Good Things

Nightfall – Little Big Town

Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”. 

My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”

The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.

You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary. 

(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This, for once, is not a sleep diary entry but a review of something I’ve wanted to read for a while, a science fiction mystery novel which was nominated for a number of major awards (though didn’t win). I didn’t buy it immediately, however, because The Incomparable podcast was only lukewarm about it, and it was a bit steep, price-wise, for something that might only be okay.

Now, I feel bad about what I’m about to say, because there’s a little message from the author at the end of the Kindle edition, saying, in effect, “I produced this ebook myself, please help me out by emailing corrections…”

Well.

The problem is, I have produced ebooks myself, and I’m sure there are problems all over them, but this book was originally published by Orbit/Hachette who are professional publishers, not amateurs like me. But there’s something weird about the ebook publication. It took a long time for this book to be available in electronic form, and for whatever reason the quality control was poor.

There are a couple or three recurring problems, which I mention because they kept throwing me out of the story and became irritating and distracting. The first is that there are random line breaks, new paragraphs beginning in the middle

of a sentence – like that. And the second is kind of the opposite problem, because all-too frequently, dialogue is muddled within the same paragraph instead of following the “new person, new paragraph” rule, and you keep having to stop to work out who is saying what. Finally, the third problem, though less common, also added confusion to dialogue: the occasional omission of opening speech marks meant that you kept having to track back to see where dialogue began.

All that said, I wonder if any reader has taken the time to email Ms Lafferty and supply corrections. I haven’t. There were, frankly too many, and they were too obvious. In the end, it reads like a book resulting from an OCR scan that nobody bothered to review/correct.

Now, that’s a huge chunk of my review dedicated to formatting problems. What about the actual novel?

The premise is that there is a star ship containing frozen colonists heading for an Earthlike planet. In this society, cloning is not unusual, but there are many rules, including that each person can only have one body at a time, and an updated “mindmap” of memories is transferred into the new body, which is grown to post-adolescence prior to activation. The ship is crewed by cloned humans, who all have reasons to want a clean slate, and the idea is that they simply get a fresh body when they need one.

The ship has been en-route for about 25 years when all six crew wake up in fresh cloned bodies, surrounded by the murdered corpses of themselves – but no updated mindmaps. So the plot is essentially an investigation into that crime, with the backstories of all the characters filled in. It’s an intriguing setup, but the execution is flawed.

One issue is that a major revelation towards the end is telegraphed from almost the beginning. Another is that the rules of this story (the clones have no recent memories, and have to use mindmaps from just before they boarded the ship) tie the plot in knots. So, for example, one character “knows” she has a safe containing several data drives including backups of the rest of the crew, even though her supposed most recent memory is of a party the night before they boarded. And then you get bits of dialogue where characters explain away these types of plot holes to each other.

In many ways, this reads like a first or second draft, both in the sense that these holes could be more elegantly closed and the revelation less obvious, and also in the sense that the formatting is bad.

In the end, this feels like a missed opportunity: almost but not quite great, which possibly explains why it was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards but did not win.

Stop pollutin’ m’ recs

There was a brief interlude, wasn’t there, when the internet seemed to be making life better. And then it took over everything and we colluded with it in destroying the high street and Ruining Politics and everything else.

I just let my Apple Music free trial lapse and I’m so happy to be away from the Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations. I’m also not on Netflix at the moment (waiting for a critical mass of 10 must-see shows to accrue), so I’m not seeing their particular algorithm’s Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations.

But I’m still stuck with the YouTubes and the Twitters and the Amazons. Amazon hits you with a triple whammy of bad recs. Its algorithm is no more sophsticated than those ads that follow you around, like when you buy wellington boots or something you get nothing but ads for wellington boots for weeks afterwards. Amazon is currently showing me tents: not because I want a tent or bought one. Just because I clicked on a tent out of curiosity, wondering if the technology had improved since the last time I went camping (spoiler: they’re still tents).

Amazon is also offering me film for a camera I don’t own; a microwave dish because I bought a… microwave dish; a big fuckoff box of blue plasters because I recently bought a big fuckoff box of blue plasters; and a bicycle light because I recently bought a bicycle light. You see the problem.

It’s even worse over on Amazon Prime, where Amazon are guilty of spamming you with the spammiest spam they can spam about the US Open tennis because Bezos foolishly overpaid for it and they really really want you to pay a bit extra to watch tennis. In addition to this, because it’s an account I share with the family, I’m always hacking through the weeds of the shit other people watch in order to find anything I might watch. And no matter how many times you don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson, there’s his hideous giant smoker’s face.

It’s a shame because Amazon does harbour some decent shows, but they seem happy to bury them under television and movie landfill rather than make it easier to discover them. I mean, I really ought to be able to click a button that says I WILL NEVER WATCH ANY SPORT EVER and they just stop showing it to me.

The pollution of your recs is real and it’s here and it’s killing us. I also get polluted recs on YouTube because it’s on the AppleTV box, but people tend to watch their crap using my account, so I get bombarded with terrible recommendations. I made the mistake about three months ago of allowing one of my kids to put on a music video, and now I get slapped in the face with bad recs on a monotonous schedule.

But it’s even worse than that, because even when you watch something you quite like, you still get only peripherally related crap fired at you like so many wet tennis balls. Watch, say, a Beatles video, and you suddenly see every fuckwit with a video camera’s take on What Makes Ringo Special or one of those godawful Reaction videos or a conspiracy theory about Paul. YouTube has basically become that scene in Aliens where they decide to nuke the planet from orbit.

The saddest aspect to all this is the way it has become impossible to discover decent books. The tide of awfulness has simply overwhelmed what used to be the core, curated, controlled-by-gatekeepers publishing world. As iniquitous as it used to seem, now that any idiot, including myself, can self-publish an ebook, it’s nearly impossible to find anything decent to read by a new writer. There, I said it. Editors are important.

It’s hard to know where we’ll end up with all this. In the meantime, stay away from my recs, lest you pollute them with your roving eyeballs. And stop looking at tents.

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.

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.

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

A couple of book reviews

30312456Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up from the library, confident that, as it was the first in a series, I wouldn’t be lost. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Moon before, and should have twigged that a series called “Vatta’s Peace” comes after a series called “Vatta’s War”. Doh.

So there are characters and situations here, back story etc., that is only filled in sketchily. I scurried off to Wikipedia to fill in some blanks, but on the whole it wasn’t a problem, except in the sense that a lot of the characters are merely sketched here, on the assumption that you know them from before.

Anyway, this is a military science fiction adventure set in a space trading/war universe that reminded me of nothing so much as the old Ambrosia software game Escape Velocity and sequels. Ky Vatta is an admiral in some space fleet on a visit to her home world. Her shuttle is sabotaged, possibly by a rival company, and she ditches in a hostile polar region with some other survivors, not sure who she can trust. My problem, however, is that I don’t really care about these warring companies. There’s an academic point to be made about capitalism and wastefulness, and what happens when corporations become quasi-governmental, sure. But I’m not going to root for one corporation over another, or really care about the people who work in their employ. Perhaps if I’d read the previous six books or whatever.

Overall, this just made me feel tired. Nobody can trust anybody, people are constantly being attacked, or abducted, and for what? Power and profit? Ugh. So you get this atmosphere of heightened paranoia, a constant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (always betray etc.) which I’m thinking might be a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be among the super-rich. You want to keep all your stuff, other people are trying to get your stuff, you want their stuff etc. Exhausting.

There’s no proper resolution to the story, which has some interesting elements (a strange and secret installation with a mystery as to who built it), and there’s already one sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering. And here’s the central problem of these multi-volume series: give up at any point, and you’ve wasted your time.

512TBFMt7aL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This novel is a winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, and like Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, is an excellent exploration of creatures that have been “uplifted” by biotechnology to the level of intelligence, co-operation and technology. It’s also a novel in the sub-genre(s) of space colonisation, generation ships, and Deep Time.

So humanity is at the peak of its technological development, busily terraforming planets and planting the seeds of life so that arriving colonists might find habitable worlds prepared for them — in one specific case by uplifted smart monkeys. But on the cusp of success, the whole thing falls apart. The monkeys don’t make it and nanovirus designed for them uplifts something else instead.

Centuries later, the dregs of humanity, who have long forgotten the advanced tech of their forebears, arrive in a ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to land.

Such is the set up of this novel, which uses twin narrative threads (with subtle parallels) to tell the stories of what’s happening on the ship, and what’s developing on the planet. And there’s more Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that’s a thing, only this time you care more.

portia-labiata-jumping-spider
Portia Labiata, jumping spider

As with his Dogs of War, it’s a surprisingly easy read, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating portrayal of alien thought, which must result from extensive research. Tchaikovsky is a worthy winner of the Clarke award, and writes accessible science fiction based on the kind of grand concepts that most people just don’t think about, but perhaps should. I mean, the media call this kind of thing a “breakthrough” but rarely pose the moral question: just because you can, does that mean you should?