The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Books 2016, 6)

I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really understand it.

I’m sure I should have more to say about it than that, but really, that sums it up quite neatly.

But to try to go a bit deeper… The solar system is populated by various species or clans of posthumans, transhumans, AIs, uploaded minds, whatever. Earth is unrecognisable, though some people — seemingly fairly close to basic-human, though it’s hard to judge, with so many strangenesses — still live there.

In some ways the biggest problems with this book, and its predecessor The Quantum Thief, which I read a few years ago, is the sheer number of new or repurposed words. None of these is ever explained: you have to gain an understanding of them from context, working it out as you go along. This is a perfectly fine and valid method of storytelling, but here it all just gets a bit too much.

Maybe it’s my fault for the way I read the book: in disjointed fragments and sections, over weeks. Perhaps if I had read it in a more concentrated fashion, its meanings would have unwrapped themselves for me more easily, more thoroughly.

But at the same time, it’s the storyteller’s job to tell their story in a way that allows the reader to grasp it, to understand it. If he reader has difficulty with that, then it’s not the reader’s fault. It’s the storyteller’s.

And yet, and yet, I enjoyed it, I finished it, I think i’l probably read the third in the trilogy, which I believe is a thing. Eventually, after some time has passed on this one,

And I’ll probably have just as much trouble with that one when the time comes.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Books 2016, 6)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K Dick (Books 2016, 2)

Nothing to do with stigmata, really, and the titular differences aren’t even mentioned until three-quarters of the way through the book. It’s almost as if Dick wanted to use the title, and then realised, “Oh, I haven’t said what these stigmata are yet, or why. Better throw them in.” Because they are also entirely irrelevant to the story.

Oh yes, the story. Hmm. It’s not one of Dick’s best, and a lot of it barely makes sense. Or at least, it makes sense in that it’s internally consistent. But it’s hard to believe. The UN conscripts people using a military-style draft, to go and live on the colonies — Mars is the only one we see, but several other planets and moons within the solar system are implied.

Colonists’ lives are so hard and unpleasant that the only way they can get by — and the only entertainment they have, it seems — is to lose themselves in shared hallucinations induced by a drug called Can-D, during which they enter the world of characters called Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt. These are inspired or induced using “layouts” — groupings of miniaturised artefacts that become part of Pat’s life, and hence of the colonists’ hallucinations.

In any group entering the shared experience, all the women always take the part of Pat, and all the men that of Walt. Which seems very limiting and heteronormative.

And, oh, yes, the sexual politics.

In some ways they’re not too bad. The main character, Barney Mayerson, is a precog — oh yes, we have those, too, except when we forget that we do — and his assistant, Roni Fugate, ends up with his job, which is a quite a senior one at the company that makes “mins” — miniaturised items for use with the Perky Pat layouts. They use their precognitive powers to know what items are going to be fashionable. Other than that, the existence of reliable precognition seems to have had no impact on society.

Maybe that’s why he wrote “Minority Report.”

Anyway, at the start, she is also his lover, which seems to have happened as soon as she started working with him, almost as a given.

On the other hand, a significant part of the plot is driven by the fact that he has never got over his breakup with his wife — which I think might have been as long as twenty years ago — whom he dumped because she was bad for his career, or something.

In fact she’s a highly skilled potter, who makes artefacts that are miniaturised for use in these famous layouts. Mayerson rejects her latest designs, saying they won’t be successful, when Roni says they will. His attempt to screw up his ex’s career leads her (and her new husband, who is acting as her salesman) into the arms of a rival corporation.

That body has been set up by the mysterious titular character. Palmer Eldritch has just returned from a ten-year trip to the Proxima system, whence he might have bought back a new drug, Chew-Z, that has similar properties to Can-D but is even more powerful.

Also global warming: the world is unliveably hot, so everyone stays in air-conditioned buildings (and makes things worse). In America, at least. We don’t hear anything about the rest of the world. And forced “evolution”: some people go for expensive treatments in Swiss clinics, which give them bigger brains and leathery skin, at least on their head. Though sometimes it goes wrong and their intelligence decreases.

It’s all quite, quite mad, and the conclusion probably makes even less sense. But what the hell, it’s fun enough while it lasts.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K Dick (Books 2016, 2)

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Books 2015, 10)

The pages, how they turn. I’m sure I’ve said that before of JK Rowling’s work, but not in public, it seems. Amusing to note that The Silkworm was my number 10 last year.

Plenty of Robin in this one, and it’s probably the best of the three. Certainly better than the last one.

Strangest thing about it is the music. By which I mean: the title is taken from a song by Blue Öyster Cult, and quotes from them precede most of the chapters (some chapters have titles, and those are the titles of BÖC songs).

Now, I had no idea that Patti Smith wrote some lyrics for BÖC, but apparently she did1

Still on a musical note, in passing one of the ancillary characters roadies for a band who are called Death Cult. Since JK Rowling is about the same age as me, and since she obviously pays attention to music, I would expect her to know that The Cult used to be known as Death Cult, and before that as Southern Death Cult. But perhaps you had to read the music papers in the 80s to know about that kind of stuff.2

Anyway, the Death Cult here have nothing to do with either the famous Cult, nor the Blue Öyster one.

The ending is a tad unsatisfying, as it leaves a number of things unresolved — which is fine, as there will no doubt be more books — and doesn’t really give us enough time post-denoument to decompress with the characters.

Still, highly recommended, as long as you’re not put off by gruesome scenes.

  1. we went to see her at the Roundhouse the other day, incidentally, on the 40th anniversary tour for Horses; but I digress. []
  2. And it turns out not to be quite as I remember, as according to Wikipedia, the only connection between SDC and Death Cult/The Cult is Ian Astbury. []
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Books 2015, 10)

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

I feel that we should be rendering the author’s name in the Chinese way, with the family name first: Liu Cixin. That’s how he signs himself in the “Author’s Postscript”, and that’s how the translator renders all the characters’ names. But the above is how the publishers have done it, so we’ll stick with that for now.

As a work in translation, The Three-Body Problem fits well within the parameters of The Tempest Challenge, which, as I told you, I’m taking this year. It’s also this year’s Hugo winner, so I was keen to read it for that reason.

Right at the start I felt a mild sense of annoyance, because it was only then that I realised it is part of an incomplete trilogy.1 I’m not keen on starting unfinished serieses (it is so a word).

I finished it last night with a sense of surprise. According to my Kindle I was only at 85%; more importantly it didn’t exactly feel like the end, though to be fair I wasn’t quite sure where it could go from that point. I knew there were notes from the author and the translator, but they surely couldn’t be that long?

They couldn’t. But it turns out that the digital copy contains an extract from the next book in the series. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend in general. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of them. But I do think they’re getting too damn big: this one was fully 10% of the file, according to the Kindle.
One tenth of a novel is not in fact that novel, but an extract from the next one? I don’t think that’s a great trend.
But to the content. What did I actually think of the work?
Umm… mixed. I enjoyed it overall, am glad I read it, and will probably read the sequels. But it has problems that I don’t think are just caused by my cultural expectations. Though they might be: the translator, Ken Liu, in his postscript says:

But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narration techniques. The Chinese litereary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavour of the original.

Which is fair enough, and for “American” it’s safe to read “British”, as well. But perhaps the most important literary technique — or at least, the admonition most often drummed into beginning writers — is “show, don’t tell”. As I have argued myself, it’s not a rule that can or should be set in stone; but there are times when violating it comes across as clumsy at best.

There are many such times in The Three-Body Problem. Long sections of characters’ lives are told to us as a history. Similarly with the sections that take place in the “Three Body” game.

There are some great ideas here; in particular the best use of monomolecular fibres since — was it “Johnny Mnemonic”? One of William Gibson’s shorts, anyway.
It’s also worth reading for the historical parts: the terror of living through China’s Cultural Revolution is well evoked. But the aliens are hard to believe in.

And part of the initial setup: scientists are killing themselves because things seem to have gone fundmentally wrong with physics. I found that unconvincing. If as a scientist you find things not behaving as you expect — even seemingly randomly — you don’t give up on science and life; you try to find a new theory to fit the facts.

Lastly, I don’t think we ever found out what’s supposed to happen at the end of the countdown.

But I don’t mean to do a hatchet job. I did enjoy it, and as I say, I’ll probably read the sequels. Would it have won the Hugo in a less puppy-infested year? Maybe. You can never tell.

  1. Incomplete in English, at least; the third part is due to be published next year, so it may well be finished in Chinese. []
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

I read this under false pretences. Self-inflicted false pretences, to be sure, but nonetheless.

It won the Clarke Award, as I’m sure you know. All I knew about it when I heard the result, when I saw Mandel’s acceptance video at the ceremony, was the title. But it’s a badge of recognition, if nothing else; a clear signal that a group of people, of our peers, perhaps, think it’s one of best books — maybe the best — released in the last year.

I downloaded it on Kindle (I think there was a special offer). I hadn’t read any reviews, not even the blurb. But it’s called Station Eleven: it’s got to be about a space station, right?

Well, “Station Eleven” is a space station of sorts. But this isn’t a story set on it, or in space at all. Well, except inasmuch as Earth is in space, which of course is totally.

Thing is, if I’d known this was actually set mainly in a post-end-of-civilisation dystopia, I probably wouldn’t have read it it at all. Such scenarios really don’t appeal to me much, at face value at least. I’m always reminded of a call for stories in Interzone many years ago, which asked for “radical, hard SF”; but which specifically said they didn’t want the kind of post-holocaust story where the hero gazes wistfully at a can of baked beans.

It’s an image which has stuck with me, but this is not that kind of story (though there are elements of scavenging among the ruins).

It’s also not set entirely after the fall of civilisation. In part it tells the life story of a successful actor (who dies on stage while playing Lear right at the start of the first chapter).

I note that Mandel herself seems to reject the SF label, and my thoughts on it — while loving it to bits — centred around wondering why she chose to tell the story of a present-day actor framed or intertwined within the death of civilisation. Looking at some reviews now I see that people treat the central theme as being the attempt to keep culture alive. And while that is an important aspect, I don’t really see it as being what the book is about.

Particularly if we are to consider it as literary fiction1 wherein characters are usually the main focus. As such it’s mainly the stories of the actor and of the young woman who started out as a child actor who was onstage when he died, but who survived the plague.

The conclusion of this review at the New York Times sums it up well:

If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.

SF or not, it’s well worth reading.

  1. Why not li-fi, I often wonder? []
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

Neither tempestuous nor particularly challenging

I’m taking the Tempest Challenge.

I was somewhere in the middle of the third book I read this year when I heard of it, and I realised that all my reading so far was books by women, and so why not?

The idea of the challenge, in case you haven’t clicked through, is to:

take One Year off from reading fiction by straight, white, cisgender male authors and instead read fiction by authors who come from minority or marginalized groups. This includes women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ authors along with a wide variety of other marginalized identities from which to create a reading list: people with disabilities; poor and working class authors; writers with non-Christian religious or spiritual beliefs; and for Americans, even reading books in translation by authors of any background will open up new viewpoints.

Which, when you list as many categories of author as that, sounds pretty easy. And so it is.

So far, as you’ll have seen from my published notes to date, I’ve just read books by women. No trouble there. I’m currently reading Wild Seed by Octavia E Butler, which also adds African-American to the mix.

The only problem — and it is, let’s face it, a very minor one — is when I see a book on my shelves that I think, “Oh, I must read that;” and then I think, “but not this year.” (Though it occurs that if I were to take “writers with non-Christian religious or spiritual beliefs” at face value, then I could, for example, carry on my Iain Banks re-read; but such writers — atheist writers, at least — are far from marginalised in Britain. And it wouldn’t really be in the spirit.)

I’m making two exceptions: one is a book I started last year, about the music scene in New York in the 70s. It’s important preparation for our trip to New York in the summer, so I intend to finish that.

The other is if Robert Galbraith has a new book out this year. 🙂 And in getting that link I discover that it’s due out in the autumn, which is pleasing to hear.

Apparently some people are offended by the very existence of this kind of challenge. Mostly straight white men, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear. It’s “censorship”, apparently. I mean, what?

You’ll read all about my reading adventures here.

Neither tempestuous nor particularly challenging

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Books 2015, 4)

I won this in the raffle at a BSFA meeting several months ago (actually over a year: October 2013), when Mary Robinette Kowal was the guest. From her talk, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun, and now that I get round to reading it, it lives up to that expectation.

We are in Regency times, except this is not exactly the Regency of our own past; in this one, magic exists. At least in a limited form: “Glamour” allows people to form illusions by manipulating folds of the ether. Most people can do this to some degree, and well-brought-up young ladies are taught the art along with music and painting. But there are those who are more talented.

Our heroine, Jane, is one such. But as the novel opens, and for most of it, she is more concerned about the fact that, unmarried at 28, she seems destined to become (or already is) an “old maid”. Her prettier sister, Melody, is more likely to make a good “match”.

There are, of course, balls, officers, heartbreaks, and more. If you enjoy Austen, and fantasy, you’ll like this, I predict. It’s the first in a series, and I look forward to reading more.

One thing slightly puzzled me. When Kowal was at the BSFA meeting, I recall her saying that she is a Doctor Who fan, and that she likes to slip a mysterious traveller into each of her books. If she slipped him into this one, she did it so subtly that I didn’t notice it, even though I was expecting him. There is a brief appearance from the local surgeon, a Dr Smythe, so I guess that’s him. Oh yes. In fact, she says in that piece, “if you [notice him], then I’ve done it wrong.” So, nicely done.

But anyway, well worth a read, though I daresay the purist would say you should read all of Austen first (which I haven’t; only Pride and Prejudice).

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Books 2015, 4)

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (books 2015, 3)

This is all very meta. It’s a story within a story, with at least one other story within that (the last of which is not very relevant). And the two main ones are more intertwined, rather than one enclosing the other, with typefaces used to distinguish them.

The largest story is that of a young woman during her time at Dundee University — in fact really just a few days in one term thereat. She’s a bit of a drip, just drifting along letting stuff happen to her — including repeatedly getting into a car with an unknown strange man who claims to be a private detective.

But the same time she (and I can’t remember her name, which can be a problem with first-person characters, because how often do you use your own name?) is holding an extended conversation with her mother (who, we’re repeatedly told, is not her mother) on a remote Scottish island whereon they are the only residents. She is trying to get her mother to tell her story. The mother is not keen to do so.

The slice-of-student-life in seventies Dundee is interesting enough. I’ve never been to Dundee, but I was a student in Edinburgh in the eighties, and it doesn’t sound all that different. Indeed, that story could be enough to carry a novel, if you had a slightly more active protagonist, and more of a plot.

The plot, such as it is, is in the island story. Well, the mystery is mainly told there, let’s say.

I enjoyed it all well enough while I was reading it, but can’t help but wonder what it’s really for. That’s not something I would normally ask of a novel — they are their own justification, generally; they exist to tell their story, and that’s all you need. But here, well… there isn’t quite enough of a story. It describes itself — within the island story, of the Dundee story; that’s part of the metaness — as a “comic novel”. And yes, there’s humour in the university story, and maybe beyond. But it ‘s not exactly funny, you know?

And the last section is a detective story that the protagonist of the Dundee story is writing. But it doesn’t really relate to either of the other stories — except maybe by some imagery — and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I don’t really see why it’s there.

When I read Atkinson’s debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I likened it to The Crow Road. Sadly, this doesn’t live up to that promise. Luckily she went on to write Life After Life, which as you’ll recall, I loved.

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (books 2015, 3)

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine (Books 2014, 20)

A Christmas present: started on Christmas Day and finished just after midnight on the 3rd of January. So I could call it 2015 number 1, but it makes more sense to go with the year in which I started it and read most of it. Anyway, it’s all a bit arbitrary.

Viv Albertine, as I’m sure you know, was the guitarist in The Slits. They had only a short time in punk’s limelight (though as I learned from this, they released a second album, not just the one I’m familiar with).

This book is half about her early years and the punk days, and half about after. She went on to work as a filmmaker and then struggled to have a child, had serious health problems. Eventually she re-taught herself to play guitar, and started performing again (I saw her supporting the Damned a couple of years back, and then supporting Siouxsie at Meltdown a year and half back).

It’s really interesting reading about a time I lived through, events I experienced — from afar, true, but still ones I felt part of — from someone else’s point of view. Especially that of someone who was at the heart of many of the events.

And she writes with some style; it’s a compelling read. She makes some strange choices: for example, she only ever refers to her sister as “my sister”; we never get her name. Similarly with the man she marries. At first he’s “The Biker”, and then “my husband”.

I suppose it’s a matter of protecting the privacy of people who are still alive — especially in the latter case, because he doesn’t come out of it terribly well. Indeed, it may be the case that the only people who are named are those who were already in the public eye to some degree.

Any road, if you are into music, especially punk, at all, I would highly recommend reading this. I plan to get her new album — which came out two years ago, it turns out — The Vermilion Border.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine (Books 2014, 20)