Posted in Books, entertainment, Review, Writing

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

isbn9781473621442I had not read the first novel set in this universe (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but I will be doing so post-haste after reading this sort-of sequel and finding myself lost in admiration. It’s a long time since I enjoyed a novel as much as this.

I understand this picks up towards the end of the previous outing, but features (in the main) different characters and a different setting. An artificial intelligence (AI), appropriately named after Ida Lovelace, wakes up in a new – illegal – body, is given a new name, and negotiates its way through the (limiting) experience of passing for human.

Such is one strand of this novel, which alternates Lovelace’s story with that of the human who has agreed to help it/her in this new life. We meet this human as Pepper, an inveterate tinkerer whose own history is gradually revealed in the alternate chapters.

What could one story have to do with the other, apart from the coincidence that one was assisting the other in establishing a new life and identity? Well, of course, it turns out that Pepper knows all about establishing a new life and identity and has a particular sympathy for AIs. Their different stories intertwine and then the title of the book makes sense, as the events in one person’s past history seem to mirror/echo the events taking place in the other person’s present.

This is space opera but not; a small and human story taking place in an imagined universe in which there is interplanetary trade and travel and in which humans are aliens living amongst other aliens. Most of all, this is an incredibly moving story about loneliness and difference and identity and coming to terms with it all.

So good. So jealous.

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Review, Writing

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

mcdonaldi-luna1-newmoonukAccording to its Wikipedia entry, this novel has been called Game of Thrones in space. You can see what is meant by that: this is a novel about near-future industrial dynasties on a commercialised and privatised Moon. It’s about a murderous and deadly frontier where there is no law except contract law and where there are a thousand ways to die.

So yeah: a bit like Game of Thrones. But not necessarily in a good way. I’ve said before that while I love the TV series (occasional pacing issues notwithstanding), I did not enjoy reading the novels. The novels seem soulless to me, written in an affectless style, as if put together by a committee.

And I did not enjoy reading Luna. There are sections of this novel I have in fact read before, in short story collections, and the novel seems to have been constructed around these fragments. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about any of the dynasties, any of the people, or their business ambitions. I’m not particularly interested in their polymorphous sexualities, their fashions, designer drugs, or much else about this society.

The main focus here is the Corta family, of Brazilian origin, who are competing – in some unspecified way – with other corporate families who originate from Russia, China, Nigeria, and Australia. Each family has a monopoly of some particular resource, but the Cortas and the McKenzies are at each others throats because their businesses overlap in some way.

There are arranged marriages, court cases, secret societies, and more – but I wasn’t interested in any of it. The thing about business, for me, is that it just isn’t very interesting. It’s worse, even, than playing Monopoly: it’s watching other people play monopoly. And though the stakes are meant to be high and lives are at risk, the fact that it’s so easy to die on the moon lowered the stakes.

There are lots of names: sons and daughters and second sons and more sons and daughters, and arranged marriages and custody battles over their kids, but it all ends up a big wash of interchangeable people who have walk-on parts, or pop up here and there, but not so much that you start caring about them. It’s another science fiction menippean satire, a series of meetings between characters who exchange views, but there isn’t much of a plot, and the climax ends up being both rushed and boring, with nobody to root for and nothing much to care about. If a meteor shower had hit every habitat and killed everyone, I wouldn’t have been bothered.

I have a horrible feeling there will be sequels. Ironically, like Game of Thrones, this might indeed make for good television, so I’m not saying don’t watch it, but don’t feel bad about not reading the book(s).

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Two book reviews

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This Nebula award winning novel was published in 2015 and has the benefit of being (so far at least) a standalone book and not part of a series. I’m on record as not being the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, though I clearly like it more than, say, someone who never reads any. But I picked this up because it won the award an I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t keen on the cover on the edition I had. Of the three above, I think I prefer the one on the left. What I mean by this is that I wouldn’t have even picked this up or shown any interest in it if I hadn’t heard it mentioned on The Incomparable. Which means this book had to overcome a lot of prejudice to win me over.

It achieved this fairly quickly. If I had to blurb this, I’d say it starts out a bit like Beauty and the Beast meets The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and a little bit of A Wizard of Earthsea. Which means it involves a young girl dragged from the bosom of her family/village to serve a monstrous local wizard (known as The Dragon) who then learns just enough magic to get her into trouble. It moves on from there, though, and the pacy story takes you into a fully realised world in which a malevolent entity in a forest wages war on human settlements.

I’ve seen a few online complaints from people who “don’t get it” and object to it winning the Nebula. I guess some of these people simply object to the female author and female protagonist. In another sense, you could say that this is a fairly standard fantasy with no surprises, but I think that would be to miss the point about what this book brings to the genre. It’s fresh, lively, well-paced, and although it’s a mashup of various fantasy and fairy story ingredients, it takes enough unexpected turns to keep you interested. The writing is excellent, too, and as someone who doesn’t enjoy most fantasy, I welcomed the skilled handling of the story elements.

alex-marshall-a-crown-for-cold-silver-193x300A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

In terms of writing style, I’ve complained before about George R R Martin’s writing in A Song of Ice and Fire because I find it lacking in terms of authorial voice. The books in that series read to me as if they’re written by a machine or a committee. And just as Naomi Novik brings a much fresher voice to her work, Alex Marshall (pseudonym of Jesse Bullington) brings a lively style to this first in a Game of Thrones-like series.

The comparison is apt for several reasons. The first is that Crown is set in a fantasy world and there’s (of course) a map of the star-shaped continent upon which the action takes place. The second is that there is and has been a competition between different claimants to be ruler of an empire. The third is that there is an extremist religious group that tries to act as the power behind the throne. The fourth is that the narrative has multiple points of view.

I could go on, but the point is that this is a fantasy novel along very similar lines to A Song of Ice and Fire. The key difference, of course, is in the telling, and I found this to be enjoyable, funny, human, and (crucially) far less prone to the longeurs of ASoIaF (which we need to distinguish from the far better TV adaptation). Pacy seems to be my word of the day. This tale fairly motors along – at least until all our characters meet up for the decisive battle.

Another key difference between this and ASoIaF is in the sexual politics, and the reason A Crown for Cold Silver was honoured by the Tiptree Award committee. We have several female protagonists (of various ages, including the normally invisible ones); we have women and men fighting, drinking and adventuring alongside each other; we have gay marriage; we have people sexually attracted to each other regardless of gender. And all of this is mere backdrop to the story, deftly handled and sustained, without feeling forced, awkward, or artificial. It’s so normal that it makes all those other books, including the ones in  which feisty female protagonists fight to be taken seriously as warriors, or magicians, or healers, seem silly. And, you know, there are no rape scenes.

Your heart sinks after 700 pages of anything and the knowledge that there’s a sequel, which of course there is. But, aside from that, this is a confident, entertaining, stonking good read.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

0007480172.02.LZZZZZZZThis was recommended on one of the Incomparable podcasts, I think. I picked it up after giving up on radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. It has taken me a long time to read, but not because I haven’t been enjoying it.

The premise is fascinating: what if two mythical creatures from two middle-eastern traditions should meet? Where would such a meeting take place? Why, of course, in the melting pot of New York City in the late 19th Century.

So here we have a story of immigration and assimilation, and the curious melding of cultures that took place at the height of mass migration. One by one, our characters make their way to New York. The djinni, naturally, arrives in a brass vessel in need of some repair. The golem is created on behalf of a man who wants a good wife to take with him to the New World. Impatient (and sick), he speaks the spell to wake her on the voyage over and then promptly dies, leaving her without a master. (A great metaphor for how some people come unstuck from their traditions in the transformation from one national identity to another.)

The djinni is trapped in human form; the golem does not sleep. Both have to adapt to a new way of life; both feel restless and hungry for something more. Inevitably, they meet. In seeking solutions for their various problems, they both create greater challenges and events spin out of their control. There are many intertwined sub-plots based around other characters who have in some way crossed paths with these magical entities. As such, the main plot moves slowly at times, and – considered on its own – is relatively slight. If there’s a fault here it’s that an awful lot of back story gets delivered by telling rather than showing, as information dumps – though these aren’t all at the beginning, at least. Still, it’s a shame that some plot mysteries are delivered in this way rather than being revealed by action.

Worth a read, though, and a fascinating and original premise.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Giving up on a book

Radiance-616x991I’ve walked out of a couple of films in my life, but I’ve almost never given up on a book. Especially a book I’ve bought. Especially especially a book I’ve bought in hardback.

But here it is. Radiance by Catherine M. Valente was on the honour list for the 2015 Tiptree Award and I ordered it and one of the others on the list out of interest. I often do this for the Nebula and Hugo award nominees, too. It’s a good way of discovering new authors.

It’s a hard book to describe. Some would say it was batshit crazy, which I have no objection to at all. It’s set in an alternate universe, where the planets of the solar system are like countries, relatively easy to get to, and inhabitable. And there’s a film industry which is apparently frozen in the silent era (and offworld) and, the novel is built up from documentary-like fragments, piecing together the story of a female director who went missing on Venus…

All of which sound all right. You know? But I just couldn’t get into it. It has that epistolary character, like a bad 19th century novel (like Dracula, say), and the pace drags and there’s no real narrative drive, and, well, it’s all very postmodern (or it might be modern, I didn’t get to the end), but I couldn’t suspend disbelief or get into it. I kept putting it down and picking it up, and it’s been next to my bed since the beginning of April, and I kept finding other things to read, and then trying it again. In the end, I was about halfway through and still not enjoying it – not even a little bit – and so, with regret, I give up. Fuck it.

I just couldn’t get behind this Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burrows, retro fantasy romance vision of interplanetary life, or care very much about the space whales and their milk, or the mystery of the missing director or the various other characters who have something to do with this film industry. I just didn’t see what difference it made that this was all taking place in space in an alternate universe instead of being about, say, early Hollywood and a director that went missing in Argentina or wherever.

Mixed emotions. I feel guilty and sorry for giving up, but at the same time relieved to be picking up the (2014 Nebula nominated) Golem and the Djinni instead.

 

Posted in bastards, Books, musings, Writing

Pill One

DrugItem_10899I went back to the doctor for a third time about my insomnia. I’ve had two scrips for sleepers, and I’ve been frugal with them, taking a maximum of three per week, in the knowledge that they are addictive and that the low dose I was on wouldn’t remain effective for long.

It was a new doctor, possibly a replacement for the one that just threw up his hands at the damage being done to the NHS by this kleptocracy and retired.

She questioned me closely about my symptoms, asking a wider range of questions, making me uncomfortable with some of the answers. I can’t say I was 100% honest, but I also don’t really know what some of the answers are. Are you happy? Fuck, no. But…

It’s not that I have much trouble getting to sleep at night (not since I went back to reading paper books and cut down on coffee). It’s that I tend to wake stupidly early (around 4 a.m.) and can’t get any more sleep. She asked about my eating habits and about the job.

It’s only when you come to describe the job to a non-teacher that you realise how preposterous it sounds. Not just impossible to do, but impossible to believe. When you get to the bit where the management burst into your room like Special Branch and start questioning your students and checking their books while you’re in the middle of a lesson, it starts to seem like you’re making this shit up. Or the bit about how – even though you already don’t have enough time to do all the things you’re supposed to do – you’ll be given even less planning/marking time with no additional pay next year – just because the head teacher has it in his power to make that happen and claims to have no budget to do otherwise.

So she gave me a sleeping pill refill but also some anti-depressants. This is a bad idea, I know. But I’m looking to get through to the end of the academic year: short term thinking. I know the side effects can make you feel worse, but I also know that people respond in a wide range of different ways, so I’ll give it a go and eliminate the possibility.

Now. I was warned that these pills would take a couple of weeks to start working as they should, and that in the meantime I might feel a bit weird. I kind of imagined that as being in about a week’s time, after a few doses, I would start to feel odd, maybe. One little pill, one little 50mg pill, couldn’t have much impact.

Welp, maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but I started to feel weird almost immediately. I didn’t take a sleeping pill as well. Read a bit (The Magus is my current bedside read) and fell asleep as normal. Woke up at 4 a.m. (as normal) and then couldn’t get to sleep (normal). But it was the way my mind was working that felt strange. I couldn’t seem to grasp at a thought. I still couldn’t get back to sleep, but neither could I think about anything. Thoughts were under water, but deeper than they appeared; I’d reach for them and my hands would close around nothing.

I went through the day feeling spaced out and headachy (all expected, according to the leaflet). Felt a bit more normal after about 11 a.m., but even now (nearly 5 p.m.) I’m feeling floaty and distant from my own thoughts.

Anyway, folks, the bit about work being shit and causing stress and anxiety? Probably the best therapy was to write a book about it. So I did. If a few hundred thousand people buy it, maybe I could give up teaching.