it, gratefully. She washed the clothes; I put them on. I never really noticed that she was doing more (but she could have spoken; she could have complained) until one day we had our first quarrel.” (p.24) And here he is after ten years have past: “I was slow to resume our sex life after Luke was born. I wanted to be sensitive. I spit with derision to think of it now, but I didn’t want to hurt her where she had been hurt. If you love a woman you don’t want to hurt her. And then you want to smash her, rape her, kill her. (p.42)” Gee’s ability to inhabit the male psyche is uncanny! Everything is is so baffoonishly broad that you suspect it was written in crayon. Here, for example, is Saul’s entirely realistic reaction to discovering he has a low sperm count:
I was angry, and hurt. Sarah claimed I exploded. ‘Oh, you don’t know it all, then?’ I sneered at him. I tore his form in two, then in four. ‘Do you think that’s a surprise to anyone? Science knows fuck all about making babies –’
‘He’s upset,’ said Sarah, pre-emptively. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Um – I can never remember your name. Sorry.’
‘Wang. Dr Wang –’ (I laughed, rudely) ‘we quite understand these are stressful experiences.’
Dr Wang ‘understood’ – but no one understood. I had just been told my sperm was semi-fertile. My balls were no good, that was what I heard. They were big and firm, I had trusted them, I’d secretly believed the problem was Sarah’s – (p.33)
Dr Wang? “Big and firm”? This is unreadable and, impossibly, the depiction of fertility treatment that follows is even more offensive than the rest of the novel. I very rarely put down a novel but after 50 pages I could take no more. I started by mentioning Paxman’s quote on the front cover but there is an even more troubling one on the back: “Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read.” Let that be your warning.
The Arthur C Clarke Award was announced on Wednesday and I was at the ceremony at the Royal Society so I could join in with the massed ‘oooh!’s when Dark Eden by Chris Beckett won. Not many people were expecting his name to come out of the envelope but I’m pleased – it is a very impressive novel.
To coincide with the announcement, it has been Clarke Award week at Strange Horizons. Niall Harrison has offered his thoughts on the shortlist and Abigail Nussbaum’s two part piece has been the main event for the reviews section. As a change of pace, my review of No Return by Zachary Jernigan is the final piece up at Strange Horizons this week.
One of the criticisms of this year’s Clarke shortlist was that it took an overly rigid view of what constitutes SF in comparison to previous years. For example, in 2001 China Miéville won the award with Perdido Street Station, a secondary world fantasy. That type of speculative fiction is something many would consider orthogonal to science fiction but I think it is an issue that the award is going to have to continue to address:
Is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? It doesn’t matter. This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the epilogue, which takes us back inside the mind of Adrash and presents a wonderfully disconcerting creation story in the form of a sort of dreamtime space opera where humanity hatches from iron eggs. Steph Swainston was perhaps too far ahead of the curve when she published The Year Of Our War in 2004; now it seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won.
Night Shade Books are one of the publishers that have provided the space for this secret revolution: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011), for example, meets No Return in New Weird territory coming from the opposite direction. Obviously Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen have no idea how to run a business but their programme of debuts over recent years has been a huge boon for readers.
No Return won’t be on next year’s Clarke Award shortlist because it isn’t published in the UK. God’s War might be, however, since Del Rey UK have just published it here. I hope a British publisher picks up Jernigan because he shows a lot of promise but No Return isn’t the finished article.
As far as I’m aware, this is the first review in which I’ve used the word ‘aubergine’. To continue the food theme, it doesn’t matter how ambitious, inventive or skillful you are if what you serve up simply doesn’t work: Jernigan’s souffle has collapsed. Or, to make a comparison to the other major announcement of the week, he’s done a Larkin.
My review of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo is up now at Strange Horizons. It is by some margin the longest review I’ve ever written – the footnotes alone are over 1,300 words. The reason for this is that Broderick and Di Filippo say so many odd things that are worth writing about. As I say in the review, “my abiding impression of The 101 Best Novels is of being constantly blindsided; I ended the book not informed or entertained but baffled by these sentence-sized bolts from the blue.”
I’m all for breaking down the artificial barricades that bedevil speculative fiction part of the frustration behind this post was that I didn’t think Gollancz were putting their money where their mouth was. Why did Graham Joyce have to go to Faber to publish TWOC just because it contains no fantastic elements? Why, when they are so justly proud of having M John Harrison on the books, does the extraordinary Climbers languish out of print? I doubt David Mitchell’s publishers would ever say to him, “sorry, mate, this is insufficiently mimetic, take it elsewhere”.
So I am absolutely delighted to see that Gollancz are re-issuing Climbers with a new introduction from Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is a nature writer, chair of the judges for this year’s Booker Prize and he selected Harrison’s Empty Space as one of his books of the year. As it happens, I’ve just been reading Macfarlane’s latest book, The Old Ways. These ways are not mores but paths: “pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets, holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.” Like the work of Macfarlane’s late friend Roger Deakin, calling this nature writing seems too narrow; it is memoir and poetry and philosophy, a work of biogeography. Not unlike Climbers, in fact.
My review of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is up now at Strange Horizons.
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City’s Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she’d like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity.
Niall Harrison recommended the novel to me which should have been a warning sign since our tastes so rarely converge. It is a novel with intelligence and flair but it needed either flawless execution or far more ambition. I can see why it made the Golden Tentacle shortlist for the Kitschies though. (I should also reinterate that it is a debut novel so perhaps my standards are unrealistically high – I certainly feel like taking a break from reviewing them.)
I end my review with a bit of wishful thinking about where the series might go next. Well, it turns out Pollock was thinking along similar lines:
For an ordinary girl from a nice British Pakistani family, Pen’s been through a lot in the last few months. She was kidnapped by a barbed wire demon, rode at the head of an army of scaffolding wolves and fought in a war against a demolition god, all in the name of her best friend. Now back at school, she wears the scars of that war on her face, and the only person who knows what that’s like is her mirror-sister Parva: a doppleganger who only exists in London-Under-Glass, the city of London’s reflections. Parva’s her own person, but she shares all of Pen’s memories and she understands.
When Parva goes missing, Pen ventures into London-Under-Glass to find her. It’s a strange city, where it rains brick and concrete as well as water, where beauty is currency and a well-turned eyebrow is worth killing for, a city dominated by the dangerous politics of the Mirrorstocracy. At its heart though, this story’s about something very simple, the search of a scarred, scared, brave girl for the soul in all the worlds that’s closest to her own.
I probably won’t read The Glass Republic – I’m increasingly thinking that new genre writers should just get their first trilogy out of their system and move on – but I imagine I will be returning to Pollock in the not too distant future.
SF awards season has begun and, to be honest, I imagine you are already well aware of this. So I’m not going to post the shortlists for the BSFA Awards or the Kitschies. I would, however, like to discuss the Best Artwork category for the BSFA Award and Inky Tentacle for the Kitschies. The BSFA Award is open to all artwork, not just book covers, but this year it happens to be made up of five covers so a direct comparison is possible. I am going to start with that award since, as a BSFA member, I get to vote for this award so these comments also represent my ballot. (I’m going to reproduce small images to give some context but it is worth checking out the award sites to see the full details of each cover.)
5) Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
This is, as far as I’m concerned, a nothing image. The content is uninteresting, the execution is poor (the relative sizes of the different elements are all out of whack and look like dodgy photoshop layers) and its got a crap ‘pirate’ typeface slapped on the top. If you look on Baldwin’s website pretty much everything on there is better than this.
4) Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
A traditional science fiction cover and my response to traditional SF covers is much the same as this. You wouldn’t catch me reading this on the train. We have explosions, we have a fancy spacesuit, we have a lot of lazers and even more orange. I also can’t help but notice that our stalwart hero is looking directly at the reader whilst rather caverlierly firing his gun at something out of his (and our) line of sight. And why does a laser rifle need a massive banana clip? Appropriately, this is worldbuilding every bit as shoddy as you’d find in a Brown novel.
3) Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)
A good match for the novel which takes place on a planet without sun is therefore illuminated only by bioluminence from its flora and fauna. The specific image of the insect is then embellished with abstract whorls which make the whole thing appear uncanny and disquieting.
2) Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
An inspired idea to translate the iconography of science fiction into the iconography of Christianity. I’ve no idea if there is any relevence to this beyond the title of the novel but it works perfectly.
1) Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Joey Hifi is, simply put, the best cover artist currently working in SF (Hugo nominators, take note). His work for Lauren Beukes and Chuck Wendig has been outstanding and this cover doesn’t disappointing. He layers two simple images – the radiation symbol and an atomic explosion itself – over other and then sketches the results of these into the image itself. I particularly like the little details where the rifle and the mushroom cloud break the line of the symbol. Nice placement of title and author too.
This makes an interesting link to the Inky Tentacle since, due to the relationship between Jurassic London and the Kitshies, Hifi’s cover is ineligible. This is a shame and makes me doubly keen for it to win the BSFA Award. In contrast tot hat award, the Inky is a juried award which this year was judged by Gary Northfield, Lauren O’Farrell and Ed Warren. They are all professionals so you would imagine it to be judged to different criteria than those used by the members of the BSFA but I was still surprised that there was no overlap. I had thought the Blacksheep cover for Jack Glass might make it.
I’d like to start by discussing two images: Peter Mendelsund’s cover for Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (Granta) and Dave Shelton’s cover for his own A Boy And A Bear In A Boat.
Both are bold images that lack any genre reference point. The cover for The Flame Alphabet, in particular, fits very neatly into contemporary literary fiction design and conveys little about its contents. The novel itself is obviously science fiction so the cover is equally obviously eligible but is this enough? A Boy And His Bear In A Boot is less abstract – a clever joke, in fact – but the same applies. Well, if it is good enough for the judges.
Next we have two of my favourite cartoonists: Tom Gauld’s cover for Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes and Oliver Jeffers’s cover the Terrible thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne.
Gaunt is just Gaunt which is to say marvellous. God on his laptop is a classic Gaunt touch and I love the reptillian hood smoking a fag at top right. Just a shame it has to have the Angry Robot logo (even re-drawn) on the front. Unfortunately, whilst I am a fan of Jeffers’s own work, this image does nothing for me. Which leaves La Boca’s cover for The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman.
This has really grown on me. As with Thy Kingdon Come, the designer has taken a classic image (in this case the famous Lousie Brooks profile) and repurposed it. By simply stuttering the image, La Boca manages to evoke the setting, genre and tone of the novel whilst creating a memorable cover that stands on its own feet. This is my undoubted winner and I suspect the judges will agree with me. Rash, I know.
My personal shortlist for a combined award would have been Si Scott, Blacksheep, Joef Hifi, Tom Gaunt and La Boca. But what were the deserving covers that were missed off both shortlists?
So that was the best of what I read in 2012 but what about the rest? Well, I didn’t read many books this year; according to my hapzard notes only 33, though I suspect I’ve missed some off my list. This is lower than most other years I can remember and I also failed to finish far more books than usual, either through carelessness (Swamplandia! by Karen Russell left on a train) or disinterest (Wildwood by Colin Meloy, for example). I did, however, manage to achieve one of my two reading resolutions for 2012.
Firstly the one I failed to met though. I planned to read and review on this blog one science fiction novel written by a woman each month, the same resolution I made in 2011 when I achieved ten out of twelve. This year I read four from my list and only managed to write about one: Gwyneth Jones’s excellent Spirit. This is in the context of a year when I reviewed far few novels (six) than any year since I started reviewing. This did includenew science fiction novels by Moira Young and EJ Swift though and two thirds of the books I reviewed were by women.
More positively, I planned to achieve gender parity in my reading and I did. By my count, 18 of the books I read this year were by women which is 52.9%, massively above my previous annual average of 16.9%. It was a very interesting experiment to structure my reading this way and one I feel I’ve benefitted from. I am not going to consciously repeat it this year but I am going to monitor it and see if it has altered my reading patterns.
This post was inspired by Victoria Hoyle’s excellent post on Eve’s Alexandria about the agony and ecstacy of stretching yourself as a reader. So I’d like to take half a leaf out of her book when it comes to a resolution for this year: I’d like to read more, to read more broadly, to read more deeply, to write about more of what I’ve read. We shall see.
Last year I didn’t contribute to the Strange Horizons review of the year and I wasn’t planning to this year either. But then I woke up at four in the morning with a burning need to praise M John Harrison. So I did. Looking at the choices of the other reviewers, I’m a bit surprised to see that only two people have picked Railsea. Is China Miéville losing his allure? Not with me, he isn’t. Less surprisingly, no one at all mentioned Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. This was the last book I read in 2012, one of the best and a strong contender for the Clarke Award, I reckon. I will be nominating all three for the BSFA Award (if you are a member, please get your nominations in too – they close on 11 January). And here are three novels that aren’t eligible for any awards but are bloody great:
Locus Online is hosting, during the month of November 2012, a poll for the best novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries, the first such poll Locus has conducted since those hosted by the Magazine in 1975, 1987, and 1998 (with an online supplemental poll in 1999). The scope for this poll is the 20th century, 1901 to 2000, and the first decade of the 21st century, 2001 to 2010.
There are five categories in each century: SF novel, fantasy novel, novella, novelette, and short story. For 20th century categories, you may vote for up to 10 items in each category; for 21st century categories, you have the usual 5 items in each. Results will be scored based on rank, so that a 1st place vote is worth twice as much as a 5th or 10th place vote, but not 5 times or 10 times as much.
The poll closes tomorrow and I’ve been putting it off all month. I imagine other people have being doing the same so I thought I’d post 21st Century lists as a prompt for other people to get their finger out.
21st Century Science Fiction Novel
- Light by M John Harrison
- Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
- Black Man by Richard Morgan
- Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
- Maul by Tricia Sullivan
21st Century Fantasy Novel
- Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
- Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
- The Facts Of Life by Graham Joyce
- The Scar by China Mieville
- In Great Waters by Kit whitfield
Please feel free to defame these choices below. I also recommend reading Nina Allan’s choices, particularly if you are after short fiction recommendations.
Exhibit A: The prologue of Railsea by China Miéville.
This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying utterly as any wind-blown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.
Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour.
The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. the boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he & they are cheerfully singing.
The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he know not what.
Exhibit B: The new cover for Railsea by China Miéville.
Talk about tonal dissonance and false expectations!