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.


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.

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 21.32.28I’m not big on watching modern documentaries. I always make an exception for the music ones, but I won’t give time to the mainstream popular history or nature documentaries, simply because I cannot bear the padding of the content with the recaps and the previewing of information. Journalist Robert Hutton tweeted a brilliant parody of this structure a while ago:


Which is all by way of saying that I haven’t watched any of Mary Beard’s history docs on the telly, but I do have an abiding interest in the history of Rome, so when I saw this book on an Amazon Lightning Deal, I snapped up a hardback copy for a tenner.

Origin of this interest? Not sure. Almost certainly related to reading Rosemary Sutcliffe when younger, but also because I did (I actually did!) Latin at ‘O’ Level, which involved the study of the Cambridge Classics (Caecilius in Pompeii, just like in Doctor Who), the Aeneid, and Pliny’s letters.

I had Michael Grant’s The History of Rome on my shelf for years, but found it very dry and unengaging. As a popular historian, Mary Beard’s style is far more accessible, and the footnotes are deliberately in the format where you don’t even know there are footnotes unless you look in the back.

Beard’s tone is skeptical throughout: skeptical of founding myths, of anything written about the early and fabled Roman Republic by self-serving politicians from later eras who are always scoring points. She does her best, in fact, to produce a history of Rome that doesn’t focus on emperors and conquest but tries to concern herself with everyday life for ordinary people: hence her enduring interest in inscriptions, graffiti, and the contents of ancient rubbish dumps. What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage was the condition of slavery?

Many of us were raised on the idea that history is about Emperors, Kings, and occasional Queens. This is the version of history that Gove and co. wanted to force back into the curriculum. Dates and battles, and Great Men. This is a far cry from the liberal days of the late 70s, when my own History ‘O’ Level included study of the Chinese revolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beard refutes the conservative view. She laughs at the notion that anything much before what we now call Common Era can be dated. She gives us some detail on the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, then more detail on the first of the emperors, Augustus (who really seems like a completely different person once he changes his name – I could well believe a version of this story that argues that the person called Octavian/Augustus was actually two different people), but then goes on to argue that for the next 180 years, under various dynasties, life for ordinary romans was pretty much the same, whoever was in charge. It seems to have been a fairly stable period, when most of the monumental building work was completed. And after that, things become less stable and the Empire fragments, and even the monuments are remixes of previous work.

(Isn’t that always the way? You know, how rock music was invented in the 1950-1979 era, and then everything afterwards was a remix, a mashup, a sample, or a simulacrum of the origin music.)

Beard’s approach will be frustrating for anyone who dives in looking for a narrative, Grand or otherwise. The surviving materials are both too fragmented and too often self-serving for any one narrative thread to hold for long. Which suits me. Narratives are weapons, after all, and we live surrounded by political and media narratives that support and prolong preposterous levels of inequality. Why, it’s almost as if we, the voiceless ordinary people, are ruled by a super-rich class with no visible means of support (other than plunder and exploitation), who surround us with the evidence of their greatness while leaving us to live hand-to-mouth. What do we eat? How long do we live? How do we earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage is the condition of zero hours contract?

Yes, the parallels are there, and so is the hope. The Emperors lost their influence, the centre couldn’t hold, the old Empire crumbled away. Looking back, that 180-year period of stability, the period of Augustus and Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and the rest, was a brief interlude, and maybe our own epoch of vast inequality will also be a brief interlude. One day historians will look at the ruins of London’s glass towers and wonder how ordinary people lived.

One note on my copy: I obviously got one from the first print run. The imposition of the pages was a bit off (page margins varied a lot, rather than being uniform), and there were a couple of typos, one involving text going missing from the main body and apparently being incorporated into a picture caption (or it was already repeated there). Anyway, I tweeted this with a mention of the author herself, and she was kind enough to reply and offer to arrange for a replacement to be sent. I declined the offer. I prefer to own one of the first print run.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice was a tour de force, a book that shifted your perceptions and blew the genre/gender cobwebs from your mind. It had 517FZqyUbGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_multiple points of view (that were all, ultimately, the same point of view) and it had multiple time-lines. And its narrator/s called everybody she, even if they were male, causing you to picture every character as a woman, even the men.

The first sequel, Ancillary Sword was a continuation of the story, but in a different way that disappointed some readers. Gone was the widescreen, galaxy-spanning, time-shifting space opera narrative in favour of a small, contained (confined, even) story of local government and politics in a single, temporarily isolated system with one planet and one space station. Another tour de force, in a way, like an unexpected reboot. Many of the same characters were involved, but this was a completely different sub-genre within the genre of contemporary SF. Throw in an alien ‘translator’ who appeared to be human but was anything but, and you have the makings of a slow-motion diplomatic train crash that will have repercussions for all and leave you impatiently anticipating the conclusion.

Which brings us to Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the sequence, which is best understood as a little bit from box A and a little bit from box B. Here, both the local politics and the galactic empire civil war come to a head, with a fish sauce guzzling alien wild card. The narrator still calls everybody she, and you, the reader, still read every character as a woman. Ann Leckie doesn’t remind you who is actually male. If you want to read the first novel over again and be reminded, here and there, of which character presents as anatomically male, you can. But I didn’t, because who cares. I still think the female pronoun thing is a stroke of genius, something that makes me want to trumpet this trilogy from the rooftops for all to read. The simple power of the overlooked pronoun is a shotgun blast to the face of people who think that language choice doesn’t matter.

The story comes to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. You can see how the future is going to go. What I particularly love/hate about this trilogy is that each volume isn’t 1000 pages. The trilogy itself doesn’t even add up to 1000 pages. Instead of the weight and heft of A Song of Ice and Fire or any number of other genre series, the Ancillary trilogy comes in light. Comes in light but shines very bright: it has more ideas and more food for thought than just about anything I’ve read in recent times. If Sword felt like something lesser after the triumph of Justice, Mercy takes you back to the feeling you got reading the first. Being on the short side (or of average length, in other genres), the trilogy is more accessible for the casual reader. But when you get to the end, when you read the final 75 pages or so in one sitting, with your late night self screwing the next day for your morning self, when you do that, you immediately regret it. The following day you feel a deep sense of loss because you no longer have Ancillary Mercy to read.

(Annoyingly, my copies of the first two in the series are digital, dating from before my decision to abandon screen reading and go back to books, so if I want to read this again I have to suffer the indignity of reading off my iPhone screen. Like an animal.)

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

AURORA_KIM_STANLEY_ROBINSONI swore off KSR after reading his novel 2312, which I found turgid and tedious, and so I skipped his recent novel Shaman and wouldn’t have considered Aurora, but for the fact that I stumbled across a Guardian review which praised it as the best ever SF novel about a generational starship. After a KSR hiatus, I was ready to dip in again. I needed lots of reading for the summer, and I knew that a KSR novel would be dense and substantial.

Is it the best ever book about a generational starship? No: that would be Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo — but Aurora is pretty good all the same. It’s thought-provoking and stuffed with ideas and arguments.

The more or less omniscient narrator is the Ship itself, which has an artificial intelligence which has been trained or augmented or improved by a member of the crew who took a particular interest, and then tasked the ship with writing a narrative history of the voyage, which as we join it is already around 160 years into a 12 light-year voyage to Tau Ceti, and starting to decelerate. This conceit allows the author to meditate on the nature of narrative, diegesis, and language. The AI rejects metaphor in favour of analogy, and observes that language itself is almost wholly metaphorical, taking us into Lacanian territory, Name of the Rose territory. The real is unattainable, signs can only be interpreted with other signs, and so on. This is what you might call literary science fiction, then.

I love a good generational starship story, but most of the ones I’ve read have taken a pessimistic view of this method of space exploration for humans. In Ship of Fools, the crew have forgotten their original purpose. In Aurora, the problems of a closed (‘island’) ecosystem, even in a ship whose dimensions are measured in kilometres, are manifold. Biomes! Biomes! Humans don’t understand ecosystems well enough to control them effectively, and yet that is what we are continually trying to do. The analogy here, of course, is that crew is to ship as humanity is to earth.

Our anchor character is Freya, daughter of Devi, one of the ship’s main engineers (fifth or sixth generation), who takes personally the many faults built into the ship’s design, and passes some of her personality on to her daughter. The ship was built too small, the systems not efficient enough, the pioneers essentially mad, volunteering their descendants to face developmental problems, a violent end, or simply, possibly, starvation. Devi is permanently angry about the ship and the fate they’ve been left to; she rails against the people who put them in this situation, the designers of the ship, who were too stupid or careless to see the inherent flaws.

Six generations in, and much has happened on the ship, some of it forgotten, but they arrive in the Tau Ceti system and begin to explore the Earth-like moon of one of the planets in the habitable zone. Here, KSR hits you between the eyes with the challenges of finding a suitable planet to colonise. Size and density affects gravity. Too much gravity would be too much! Imagine living on a Super Earth with gravity three times greater than the one we know! The habitable zone means liquid water, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but is the oxygen created by splitting water molecules with sunlight – or through biology? If there is biology, well, then would we even have the right? And if we did attempt to interact with this alien biology, to remove a helmet and breathe the air, it would almost certainly be poisonous to us. Spores, bacteria, viruses, prions! (See Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios for more on that topic.) If there is no life, it would appear to be safe for humans to begin to live there, and attempt to introduce biology. But is there soil for agriculture? Soil implies biology, so if there’s no soil there has to be something we can turn into soil, and how long does that take? Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to terraform, and terraforming takes time. How much time? Who knows? Could be thousands of years. Can we do it? Do we know how? Could we start to do it and somehow avoid killing ourselves with a fatal build-up of waste products or stubborn chemicals – or simply by starving to death?

So there’s the gravity problem, and the atmosphere problem, and the biology vs. a sterile environment problem. Which is before we get to the nature of the light and our Earth biology which has developed over billions of years under this sun and its light. What if it’s almost twice as bright? Or bluer? What about the length of the day? What if a ‘day’ is the equivalent of nine days? What if it never really ever gets dark? What about the weather? What if there is a permanent gale force wind? You’ve travelled for 180 years and when you get there you find that the wind almost never stops.

KSR’s attitude to this idea of a generational starship is critical, it’s clear. He’s clearly taken a leaf from the book of critiques of the closer-to-home Mars colony idea. The designs are flawed: people would be dead within 68 days of CO2 poisoning. In this case, how can you hope to send a viable set of ecosystems on a 180-year voyage and expect things to work properly? People and animals get smaller, appear to get dumber. Bacteria evolve more quickly than we do. They become resistant, super-bugs. We die in a thousand ways, like playing a computer game that’s designed so you can never win. The ship gets infested with bugs and corrosive substances. Critical systems fail and people don’t know why. And then people can’t agree on a course of action when they arrive and things continue to go wrong. Aurora offers a pessimistic view of the generational starship, and an equally pessimistic view of human nature. The question is asked about the original 20 million or so volunteers: from what were they trying to escape? We were all thinking this about the one-way-mission-to-Mars volunteers. Almost by definition, they were unstable, slightly or completely crazy. And in the case of the generational starship, they also don’t live to get where they are going and instead have volunteered their children and grandchildren for some unknown fate out there in the stars. These people are born into a situation they had no say in creating, and have to deal with the consequences of decisions made long before they were born.

You don’t have to dig very deeply to discover the analogy KSR is trying to draw. As we fuck this planet up for our descendants, we are bequeathing them a set of problems they didn’t volunteer to face. Our stewardship of the planet is shoddy, to say the least. The super-rich think they’ll survive the cataclysm, especially if they have all the money, but they don’t know, any more than the rest of us know how to grow fruit and vegetables without blights and diseases and bugs eating them. Nature tends to do better without us.

Earth itself is a pretty big starship. None of us asked to be born here, but we’re stuck with it. And the message is clear: this is all we have. There is nowhere else we can go, and even if by some miracle we could build such a ship and get there, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and create a new, safe, habitable, Earth. And for Robinson, the very notion that we might be able to find somewhere else is part of the problem with the way we treat this Earth, and each other. It’s a mass delusion, analogous to those dangerous religions which propose that this life doesn’t matter, because there’s another life to come. And think about it: even if they designed a generational starship and started sending people out to colonise the stars — if there was any chance of survival, who would get to go? Only the rich, only the children of the rich. Stop deluding yourself.

The novel ends tellingly: on a beach somewhere, with waves crashing in and the white noise of surf and sand, the endless pounding created by the extraordinary gravitational pull of a moon, the heat radiation from the nearest star. This wonder, this planet, these forces that are more powerful than us, that we can never hope to harness.

A great book, this, and an important one. People need to read this. Maybe there are answers to some of KSR’s criticisms, but I’d like to see them stated as rigorously.

More Greyjoys than are strictly necessary

All the way through the last three volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which I previously wrote about here), I was waiting, hoping, anticipating the moment when the narrative would surge (or at least drift slightly) ahead of the TV series. Now, I know that the series is becoming ever more divergent from the print edition, but that seems to be mainly through combining characters, excising subplots and otherwise streamlining the bloat of the books. Both are surely heading more or less to the same conclusion.

If, that is, there is a conclusion.

It’s by no means clear that there’s going to be. It’s pointless, it seems to me, to read these books for the plot. There is no central plot line. The story is rhizomatic: it’s all subplots. As a reader, you might find yourself favouring some of the subplots over others. Do you care about Dany and her dragons? Good luck with that. Not featured in book 4, they’re big in book 5 (both parts of), but not very much happens until (I made a note) page 190 of the final volume. And even that comes to not very much.

Nobody cares much for Stanis, but he’s the only one moving pieces on the board for the most part. And you’d think that after his arrival at the wall at the end of the 3rd book, stuff might happen. But not really.

So much of ASOIAF takes place offstage, in fact. People are sent off places and then we don’t hear much or anything about them for hundreds of pages. It’s almost as if the whole project was designed to confound the expectations of the reader-for-the-plot. What we’re left with instead is a level of excruciating detail about minutiae, whether in the form of food (heron stuffed with figs gave me pause) or dreadful body odour or – worse – the bloody flux that afflicts refugees and armies.

Is this hyperreality?  Is it a lesson in how mediaeval wars were fought – not by armies of skilled fighters but by logistics and blind luck? The winning side being the one with the fewest dead horses, or the least weakened army.

But another unfortunate effect of GRRM’s dwelling on detail is his concern with rape and sexual abuse and torture. I found scenes featuring Theon/Reek too much to bear (skip skip skip) and despair of any woman not being raped or threatened with rape or simply shaved all over and paraded naked through the streets (complete with hyper-detailed description of piss and shit – or night soil, as the author insists on calling it.

As for the scenes featuring Brienne, my goodness, but the level of graphic detail is dismaying. And you can’t help thinking the author takes too much pleasure in inflicting suffering – especially on women.

What if you read avidly about Jon Snow? Well, he does quite a lot in the last three volumes. But what he is doing mainly concerns moving people around and making deals, holding meetings and overruling those who disagree with him.

It’s never really clear – until it is – whether anyone is dead or not. People are reported dead (yes, it’s the fog of war), but then turn up in disguise, or using another name. A number of people turn up incognito – except we’ve never met them before, so you wonder why. These are often the characters who have been cut for TV, which is to the good. Whole character arcs start in the middle of nowhere and lead to failure/death and you can quite see why they’re just not needed to drive the plot forward. Other people die or are reported dead or just disappear for ages and have graphically detailed bowel problems.

Rape, maim, torture, bloody flux, poison, behead, dismember: these are the rhythms of life and death in ASOIAF. Somewhere within is a lean, gritty fantasy trilogy featuring a much smaller cast of characters and a radically streamlined plot about a winter plague of frozen zombies and an exiled girl queen learning to fly dragons.

But with all these subplots and this army of characters, it’s lost. And it’s no wonder GRRM struggles for so long to write the books. There are no threads to hold onto and too many Greyjoys than is strictly necessary.

The Affinities by Robert Charles WIlson – review


There are some authors whose books I can’t wait to get. Tim Powers is one: I will always pre-order the hardback and re-read it many times. Robert Charles Wilson is another. So when the (US) hardback landed on my doormat, I set A Song of Ice and Fire book 4 aside and ploughed through this in a couple of days. I will doubtless read this again in a year and enjoy it as much, or more, as I did this first time.

Since the publication of his extraordinary literary SF novel Spin (2005), RCW’s reputation has been high. He’s prolific too, which is a blessing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was reading his last novel, Burning Paradise (2013, in fact). Just as Tim Powers’ main protagonist is (often, not always) a hapless (sometimes wounded) innocent caught up in events beyond his kind, RCW’s protagonist is (often, not always) a somewhat detached outsider who finds (usually) himself caught up in momentous, world-changing events, often involving the technological sublime (that which Arthur C Clarke said was indistinguishable from magic).

The Affinities follows this pattern. We already live in a world governed by algorithms. We get (sometimes not very good) music and movie and book recommendations from them; many people sign up to dating sites and apps that try to match people up using them; the financial system is dominated by them; the security services surely rely on them; Twitter and Facebook suggest who we ought to be following/friending based on them. Algorithms are everywhere. What if, asks The Affinities, someone designed an algorithm so effective and accurate that it could put people together into mutual interest groups that could become a powerful replacement for family, alumni association, old boy’s network, whatever?

Our hero, disdained by most of his own family, takes the test and finds himself a member of one of the largest affinity groups, Tau. His problems fall away. He finds work, accommodation, friendship, love. He is constantly expected to put his affinity associations ahead of his other relationships. Affinities seem stronger than blood, stronger than the nation state. But what happens when these groups become so large and so powerful that their only true rivals are other groups, other affinities?

So our hero finds himself caught up in events which spiral out of control and test his loyalties.

This is good: beautifully written (as ever), fast-paced, fascinating. My one complaint is that it seems a bit short. I’ve been reading George R R Martin, so maybe it’s a problem of perception, but I wanted more, much more. I wanted more time away from A Song of Ice and Fire. I might have to go and re-read The Chronoliths. Again.

In which I ponder A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin and the fantasy genre in general

51WSPDUy7KLOne of the odd side effects about the extremely high staff turnover at my current employer is that stuff gets left lying around by people who are, ahem, no longer with us. One such stuff was a complete collection of George R R Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. This obscure book has been, I believe, adapted unsuccessfully for television. You may find DVD copies at your next car boot sale, under its simplified title Game of Thrones.

Enough of that irony. So some person left all these books behind and I enquired as to their ownership. Nobody seemed to know anything, so I took them. This has been a great help in my sleeping better by not reading off screens project. So much so that the iPad has been abandoned by the whole family, and I’m now paying for a data contract that has literally seen zero use in about six months. Ha ha!

I’d read the first book, so started in on the second and then read the third, which is in two volumes, and now I’m on the fourth. It’s an epic struggle against indifference, let me tell you. The ruthless paring represented by the television adaptation has made a dirge into a 3-minute pop song.

I don’t hate these books, but I feel about them as I do about most fantasy. I’m reading for the plot, which needs to move faster. You might think you would read for character, but actually there are so many of them, and you spend so little time with each one that there’s very little character development. The actors in the TV show do a brilliant job of bringing these rather flat characters to life.

I’ve got a so-so relationship with fantasy. I’m a big fan of hard science fiction: so much so, that I flat rejected St*r W*rs on the basis of its fantasy elements and disdain much of what passes for SF in the movies. I have read Lord of the Rings multiple times, but every time I did so I skipped huge, boring chunks of it – especially the back story bits. As to the film adaptations, I’ve always said it should have been a TV series, and I think the success of Game of Thrones bears that out. Once the world-building becomes visual, the actual story can take over.

Years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series – but both of these had a basis in science fiction. My favourite straight fantasy has to have been Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series, but I have to admit that it went on too long, with too many books (15 of them), and I grew tired of it long before the end. I went from a lover of the books who read the early ones again and again to someone who bought the final few out of obligation and ploughed through them joylessly. Loved the first five, was okay with the next five, but really didn’t enjoy the final five. It felt a bit like the final two seasons of The X Files.

A Song of Ice and Fire is odd. It seems like the prose has been passed through some kind of processor that has removed all sense of authorial voice from it. There are multiple points of view, but you don’t really sense that there’s a different person for each one. It all strikes me as being a bit robotic. I cannot fault it for technical accuracy or style. It doesn’t feel hateful, like reading something by David Eddings or whoever. It just feels bland.

Which may be a good thing, given the extreme length. Considering their success, they don’t half break the show-me-don’t-tell-me rule. So much of the action seems to be taking place either in the distant past or elsewhere. Sure, there’s a deliberate muddling of stories and garbled hearsay element, so you’re never really sure if this person is really dead, or has really done what they’re reported to have done. But there’s also an element that reminds me of Tolkein’s habit of telling you long, long stories about long dead people in order to explain why some sword or other was broken. The begats, in biblical terms.

I’m interested in the world, in why its seasons are so long, in why they’ve never developed industry – or have forgotten technologies they used to have. What is it with a thousands-year-old civilisation that has forgotten how to make decent swords and so much else? The explanation could be science fictiony, which appeals to me. I mean, it could be that the long winters are so destructive and leave so many dead that they forget how to do things – or can never build their civilisation beyond the pony stage.

But if explanations for all these things are forthcoming, they’re so many thousands of words ahead of me that I begin to despair. I’ve yet to tackle the fifth book (in two volumes), and might give this a rest for a while when I get to the end of the fourth. I’ve got Robert Charles Wilson’s new one on the way, so I think I’ll read that.

To give you an idea of how slow things are. I’ve been thinking the current Season 5 was treading water a bit, but as I started Book Four, I was thinking, oh, well, I’m more or less caught up with events on the TV series, so I’ll soon be ahead. I know the TV series is diverging at this point, but I’m halfway through the fourth book and events have still not progressed beyond the first couple of episodes of Season 5. That’s how slow it is.

The book of this blog

cover 001So here it is then. A condensed and edited version of this blog, with a few bonus highlights from my first (Hoses of the Holy, which started back in 2003). Why? I was on the edge of deleting this blog, but then I thought I might create an archive of all the entries before doing so. And then I changed my mind about deleting it, but quite liked the idea of doing it as a Kindle book. Partly, this was prompted by someone saying to me that he preferred my non-fiction writing to my fiction. This is a fair enough comment. The 118,000 words or so of this represent about half of the content of Frequently Arsed Questions, which seems like a lot to cut out, but I did, for various reasons. There were too many of those whingeing about cycling entries, for example. There were reviews of various appliances, which (while popular in terms of generating page views here) wouldn’t really make any sense in the context of a book/collection. I’ve tried to highlight the category of the entry above the title, but it’s fair to say that there is no one topic for this blog. Eclectic. When I’m ranting about the bastards who run this country, I’ve used the quaint term “Holding forth” rather than “rant” because I like to think I’m not really ranting. I’m quite pleased with the cover. The image of the dude with the pipe came from a 1969 Nouvelles Galeries catalogue (that’s a department store in Belfort, France). I knew when I was snapping photos of the pages back in the summer that it might come in useful. He seems to personify the authorial voice of my blogs. Just as every thin person has a fat person on the inside, we all have a middle aged white dude in a beret with a pipe inside of us. Probably. The title, Nobody cares what you think, is my inner voice, talking to me throughout my blogging career. You can put the emphasis on any word you like. Inadvertently, my typographical choices seem to put the emphasis on THINK, but that’s just sloppiness. Anyway, I priced it as low as I could. Here are the links to a few of the Amazon Kindle stores. As usual, if you do download/read, I’d be grateful if you post a review. But if you can’t say anything nice… Amazon UK Amazon US Amazon Australia Amazon Canada Amazon India Amazon DE Amazon FR