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The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 19)

The last of the Culture books and Banksie’s SF books, both at all, and that I had only read once.

The odd one about this, as a Culture book, I realised only very late on, is that neither Special Circumstances nor even Contact are involved, directly. Just a random grouping of ships who take an interest in the matter.

The matter in question being the decision of a species called the Gzilt to sublime, or leave the material realm for higher dimensions. This a common endpoint (or new beginning) for civilisations in the Culture universe, and I wonder whether, had Iain lived, he would have taken us to the point where The Culture itself was making that decision.

Anyway, the sonata in question is one that is barely playable because it was written for ‘an instrument not yet invented’, which turns out to be be the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, or Elevenstring. An instrument with some 24 strings (some not counted in the name, because they are not played, they just resonate) designed to be played with two bows simultaneously.

Our hero — or at least, the main humanoid viewpoint character — Vyr Cossont, has been surgically adapted to have an extra pair of arms to allow her to play it. It is still next to impossible, but she has made it her ‘life task’: something to do while waiting for the day when your civilisation sublimes. The decision for them to go was made long before she was born.

But her playing the sonata is only a side issue. The real problem is that maybe someone is trying to sabotage the sublimation. Or maybe not, but odd things are afoot, and various people and ships get involved, and it’s all a whole shitload of fun.

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (Books 2022, 18)

On my MA course, in the Creative Nonfiction module, we were assigned the first chapter of this as one of our readings. It intrigued me enough that I ordered a copy.

Pages of Hackney had to order it from the US, and it took a long time to arrive. The module (and possibly the course, though I don’t actually think so) had finished by the time it arrived.

It took me even longer to finish reading it, despite it being a very slim volume.

It’s subtitled ‘The Art of Personal Memoir’. She starts one section by saying:

Thirty years ago people who thought they had a story to tell sat down to write a novel. Today they sit down to write a memoir.

And it was published in 2001, so she was seeing a change since the seventies. That may be even more true now, as creative nonfiction, memoir, the confessional story: that’s a huge publishing category.

But I’m not sure to what extent this book will help people who want to sit down and write one.

Gornick likes to teach by example. I would estimate that between 40 and 50% of the words in this book are other people’s. All properly cited and credited, of course, and the relevant permissions listed at the back. But she uses huge long quotes.

Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. How else do we first learn to write at all, other than by the examples of things we read? But I felt she spent too much time quoting the examples, and not enough explaining why she chose those. I don’t know, maybe use smaller examples, or break the big quotes up with interjections on technique.

Early in the book she talks about the nonfiction writer:

Here the the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses [sic] and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public … Think about how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself

The casual synecdoche of ‘couch’ to mean ‘therapy’ or ‘analysis’ amused me. So commonplace must analysis be in her circles, that she assumes everyone knows what ‘lying down on the couch’ is like. Whereas most of us, I would guess, only know about it from seeing it in films.

Interzone Issue 292/293 Edited by Andy Cox (Books 2022, 17)

Not strictly a book, but a double issue of a short-story magazine seems substantial enough to treat as one.

I don’t know when the last issue came out, but I had actually forgotten that I still had a subscription. It was good to get this, not least because it’s going to be the last to be edited by Andy Cox and published by TTA Press — Interzone 2.0, we might call it, after the David Pringle years.

From the next issue the editor will be Gareth Jelley, and the publisher MYY Press. The surprising thing about that is that the press is based in Wrocław, in Poland. Which is odd because then, is it a British SF magazine anymore?

That probably doesn’t matter, because of course it’s an international genre, and it’s not like they ever only published British writers. But still, quite a dramatic shift. It’ll be intersting to see how the magazine changes.

I enjoyed this a lot. There was perhaps too much Alexander Glass1 — three stories and an interview — but I guess sometimes you have a special focus for an issue (or two). And they’re all good.

Several of the stories suffer from something I’ve complained about before, which is to say, they don’t have endings. Or, put another way, the authors chose to end them at a point that I find unsatisfying; or I don’t understand why they chose to end there.

But in this case, I don’t think any of the ending-choices let the stories down too. much.


  1. Who weirdly doesn’t seem to have a website. Or at least, I can’t find it, and it’s not linked from his Twitter, which is what I’ve linked to here. 

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester (Books 2022, 16)

This starts out with the main character escaping from some obscure threat and reaching a friend’s place. The friend sends him into the past — so you think it’s going to be a time-travel story. In the past he tries to save a struggling artist by giving him gold.

And that’s the last we hear of time travel. It’s actually a story of humans who have attained bodily immortality through various traumatic incidents, and things going on with them. There’s some space travel, and, not surprisingly given the tite, a computer connection.

It’s pretty strange in the way that Bester can be. Not one of his best, but interesting enough. Harlan Ellison praises it — and Bester — highly in the introduction.

I had one of those, ‘Have I read this before?’ experiences through the first few chapters, but it soon stopped. So I wonder if I started it once before. If so, I don’t know why I’d have stopped, as it kept me going this time.

The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 15)

I’m not sure that I’ve read any of Priest’s ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories before now. Certainly the ones that I’ve tagged with his name are all outside of that loosely-connected set. But you can’t have been interested in SF as long as I have and not be aware of it.

This one, though, well.

Its conceit is that it is a gazeteer of the Dream Archipelago (which is, I’m slightly surprised to discover, what its residents call it: I had thought it was more… dreamy than that).

The archipelago is essentially impossible to map, because of some kind of time-distorting vortices that occur over the world it is on. No one is sure how many islands there are or the names or locations of even the main ones. The writers of the gazeteer try their best in any case.

By way of the would-be-factual entries, plus a number of fairly straightforward short stories (which don’t fit the gazeteer format, but then nothing really ‘fits’ here) we get something of the backstory of the archipelago, and fragments of the lives of a few of its prominent citizens.

It’s all highly readable and makes me want to know more about this odd world and its people (who seem to be essentially human).

Still Life by Val McDermid (Books 2022, 14)

A Karen Pirie thriller,’ the description on the cover says of this. I’m not sure ‘thriller’ is quite the right term. It’s exciting enough, but there isn’t the tension that would take it up to ‘thriller’ level. Not least because Karen Pirie is never in any danger, other than possibly pissing off her boss, the deputy chief constable of Police Scotland.

I’ve never read Val McDermid before, so picking up one of her later ones — possibly her latest: published in 2020, set just before the pandemic, and ending as lockdown starts — would be a strange choice. But sometimes you’re in a holiday house and there are some books and it’s not so much a choice as an offering. I’ve fancied checking out some tartan noir for a while, anyway.

It’s good. I enjoy a crime novel from time to time, and this one certainly kept the pages turning. Backstory was filled in very efficiently, without it feeling like infodumping. And reading about the chill autumn in Scotland (with slight detours into France, the north of England, and Ireland) took the edge off some of the Greek heat.

The title is a little confusing. There is some art involved in the story, but none of it is a still life. There’s at least a double meaning to the phrase, of course, and that makes sense in context. But maybe the French term, nature mort, is even more applicable. Not least since Karen Pirie works cold cases for the Scottish police force.

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson (Books 2022, 13)

Greece is probably the best place to read this novel, which is good, because that was where I was when I read it. It’s a work of fiction mostly set on the real island of Hydra during 1960-61. There was a famous community of anglophone expats there at the time, one of whom was Marianne Ihlen. They were notably joined by Leonard Cohen.

The first-person narrator is fictional, but nearly every other character is real. It’s an unusual approach for a contemporary novel, though perhaps not for historical fiction. Which, at sixty years distance, you could consider this. Some of the people are still alive, though, which is probably what makes it feel a bit odd.

Not Leonard or Marianne, though. The books starts with the narrator visiting Cohen’s old house on the morning after his death was announced. Which — and I had forgotten this — was just after Trump got elected. Everything else is flashback.

It’s very good. Captures the feeling of a Greek island summer, the listlessness of the young drifters, and the bitterness of the older writers who still struggle for success.

Software and Wetware by Rudy Rucker (Books 2022, 11 and 12)

Or the first two books in the Ware tetralogy, as they now are. I read Software many years ago, and enjoyed it, though not as much as some of Rucker’s others, notably White Light.

This time round it was fine, and so was the second one, but not really anything to write home about. I’ll read the other two, since I’ve got the combined edition on my Kindle, and they’re not very long. But there’s a spark that Rucker has when he writes about things like infinities, that just isn’t there when he writes about the themes here.

Which are artificial intelligence, machine sentience, and the possibility of transferring human consciousnesses into robot bodies and vice versa. Those are fascinating concepts, but the stories don’t quite jump off the page enough for me.

Ubik by Philip K Dick (Books 2022, 10)

I had associated this in my head with Dick’s VALIS, which is one of his latest works (written 1978, published 1981, according to Wikipedia). I think just because of the similarity of names.

Ubik is in fact more of a mid-period novel (written 1966, published 1969), and it shows. Though according to the Wikipedia entry, ‘it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.’ I find that a tad surprising, as it’s far from one of his better ones to my mind.

Certainly some of his tropes are there: strange warps to reality, confusion over who is and isn’t dead, that sort of thing. But it’s just not as compelling as, say, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, or A Scanner Darkly; nor as weird and fascinating as VALIS.

The characterisation is weak — which is probably true for most of Dick’s work, to be fair. But the story just doesn’t really get off the ground.