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An American Story by Christopher Priest (Books 2021, 18)

It was strangely timely that I decided to start reading this a few days before the 9/11 anniversary, since it concerns a man’s obsession with what happened on 9/11. The narrator is a journalist who lost his partner in the attacks. Except her name doesn’t appear on any passenger manifest, and there are multiple mysteries around the whole event.

As there are in real life. But this story takes place in a slightly altered reality. Scotland already has its independence, and England — or at least the little we see of London — has become increasingly dystopian, plagued by militarised police and surveillance.

The action switches back and forth in location between the Isle of Bute (where Priest also lives) and various pars of the USA (and sometimes those places are oddly coterminous). And also jumps around in time, from the present of the story — roughly 2017-8, when it was written and published — to before and during the 11th of September 2001, to various points between the two. It even dips a few years into the future.

It touches on ideas and discussions that are considered the domain of conspiracy theories, but largely avoids going down those rabbit holes. As one review I read said, ‘Conspiracy theories purport answers, often paranoid and outlandish; An American Story is about questions.’

It’s well worth a read, though there a couple of threads that he starts and leaves hanging, that I think would have been interesting to follow.

I usually forget to link to the books I write about. Here we are.

My phone just reminded me that my dissertation is due right now. Which wouldn’t have been a very useful reminder if I had been planning to submit today, but had somehow — incredibly! — forgotten.

Luckily I’ve got a two-week extension. I plan to actually submit in the next two or three days, though.

One Week Away

My dissertation is due in just under a week. I’m seeking an extension, because I’ve been a bit poorly and have lost a lot of work time over the last week, but I still hope to get it in on time.

But that will mean my course will be over. Which is a little bit saddening. I’ve enjoyed being a student again, even though this academic year’s particular situation has meant that the experience has been distinctly unlike a classic student one. Even, I’m sure, for Birkbeck, ‘London’s evening university.’

I have, for example, met none of my classmates in person. I’ve met exactly one member of staff, and that in the park in Gordon Square. I’ve never been in the department’s building. I’ve been into any Birkbeck building — the library — I think three times, maybe four.

Online classes have been fine, though. I wonder if creative writing, in its common workshopping format, works especially well over Teams or Zoom. Everyone takes turns to comment on the piece that’s being discussed, and there’s much less scope for interruptions, compared to in person. Of course the downside of that is that there’s less scope for conversation, for organic discussion. So we probably lost out in some ways, too.

Less, though, than students on other courses, and especially first year undergraduates. Like my daughter, who has done a year of uni and met practically no one on her course. It’s a strange state of affairs, to be sure.

But we move on. This novel extract isn’t going to dissert itself.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge (Books 2021, 17)

The absence of an apostrophe in the title has disturbed me slightly since I heard of this book. I think I concluded that it was meant as a verbal statement: rainbows do end, after all. The fact that the last chapter is entitled, ‘The Missing Apostrophe’ comforts me.

The other Vinge books that I’ve read (which would appear from that to only be one, but that is misleading) are galaxy-spanning space operas. This, in contrast, is very compact in scale, being set almost entirely in San Diego, and on the net. It’s a near-future thriller about medical and technological advances and how things might be for someone who was nearly dead from Alzheimer’s and then was brought back.

It’s pretty good, but 2025, the year in which it is set, feels pretty close now. I guess it didn’t in 2006.

I sent my CV to a recruiter today, for the first time in a long time. Dissertation due in less than a fortnight, so I have to start thinking about what’s next.

In an ideal world I’d be able to make a living from writing. This was a programming-type recruiter, though.

Big Planet by Jack Vance (Books 2021, 16)

I actually read this before the previous one, but forget to write about it. Perhaps that’s because. didn’t enjoy it very much.

Jack Vance is considered one of the greats of SF, and I realised recently that I hadn’t read anything by him. And I had this big volume tha Gollancc gave away at a convention some time, containing this and two other books (another novel and a collection of short stories). A sort of literary compilation album.

But not a Greatest Hits — or if it is, then things are pretty bad.

The main problem is that it’s dated. Usually we can work around that sort of thing, and I did — look at me, all finished with it — but the main thing here is that it’s just badly written. Cardboard characters, dodgy sexual politics, and a plot that, while interesting enough to get me through it, is far too easily resolved.

And there’s the background of an Earth empire or federation or similar, that we see essentially notthing of. Instead the action is all confined to the eponymous planet. It ‘revolutionised the planetary romance,’ according to the blurb. And, indeed it was important to the form according to the linked SF Encyclopedia entry.

So much for that. All I can say is, it didn’t do a lot for me.