I’d read a million words like one of your nerds…

Fi and Jane were talking and Fi mentioned she’d read about 4 or 5 books over the summer, and Jane was impressed. At around 80,000 words per, that’s about 400,000 words, so, yes, very good.

At a rough estimate, I read just over a million words over the summer holiday. Three quarters of them were Gardner Dozois science fiction anthologies from the 80s and 90s, three of them that I’d previously not purchased. They’re a bargain on the Kindle at around €4 each.

So I read the 5th, 6th, and 10th Annual Collections, with stories from 1987, 1988, and 1992 respectively. Now, as any fule kno, science fiction often purports to be about the future but its really always about the present. Because when you ask what if…? you are always starting from here. In recent years, I’ve been finding science fiction to be a bit of a drag. There are too many post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian novels set five minutes from now, and it has been grim reading. To the point that I’m starting to avoid certain tropes. And this is before we get to the infestation of so-called “literary” science fiction novels, with the likes of Jeanette Winterson muscling in on the field and reinventing the wheel.

(Here’s the first sentence of the blurb to her recent Fran Kiss Stein:

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Try not to get any vomit on the toilet floor.)

This is not to suggest that there weren’t grim visions of the future in 1988 or 1992. There were, and much of it even centred around climate change. Science fiction has been on the climate train since the 1970s at least, which is why it’s so infuriating when literary writers pretend they’ve come up with an original idea for their latest genre crossover Waterstones front table bait.

But here’s the thing.

There were better writers in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the 10th Annual Collection, the 1992 edition (published in 1993) is so fucking good: it’s hit after hit by all the big names. In fact, the absolute worst story in that collection was written by Arthur C. Fucking Clarke.

As a palate cleanser between these anthologies, I read a few Cadfael books, plus a Tana French, the new Becky Chambers, and Ironclads, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky. All of which adds up to somewhere North of a million words.

And now I’m back to reading for 10 minutes every night before falling asleep.

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To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

It’s lucky, I reckon, that I recently managed to identify three Gardner Dozois anthologies from the 80s and 90s that I had not read. So I have 750,000 words of 80s/90s science fiction to look forward to instead of the dreck being produced in 2019.

Trail of Lightning, I hasten to add, is not dreck, but it is a bit bof. It bears all the hallmarks of fiction published in an era in which everyone is a writer but nobody wants to pay an editor.

It’s a fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic landscape about five minutes from now, after the Big Water and the collapse of so-called civilisation. We’re on what might otherwise be a Southwestern Navajo reservation, and myths and monsters have come to life. It’s an appealing idea, but let down by the execution. Our protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and anti-hero (I guess) who is given some kind of vaguely expressed job to complete by a Trickster character and then seems to bounce around, pinball-like, until it’s time for the end. All of the twists and turns are telegraphed long in advance, and the Big Revelation is so obvious that you have to conclude that our Maggie is a bit thick.

There are lots of unfamiliar words herein with no clue as to how they’re pronounced or what they mean. This is probably a deliberate alienation technique, but a glossary in the back wouldn’t have hurt, would it? Worst of all, the Kindle couldn’t render a number of the words properly – even though I switched to the Publisher Font, which I was pleased to find embedded.

It’s all set up for the next in the series (The Sixth World), which has soured me on this first book even further because I won’t be bothering. This keeps happening! I cannot emphasise enough how refreshing it would be to pick up a book in this genre that doesn’t come with half a million words of sequels. I am not averse at all to the urban fantasy genre. My favourite book is Tim Powers’ Declare, and much as I would lap up a sequel to that, it stands alone. There’s such an enormous difference between a writer who gives a book an ending and then, maybe, later comes up with further ideas, and one who leaves everything up in the air like an episode of TV.

All this said, a lot of other people have really liked this, so I’m probably just too grumpy for my own good.

The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.

But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.

It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.

I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.

Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.

And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale, because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.

I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.

But I did.

To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?

I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,

‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’

Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.

So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.

Review time: Chernobyl, The Calculating Stars, Kindred

Many column inches have been expended on Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky mini series that concluded this week, so you don’t really need me to tell you it’s good. But it was remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, for such a grim subject, it was surprisingly easy to watch. Grim TV usually gives me the hives, unless it has something exceptional about it. Chernobyl had both incredible attention to detail and uncannily accurate (by all accounts) reproductions of 80s-era Soviet Union settings, along with understatedly convincing performances from the largely British cast.

Americans like to fete the heroism of the firefighters who went up the stairs in the burning towers on 11th September 2001. Chernobyl produced thousands of such heroes, who shortened their lives in order to save the rest of us from disaster. 90 seconds on a rooftop clearing debris in radiation so intense it burned out the electronics of a police robot in seconds.

On the frivolous side of history, it’s nice sometimes to think about the contribution made by smuggled Western rock music on X-ray films, Levi’s jeans, and Bruce Springsteen’s performance in East Berlin to the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc. While Springsteen certainly helped kick the Berlin Wall down, it was the cancer at the heart of the Soviet Union that eventually led to its collapse, a deflating soufflé of lies and corruption and hunger and reckless, cost-cutting incompetence. It had been growing for years and in Chernobyl it finally exploded and became visible. As one character says in the final episode, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Chernobyl mini-series is that it came with a podcast in which Peter Sagel interviewed the show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin. Lots of shows have podcasts. Lots of shows have official podcasts. But this is the first show I think that consisted not just of five one-hour TV episodes but a parallel five hours of audio that made the show more rewarding to watch. So effective was the podcast that I enjoyed it both ways around: listening first and then watching; watching first and then listening. It was quietly innovative television. Not the kind of gimmick Netflix tried with Bandersnatch, but an acknowledgement that a podcast can be a kind of director’s commentary. The Good Place has already done something like this, with different participants interviewed for each episode. But the Chernobyl podcast was just a sit down with the writer, who has also, generously, made the scripts available for download. As a resource into how the television sausage is made, I think this is fairly unprecedented.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal won the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2019 and had been on my wish list for a long time. So, having heard some of my podcast friends sing its praises, I downloaded it. Around the same time, I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is now acknowledged as a masterpiece but at the time seemed to be ignored by the science fiction award panels. The winner of the 1980 Nebula was Timescape, by Gregory Benford: hard science fiction dealing with theoretical physics. I suppose it at least shows some progress that a woman writer is winning in 2019, but it was probably unfortunate that I read The Calculating Stars just after finishing Kindred.

Kowal’s book concerned an alternative time-line in which, following a meteorite strike and an impending climate disaster, the space programme is accelerated and women are allowed to train as astronauts. Meticulously researched, it takes you into the patronising and horrifically sexist milieu of 1950s America, in which astronaut trainees are also expected to pose in bikinis and look sexy in space suits.  It’s a stark portrait of the proverbial backwards, in heels.

The novel’s okay, but it dragged a little for me. There was an awful lot about the anxiety of one of the main characters: sure, exactly the kind of extra that a woman would have to be dealing with in a world that has always made her feel she’s not good enough. But in the end, it all felt a lot like false jeopardy. Did I ever believe our protagonist wasn’t going to succeed?

What most certainly doesn’t drag is Kindred. There was no excess in this lean and mean 1979 plot machine. An African-American writer from 1976 finds herself thrown back in time to a Southern slave state in the early 19th Century. The jeopardy she faces is harrowing, visceral and unsentimental. The reader is forced to confront the daily reality of slavery and its brutal inhumanity. The plot motors along from first chapter to last, with so much to tell, told so economically, that it feels like a masterclass in composition.  This is no mere page-turner, but a book that leaves a lasting impression as a powerful metaphor for the untold damage slavery did to the American psyche.

The cancer that ate the Soviet Union was laid bare by the disaster at Chernobyl, but the cancer eating America is still being denied by a large percentage of the population.

Year’s Best Science Fiction, 7th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

Yes: 30-year-old science fiction.

I’ve been pondering lately the future of the Year’s Best collections, as published by St Martin’s Press and edited by Gardner Dozois for 35 years until his death last year. Will they continue? I think the answer is probably not. By now, you would usually be able to pre-order the latest edition, and there’s no sign of it. Dozois would be hard to replace, anyway. The monumental achievement of maintaining consistently high quality over the best part of four decades of changing fashions in science fiction was all due to his experience and expertise; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to step into those shoes, to perhaps be the one to kill the franchise.

Meanwhile, what will replace it in my summer reading virtual pile? One likely candidate doesn’t even get a Kindle edition. Others mix fantasy with science fiction, and I’ve a low tolerance for fantasy, so I’d feel like I was wasting half my money.

Yesterday, I had one of those reading emergencies. I’ve had a couple of duff downloads, books I gave up on because they weren’t grabbing me, and I was casting about desperately for something to read. In this situation, pre-Kindle, I would usually end up in Fnac looking at their paltry selection of overpriced books in English. Because I can instead just download something from Amazon, I ended up, after a long and uninspiring browsing session, buying a 30-year-old edition of the Year’s Best, volume 7, which I think I haven’t already got (there were a few early in the run that I didn’t have and I’ve been slowly catching up with them through digital versions).

A couple of things about this choice. First, the uninspired browsing session is largely the result of the current fashion in SF publishing. I’m just not that into the stuff coming out at the moment. Even with a willingness to buy, I’m just not finding books I love to read. Part of the problem, too, is that there is so much dross on the Kindle store, thanks to self-published authors like myself. Mind you, my two duff downloads were both well-reviewed, properly published, nominated for awards etc., but still didn’t speak to me. Jade City by Fonda Lee was an urban fantasy in a Hong Kong like city in which the magical properties of Jade give crime families superpowers. And I just didn’t care. Meanwhile, Claire North’s 84K is a kind of 1984 de nos jours, just stretching the Tory mania for austerity and privatisation a little further into a nasty dystopian vision of Britain. My problem with it is the same as the one I had with Ricky Gervais’ The Office. I didn’t find that show funny because my then-boss was exactly like that, and I was living The Office every day, depressed and feeling bullied at the same time. So I couldn’t enjoy 84K because I already feel as if I live in a nasty dystopian version of Britain. Another issue I have with current publishing is the trend to put hyperbolic marketing messages and blurb into the book title on Amazon. It smacks of that terrible trend on YouTube for people to hype videos with such titles as, “The Most Incredible Version of this Song Ever”. It’s all part of the dystopia we live in.

Meanwhile, what is 30 year old science fiction like? Because SF is always about the here-and-now, of course, and the human condition under what if…? conditions. Which is why it has always been my favourite genre, and why I’d rather read science fiction than mediocre lit-fic by the likes of Ian McEwan whose appalling comments about SF in an interview gave lots of people the rage this week.

So, the second thing about my download choice is this: what were SF writers obsessed with in 1989? I’ve only read the first four stories so far. As you might expect, Gardner Dozois’ selections are superb, but I’m still noticing stuff. Cast your mind back to 1989. I mean, it’s recognisably the modern era, post-PC, post-space shuttle, early days of the internet and so on. But mobile phones haven’t become ubiquitous, climate change hasn’t become an obsession, and we’d only experienced 10 years of neoliberal economics.

The first story in the collection, by Judith Moffett, is ‘Tiny Tango’, a novella about the AIDS epidemic, genes, cross-dressing, indifferent alien visitors, and nuclear meltdown. It covers a hell of a lot of ground, but the thing that surprised me the most was the attempt to lay out the possible future of how HIV/AIDS would develop. It was a shock to remember how terribly urgent and present the disease was back then. The other interesting trope was the visiting aliens who, it turned out, didn’t seem all that interested in humans and their problems. Watch this space for that theme and what it might mean.

Charles Sheffield’s ‘Out of Copyright’, on the other hand, could have been written yesterday. He merges the idea that humans can be cloned with issues of intellectual property, and suggests that 75 years after someone’s death they might be cloned by anyone willing to bid for the rights. So who would get cloned and why, and how much would corporations be willing to pay? A brilliant story that still seems fresh. The identity of ‘Al’, the narrator, is the punchline.

Mike Resnick’s ‘For I Have Touched the Sky’ was probably a bit controversial even in 1989, but if published now might face accusations of cultural appropriation or similar. Resnick imagines a space habitat constructed for a throwback Kenyan tribal culture, a society deliberately harking back to a pre-contact state of innocent primitivism. There’s even mention of female circumcision, which these days gets called FGM and is extremely problematic.

Which brings us to Gregory Benford’s ‘Alphas’, which is the human nickname for another group of indifferent alien visitors, who arrive in the solar system and start messing with Venus using technology so advanced it looks like magic. In 1989, Benford was at his peak, having published the groundbreaking novel Timescape, which I remember reading and re-reading shortly before going to university. It still holds up as a ‘difficult’ hard science text, using concepts that come straight out of the research labs of top universities.

That’s it so far. So what about these indifferent aliens? What was happening, culturally, in the late 1980s to cause science fiction writers to imagine that they might not care about us very much? In the 50s and 60s, the aliens had been all about stepping in to steer or guide humanity in some way. In the 70s, they wanted to eat us. Probably. But by the end of the 80s, they just didn’t care. I wonder: was this the result of the Thatcher/Reagan years? A general feeling of uncaring individualism, loss of social cohesion, indifference to wider social issues, being content to leave people to their abjection?

And here come the aliens, who are merely, of course, a mirror held up to an uncaring society. They don’t care about our petty problems, our obvious suffering, our urgent need for kind intervention.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Moon

Well, there’s a clue in the title, I suppose, if you know your KSR publication history. Red Mars was succeeded by Blue and Green, and even his Three Californias might have been renamed with the colours, had he the benefit of hindsight. So Red Moon might be followed by Blue and Green, but I don’t know yet.

A coupe of years back, I read Ian McDonald’s Luna, and was very disappointed, both by its Warring Crime Dynasties theme, and by its execution. I wasn’t interested enough to read the sequel. This is the worst possible scenario: when you read an entire book and then realise that not only is it not enjoyable to read, but it also lacks a proper ending.

So I have mixed feelings about Red Moon, which doesn’t pack a proper closure. It leaves things up in the air (or up in the non-air, as someone in the book might say). On the other hand, it was quite enjoyable to read: a good KSR experience, as opposed to one of the bad ones. I enjoyed Aurora, but hated 2312 and avoided New York 2140 because it also had a date in the title.

Aurora, about a generation ship on a mission to discover a new home for humanity, turned out to be really about the generation ship we live upon, the earth, and how we should be doing everything possible to save it as a safe environment in which to live. Similarly, Red Moon is really mostly about the Earth and its economies and superpowers.

The Red in the title refers to the presence of China on the moon, but also the experience of being on the moon when there’s a lunar eclipse: actually being on the surface when the moon appears to be red from the perspective of earth. Which is the trick KSR so often pulls: here you are thinking of things from one point of view, but here’s what it’s like if you put yourself over here and look at it backwards, as it were.

So: Earth, Moon, China, USA. Different perspectives on similar problems. The most telling moment of the novel comes when an American criticises China for being a single Party state, and is told that the market itself, under the yoke of which we all toil, is, effectively, a single party state. You cannot have democracy, equality, reform etc. if you are in thrall to the market.

“I mean America is more of a one-party state than China. It’s entirely ruled by the market. Actually the market is the only party in the world now, or it wants to be. So every nation has to deal with that in its own way.”

“They usually say we have a two-party system,” Fred mentioned.

“Your parties are just factions.”

And in this week, the week in which the always factional UK Labour party splits over Brexit, and the UK Conservative party, as ever, is riven with factions which are completely at odds with each other, you realise that, yes, all of this infighting gives the illusion of a political choice, but as long as free market economics hold sway, it is just an illusion.

So this is a novel about the Moon Illusion. Once more, KSR reminds us that this Earth, this planet, is all we really have, that the great fantasy of colonising the solar system will always come up against the reality. The Moon is a sterile world, no air, no atmosphere: nothing can live there except in a fragile artificial environment, and nobody can survive there without regular supply drops from Earth. All of this is just background: the Moon is like Antarctica, a place where various international groups can collaborate, with regularly rotating personnel. Nobody gets pregnant and has babies there. It’s not a place to settle.

But getting pregnant is what one character, Qi, does, and she turns out to be the catalyst for change: not so much on the Moon as on Earth. She pinballs around, pursued by her enemies, accompanied by Fred, an American engineer working for a Swiss company who has got caught up in an assassination plot. They travel from the Moon to Earth and back again, one step ahead or one step behind. Here, KSR has us thinking about surveillance and privacy and whether it is possible to be truly free. Even in a balkanised surveillance system, people can be tracked: by means of GPS chips, radio signals, facial recognition.

As he did with Aurora, KSR offers one POV which is an AI, programmed to improve its own general intelligence, and therefore pondering what all that means, and trying to parse what it is that people want or need. And it all comes down, in this novel about a sterile world upon which not a single basic human need is met except through dedicated intervention, to things like heat and clean air and water and shelter. All of which brings you crashing down to Earth, because here on this planet, cradle of humanity, and the only place we have to live, there are millions of people whose basic Maslowian human needs are not being met. Why? Because capitalism, because markets.

It’s a bit like William Gibson purporting to be science fiction but actually just about the moral limits of markets: it’s philosophy. Not “our lunar future” but our earthly present. But: it lacks an ending, so a sequel to follow, I would guess.