books 2015

    Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Books 2015, 9)

    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. ↩︎

    The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 8)

    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 literary 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. ↩︎

    Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 7)

    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 the 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? ↩︎

    Mind of My Mind by Octavia E Butler (Books 2015, 6)

    The next book in the Patternist series after Wild Seed, which I wrote about before. I would describe it as the sequel to the other one, except that it turns out that they were written out of sequence.

    This perhaps explains why the character of Anyanwu, who, as you’ll recall, I felt was slightly disappointing in the first book, is completely sidelined and, indeed, thrown away, in this one.

    The other reason is that the focus has moved on to a new generation of Doro’s descendants. We are in mid to late 20th-century America, and his breeding programme is finally beginning to pay off. More spectacularly than he had ever imagined, it seems, as some of his telepaths – who up until now have not been able to bear being near each other – form a kind of group or meld they call the Pattern.

    This makes them able to both work and live together, and increases their power and effectiveness enormously.

    Things ensue. It’s good, but still feels kind of weak to me. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t that compelling.

    Also I thought I had read this one, years ago, but none of it was even the slightest bit familiar to me, so I guess not.

    Wild Seed by Octavia E Butler (books, 2015, 5)

    Halfway through the year and only five books in? This is shocking behaviour!

    I’m glad I read this, and I sort of enjoyed it, but I wasn’t entirely happy with it.

    There are two main characters, both of whom appear to be functionally immortal, though with different mechanisms for keeping them alive. The shapeshifting, self-healing (and healer of others) Anyanwu is an African woman in the seventeenth century when we meet her. She is already two or three hundred years old.

    The male immortal, Doro, is even older. For perhaps thousands of years he has survived by stealing bodies. His consciousness hops from his current one to another when the latter threatens him, or just when he chooses it. The personality of his destination body is of course destroyed in the hop, and the body he leaves also dies. Anyanwu is attracted to his power and the fact that they are apparently the only such long-lived people on Earth, but is repelled by the mechanism of his survival.

    As she is by his long-term (really long-term) project to try to breed people with special abilities – many of the subjects of which are, or may be, distant descendants of her, or of his original people (most of whom he killed in panic when he first “died” and found himself in a new body).

    I was annoyed at Anyanwu as a character at times, by the way she didn’t resist Doro when he had her do things she didn’t want to do. But he is an expert manipulator and is willing to threaten her kids to bend her to his will. And I guess that cleverly evokes the reality of women’s situation often in history, and certainly at that time.

    This is the start of the Seed to Harvest series, and I’m keen to see where it goes.

    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).

    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.

    The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Books 2015, 2)

    There's an old saying by Robert Heinlein (or by one or more of his characters): "It steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time." Technological advances -- and implicitly, other changes, such as social ones -- will happen when a certain weight of events and situations accrues, irrespective of the individuals involved. The steam engine would have been developed around that time with or without Stephenson; the radio in its era even without Marconi, and so on.

    By that token these few years seem to be time-jump-story time. For here we have a story that, superficially at least, is very similar to Life After Life, which I wrote about last year as part of The First Three Books of the Year.

    The similarity is that we have a character who lives his life, dies, and then lives it all over again. The major differences in this case are that he remembers his previous lives; and that there are others like him.

    Also in this one the characters – some of them, at least – question their situation, wonder about how and why it happens. They make use of their gift or curse. As such it is more a work of SF than Life After Life was.

    Claire North, we are told at the start, is the pseudonym of a British author. Turns out it’s Catherine Webb, of whom I’ve written before, here. I see that I was critical then of her plotting, and the ending. The current book is much stronger in both regards.

    Though it’s not entirely satisfactory. I find it slightly annoying because – and I’m moving into spoiler territory, so you might want to stop reading – while the people who have this affliction – members of the Cronus Club, or kalachakra, as they are called – do ask some questions of their situation, the only one who really tries to explore, to investigate, to understand it: he’s the bad guy. The engine of the plot is to preserve the status quo.

    True (within the book, and probably in reality), messing with the status quo – trying to make significant changes to the way historic events play out – tends to make a big mess of things, because history is too complex for anyone to really understand all the causes and effects and so guide it. But Vincent, the antagonist in question, is at least trying to gain some understanding. An alternative to trying to stop him might have been to work with him, but find a less destructive way to do it.

    On the other hand, of course, that would have made for a less interesting, less fun story. And as it stands, this is both. So I can’t really complain.

    The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (Books 2015, 1)

    This is kind of a frustrating one (and could, like the last one have been considered 2014, as I started it before the year ended; but it was well into January before I finished it.

    Anyway, Pynchon can be difficult. I read V years back, and remember next to nothing about it; and I started Gravity’s Rainbow once, but ground to a halt and never quite got round to going back (this despite the fact that I was originally drawn to it by Alan Moore talking about reading it).

    This one is a lot less difficult, to say nothing of significantly shorter. Its problem is more to do with how our heroine comes to find out about the weird postal conspiracy that she investigates, and why it matters. We have some engaging characters in interesting situations, but it’s hard to get terribly enthused about a conspiracy to route the post by some means other than official government mail channels.

    Especially in these deregulated times, when most of the post is deliveries from Amazon anyway. We Await Silent Bezos’s Empire, I guess.

    But it’s worth reading.