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.

Peter Brown called to say

It’s a measure of the extent to which The Love You Make is a careless hack job that the book manages to misquote the one line in a Beatles song that means anybody has ever heard of its co-author. “Peter Brown called to say,” it reads, “You can made it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain.”

A typo, nothing more, but such a typo. The one line.

Although The Love You Make is blessed with many five-star reviews on the Amazon, it reads like a carelessly cobbled together cash-in, published close enough to John Lennon’s death to catch the wave, and completely bereft of any sense that the entity behind it is a real person in the world. In fact, it reads exactly like a busy-and-important executive sat down for a couple of meetings with a ghost writer (co-author and professional biographer Steven Gaines) before sending him off to read everybody else’s books about the Beatles by way of research. 

All of this, I have to say, is based on the edition I just read, which came out in 1983. So it’s entirely possible that the reprinted version from 2002 fixed a lot of these problems. But I doubt it. I wonder if any of the reviewers even read it. This, from the blurb, is hard to believe:

Here is the national bestseller that Newsday called “the most authoritative and candid look yet at the personal lives…of the oft-scrutinized group.” In The Love You Make, Peter Brown, a close friend of and business manager for the band—and the best man at John and Yoko’s wedding—presents a complete look at the dramatic offstage odyssey of the four lads from Liverpool who established the greatest music phenomenon of the twentieth century.

I don’t recognise that description. The first third of the book consists of a rehashing of other biographies, notably Cynthia Lennon’s. The last few chapters feature summaries of the lives of the ex-Beatles, which any competent professional could have gleaned from the public record. It’s not until page 152 before you can be certain that something Peter Brown might have personally witnessed is being recounted. The truth is that I could have written most of this.

It’s careless not just with typos but with the timeline. Spoiled by the meticulous narrative of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, I was irritated by the way Brown’s telling drifted back and forth with only a vague sense of the actual order of events. An example: one of the inserted glossy photos features a caption explaining that the “surviving Beatles” attended Ringo’s wedding to Barbara Bach. There they all were: Paul, George, Ringo, and their respective spouses. But the caption also says that the wedding took place in 1980. Well. Lennon was still alive for most of 1980, and Ringo’s wedding was actually in April of 1981. So again, probably just a typo, but an example of the kind of confusion that results from carelessness.

Apart from all that, there’s the nasty tone. Surely none of the Beatles who “gave full co-operation” were expecting to be portrayed in such a negative light. The little sketch of Lennon and Ono that opens the book could have been written by that other hatchet man, Albert Goldman. The other three don’t fare better and only the spouses are spared the liberally spread acid. Patty Boyd comes across as practically saint-like, and it’s hilarious to read the bit about how she’s been with Eric ever since and they lived happily ever after.

As an antidote to all this, Derek Taylor’s memoir As Time Goes By was recently reissued by Faber, and it oozes his brilliant, easygoing writing style and candid honesty — especially about his own faults. Perhaps Peter Brown thought nobody would be interested in him, but his absence from his own memoir leaves a great glaring hole. A missed opportunity. He could have made it okay.

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.

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.

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.