Complicity and The Business by Iain Banks (Books 2016 16 & 17)

The big Banksie reread finally gets under way again. There’s no particular connection between these two except that I read them back-to-back over two three days, partly when I was off work sick.

Complicity is just as brutal as I remembered, though I didn’t remember all the details, which was good. It feels dated now, but that’s partly just because it’s of its time, and partly, I suppose, because I remember reading it back in 1993.

The Business I remembered even less of — I know I’ve only read it once before, while I think I’ve read Complicity twice. It’s written from a woman’s PoV, and I’m sure some would say it isn’t convincing as such. Hard for me to judge that, but I liked being in the company of the narrator. Probably more so than in the former book.

It’s also Banksie’s first — but not last — to posit a secret (or secretish) organisation with its fingers into everything, that is not an evil conspiracy. Or his first non-SF to do so, at least. The Culture could be described in those terms.

Its major flaw is that there is no real sense that she’s ever in any danger. Even if things don’t turn out quite the way she’d like, the worst that could happen is that her stellar advancement in the titular organisation might be slowed, and maybe she won’t get the married man she’s kind of in love with.

All good fun, though. And they do have one thing in common: they’re both so dated that they spell laptop “lap-top”! Must be a publisher’s quirk, because I don’t think anyone in the real world ever spelt it that way.

Screwjack by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2016, 15)

Long-time HST readers like me will be familiar with this title. It always appeared on the dust jacket or inside the book in the list of other books by the author. But you never saw it anywhere. Back before Amazon, when bookshops were still a common haunt (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), you used to look all over the shop for Thompson’s work, because it was rarely consistently filed. That is, not every bookshop put it in the right section. After all, what is the right section? History? Sociology? Politics?

Really, the right section is probably “Journalism,” but most bookshops don’t (or didn’t) have such a section.

Anyway, it turns out that Screwjack wasn’t journalism, but fiction, and in any case was a limited-edition release of only a few hundred or so, and when the web and eBay came along, copies used to go for hundreds of pounds or dollars.

Sometime after he died it got a proper release, and I finally got round to buying it. It’s a slim, small-format hardback, containing three stories. And I’ve got to say that just a few weeks after reading them, they’re almost totally unmemorable. So maybe there was a good reason for not releasing them properly all those years.

Oh well. One for the completists.

Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock by Amy Raphael (Books 2016, 14)

Been reading this over a period of a year or so, on and off, so it’s not really this year’s book. But that’s no reason not to write about it. It was published in 1994 and consists of interviews with a selection of the women who were relatively newly on the scene, or were established but getting some more visibility, around that time. It was the time of Riot Grrrl, among other movements.

So among the interviewees are Courtney Love, Huggy Bear, Liz Phair, Tanya Donnelly, Kristin Hersh, Kim Gordon… even Bjork. But there’s someone missing from the book. Nearly all of the interviewees, when talking about their influences or other women who were doing something interesting at the time, mention PJ Harvey. And she is not interviewed. Which is a shame. I would have loved to have read her thoughts on making music back then (or now, for that matter). And I’m sure Amy Raphael would have loved to interview her, so I’m guessing she didn’t want to do it.

But aside from that, it’s an interesting work. Very much a document of its time, though no doubt the problems and challenges that these women faced have not changed that much. A similar book today, though, would have a very different complement of interviewees; and indeed would need a different subtitle: women musicians are much more prominent in pop and R&B today, from Beyoncé on down. But maybe not so much in rock, unfortunately.

Well worth a read, though.

Reamde By Neal Stephenson (Books 2016, 13)

It’s a page-turner, an engrossing thriller. I got through the 1040 pages in about a week of being on holiday in Greece (it would have taken me a lot longer at home, especially if I had been working).

Its biggest flaw is exactly how much of a well-oiled machine it is, how beautifully, unreasonably jigsaw-like the pieces all fit together, so that all the players end up together at he right place at the right time for the denouement (which event itself takes up probably close to 200 pages). It’s a bit — no, extremely unlikely that all of the disparate characters could have come together just as they do.

But by the time it’s clear they’re going to, we’re so engaged with them all that we want it to happen just like it does. It’s only when standing back afterwards (or to be fair, during breaks when in the course of reading) that you we think, “This is actually kind of preposterous.”

But still, preposterous fun.

The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and others (Books 2016, 12)

Gaiman returns to the character and story that made him famous (and wins the graphic story Hugo award by doing so).

This is a prequel to the original story. In that, you’ll recall (or if you don’t you should go and read them), Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, starts by being captured by a wizard as he returns exhausted from an earlier adventure.

This is that earlier adventure. And it’s right up there with the rest of the Sandman stories. Highly recommended.

Normal by Warren Ellis (Books 2016, 11)

I’m not sure this counts as a novel, by length, but never mind. Released as four Kindle-only ebooks over four weeks, it builds up into at least a novella. And a pretty god one. Very much built on problems of today, it concerns a group of people at an institution that cares for sufferers of “abyss gaze”: futurists who have thought too much about possible futures, until doing so broke their brains.

It’s an interesting idea, and of course to make it a story, a crisis happens. Well worth a read.

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot (Books 2016, 10)

After Mary & Bryan’s biography/autobiography hybrid about Mary herself and James Joyce’s daughter, they added another collaborator to write this fictional life story about a woman at the heart of the suffragette movement. Compelling, moving, and educational. What more could you want?

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Books 2016, 9) 

This is an infuriatingly brilliant book. Or brilliantly infuriating. It’s about the tensions between magic and science in a world where both exist. The characters are great and annoying (which only adds to their greatness). The scientists don’t think of investigating magic scientifically, even when a witch helps them rescue someone from an experiment gone wrong, which is annoying. But not very, because it’s so lovely. I predict it will win awards.

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross (Books 2016, 8)

The latest of Charlie's Laundry Files series, and Bob Howard is being considered for promotion. To management. He has to go on a course.

As you can imagine, he doesn’t stay on it for long. And soon things are looking pretty bleak.

It’s the usual Laundry fare: magic manipulated by technology, horrors from beyond the stars, intrigue, form-filling.

It’s great stuff, as always.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? by Paul Cornell (Books 2016, 7

Some books take weeks or even months to read. Others slip down in just a few days. This was the latter kind.

Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series is part of a thriving subgenre now. He and Ben Aaronovitch started out at a similar time, I guess, and they’re friends, so I don’t know if they came up with the idea together, or what. Maybe it was just steam-train time. But London cops who deal with the magical, occult side of the city’s problems are very much of today.1

This latest volume picks up not long after The Severed Streets finished, and our characters are in some dark places personally and professionally. But then the ghost of Sherlock Holmes is found murdered at the Holmes museum, and a serial killer starts murdering people in ways inspired by the Holmes stories. The game is afoot, obviously, and our heroes must take part.

This is really, really, good, and highly recommended. Though if you haven’t read them yet, start at the beginning with London Falling.

  1. Though I can’t help but wonder if Charlie Stross started it all. His Laundry Files series is about secret agents with occult dealings, rather than police, but there are obvious similarities. ↩︎

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.

Patience by Daniel Clowes (Books 2016, 5)

As I said, I ordered this right off the back of reading the review. I read it almost as soon as it arrived, and then read it again. It's a fast read, being a graphic novel, and being a timey-wimey story you want to read it again to see how it twists.

It’s really good. Every bit as good as the review suggested – if not quite as good as the blurb suggested.

I’m not going to say much more about it, as almost anything would be spoilers. A time-travel love story. Totes excellent.

ETA: It would help if I could actually spell the title!

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (Books 2016, 4)

A rereading, this, but I remembered much less of it than I thought, and enjoyed it even more than I expected to.

All I really remembered in any detail was the dog-like pack-based beings, the Tines. Maybe a vague sense of the rogue superintelligent AI that caused all the problems.

And the “Zones of Thought” themselves, of course. A genius idea, which, in brief summary, is this: the further out from the galactic core you get, the more advanced the technology that is possible. Implicitly that includes biology. It’s never explicitly stated, but it seems likely that deep inside the galaxy, in the “Unthinking Depths,” intelligence is not possible. Further out you get the “Slow Zone”, which is where Earth is.1 Only sub-lightspeed travel is possible here, and machines cannot become intelligent.

But all this changes when you get to the galactic fringes, or the “Beyond,” where FTL and something close to AI are commonplace. And the further up the Beyond you go, the more this is true, until you reach the “Transcend,” where godlike AIs exist.

My memory was that the sections with the Tines were kind of annoying, with a sense of, “I want my space operas to be set in space, with high tech; not on a mediaeval-level world with nothing more advanced than cartwheels."2 But of course the story of the kids stranded on the Tines' World are both fundamental to the overall story, and at least as good as the galaxy-spanning main plot.

This book has gone from new, Hugo- & Nebula-Award winner to SF Masterwork in what feels like a very short time. It was first published in 1991, which is 25 years ago. I suppose that’s enough time to become a classic.3 The accolades are thoroughly deserved, of course.

The SF Masterworks edition has an introduction by Ken McLeod, which is well worth reading, and the whole is highly recommended by me.

  1. Or possibly, was: Earth doesn’t feature in this story. ↩︎

  2. I lost interest in Stephen Baxter’s Origin: Manifold Three largely because of the scenes on the stone-age planet. I see from GoodReads that a lot of other people had trouble with it too. ↩︎

  3. Arguably it was instantly a classic, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. ↩︎

The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (Books 2016, 3)

I read this about a month and a half ago, and already it has slipped quite far from my memory. That's not a good sign, is it?

I’m also almost sure I wrote about it already, but it seems not. I certainly can’t find anything on either my Mac or iPhone.

But never mind. It’s Stross and Doctorow. What’s not to like? It’s also, I think, something of a fix-up. I certainly felt that I had read the early part of it before.

We’re in a near-future, post-singularity world, where our hero, Huw, wakes up with a hangover to find that he has been invited to do jury duty. But rather than determine the guilt or innocence of alleged criminals, this jury’s job is to determine the desirability of a piece of new technology.

Huw is a singularity refusenik, who wants to remain on Earth as a baseline human, rather than take advantage of the ability to upload his personality and live forever in the orbital cloud. The jury’s job is to assess whether a piece of new tech should be allowed to come back from the cloud to Earth.

At least, that’s the theory. It goes a long way from there, as you might expect.

It’s good, but as I suggested above, not that memorable. On the other hand, that could just be my memory.

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.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, by China Miéville (Books 2016, 1)

This set of short stories admirably shows why Miéville's work has been called "weird fiction." Most of these are very strange indeed.

In some of them, though, the strangeness feels like incompleteness. They should be longer, go into more detail, or just have an ending. Several of the pieces are less true stories than vignettes, scenes. Not itself a bad thing, but it slightly belies the subtitle.

None of which to say I didn’t enjoy this. I very much did. Still, I think he’s stronger as a novelist than as a short-story writer.