books 2021

    Neuromancer by William Gibson (Books 2021, 20)

    I’m on a bit of a reread thing at the moment, partly because I moved some books around recently, which revealed some older ones.

    This is another one that stands up really well. It has some amusing out-of-time moments, like ‘three megabytes of hot RAM’: imagine having that much computer memory! And the well-known geostationary satellite over Manhattan impossibility.1 But we don’t let those things bother us.

    What’s interesting is just how much it influenced The Matrix. It was always fairly obvious that the Wachowskis named their virtual world after Gibson’s cyberspace, though Doctor Who got there first, and possibly others did too. But there’s a scene in Neuromancer where Case sees drifting lines of code overlaid on the reality that he’s perceiving. Very much seems the inspiration for Neo seeing the Matrix.

    Anyway, it’s still a fine story, with some striking prose.

    1. You can only have a geostationary satellite over the equator, in case you don’t know. ↩︎

    Lanark: A Life in 4 Books by Alasdair Gray (Books 2021, 19)

    I read this a long time ago, and the strange thing now is that everything I remembered of it happens in the first two books: that is, in Book 3 and Book 1. As I’m sure you know, the internal books are ordered 3, 1, 2, 4.

    Which sort of suggests that I didn’t finish it all those years ago, but I’m sure that isn’t the case. There were odd moments of the slightest sense of the familiar in the other books, so I guess it’s just vagaries.

    Anyway, it was and remains a monumental work. It struck me as odd that the blurb describes it as ‘a modern vision of hell.’ I had never thought of it in those terms. True, Lanark’s situation is dark, difficult, and confusing, and he can be seen as Thaw after death, if Thaw dies at the end of Book 2, which seems likely. But hell? That seems extreme. Lanark has difficulties, but he’s not in a state of eternal torment.

    He is, however, quite a frustrating character. He is thrown into a situation – several situations – where he doesn’t understand what is going on, or how the world works; and for the most part he doesn’t ask even the most obvious questions, or make any attempt to gain understanding. So he’s not so much protagonist as a character being pushed around by circumstance. Or by his author, whom we meet in the fourth-wall-destroying epilogue towards the end of the book.

    Much more obviously, Lanark’s experiences in Unthank and beyond are a satire of late-stage capitalism. Which you could say is a form of hell, so maybe that’s what the blurb writer was getting at.

    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 parts 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.

    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.

    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 I 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 that Gollancz 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.

    Whit by Iain Banks (Books 2021, 15)

    The human memory is an amazing thing. In this case, it’s amazing what it’s possible not to remember.

    To wit: I remembered almost completely nothing about this book. That the main character was part of an odd religious community based near Stirling in Scotland; and that she had to make a trip to London by slightly unusual means to track down a musical and possibly apostate cousin: that’s as far as my memory went.

    It came out in 1995, so twenty-six years have passed since I first read it. I would have said that I had reread it once, which you would hope might lock things down a bit in the brain. But on the plus side, it meant it was almost like reading a new Iain Banks book, so in that way the forgetting was good.

    As you’d expect, a great deal more happens than what I remembered. It’s another family drama, in the vein of The Crow Road1 and The Steep Approach to Garbadale. Also has a very endearing main character, as well as religion that doesn’t sound too bad in its beliefs, apart from its rejection of most technology.

    1. Which I note that I’ve never written about here, except indirectly. Is it time to rerereread that, do you think? ↩︎

    London Centric: Tales of Future London, Edited by Ian Whates (Books 2021, 14)

    Great collection of stories set in and around London. Or various Londons, depending on how you look at it.

    Standouts for me were the opening story, ‘Skin,’ by Neal Asher, and ‘War Crimes’ by MR Carey, but there’s a lot to enjoy here, and not one bad one.

    It’s good to know the science fiction short story is in a good state, despite what I said about it… err, seven years ago.

    The Exes by Pagan Kennedy (Books 2021, 13)

    Another one suggested by my supervisor. It’s about a band, and the novel I’m working on involves a couple of bands. And it’s also a multiple viewpoint third-person narrative, as is mine.

    Like the last such, it handles the multiple viewpoints in quite an extreme way. There are four band members, and a quarter of the book is told from the point of view of each. Four chapters, no returning once one PoV is finished with.

    The title is the name of the band, and their schtick is that they are all exes of someone else in the band (in practice, it’s two former couples, but there’s obviously a certain amount of will they/won’t they about any other possible hookings up).

    So really it’s about the relationships, and how each person handles the pressure-cooker of being in a band together, touring, all that. Along with a fair chunk of backstory for each.

    It’s set in Boston (and a few other places) in the early to mid nineties. The ending is – open, let’s say, but not in annoying way. In fact, it’s quite satisfying, though I could happily have read more.

    Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden (Books 2021, 12)

    A famous film director arrives in ‘the Italian city of B’ to attend a festival and premiere his new film. He meets a woman who shows him a graffiti mural that was painted by her dead boyfriend.

    The whole thing takes place over two or three days, and each chapter is a single paragraph. The latter is kind of annoying, because it makes it hard to find a good place to stop reading. Also all the dialogue is integrated into the paragraphs without speech marks. This kind of different way of representing dialogue is becoming increasingly common, it seems to me.

    The story’s good, though I found the ending a little weak. And slightly reminiscent of the ending of The Magus, strangely. That same sense of slightly-incomplete explanation.

    Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Books 2021, 11)

    My other dissertation supervisor, Julia Bell, suggested that I read this. It’s a multiple-viewpoint work, which is something I’m doing. This one takes it to extremes, though. Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, and we never go back to any of them.

    They’re all members of families who are staying at holiday park of log cabins deep in the Highlands of Scotland, one week when the rain never stops.

    It does an excellent job of showing us the inner lives of the different people, as well as the minutiae of what goes on at the park in such difficult circumstances (no internet, miles from anywhere, and constant rain).

    And the ending is – well, it’s something else, I’ll say that.

    Hinton by Mark Blacklock (Books 2021, 10)

    The author is one of my MA supervisors, so take that under advisement, I guess.

    This is a historical novel, based on the real life of Charles Howard Hinton, a Victorian mathematician who studied the idea of a fourth spatial dimension. In fact, at least from this I’d go further: he believed in the existence of such a dimension. He, I learned, was the originator of the term tesseract, which – as I’m sure you know – is the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube.

    So much for that. What of the story? It’s interesting, a little odd, and slightly experimental, in terms of its telling. It makes use of letters, diagrams, and other documents from Hinton’s life. But a lot of the really interesting bits of Hinton’s life – his bigamous marriage and being convicted for the same, and subsequent departure for, and time in, Japan, for example – are told largely offscreen. Or second-hand and partially, via some of those letters.

    Which is all fair enough, but I feel that we didn’t really get to know Hinton as a person. I could have done with more of that. In fact we get to know some other members of his family slightly better, as the story’s focus changes in the second half.

    The book is split into sections called ‘Point,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Tesseract,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Point.’ Numbered chapters or subsections, 1 to 14, are included across the first ‘Line’ and ‘Square.’ But chapter 9 is missing, or skipped. I kept trying to find some mathematical reason for this – 9 is a square number, of course, but it’s not the only square number in the list, and there’s nothing special about 9 in the text, that I noticed. Nor is it one of the numbers we associate with a cube. Six faces, eight vertices, but not nine of anything. So I suspect it’s actually a mistake. I might email Mark and ask him.

    I first came to know of Hinton through Rudy Rucker’s books. The fourth dimension is one of Rucker’s great interests, along with infinities, so Hinton was bound to come up. Apparently I’ve never mentioned Rucker on my site before. That’s a little surprising, but I suppose it’s a good few years since I read anything by him. I’m slightly surprised to find he’s still alive: I thought I remembered hearing of his death (and was surprised I hadn’t noted that here). Oh well, the Mandela effect, I suppose.

    Lastly, I noticed it was on the list of eligible titles for this year’s Clarke Award (and my apologies for linking to Medium). Which is odd, as it’s not really a novel of the fantastic in any way (except maybe, the slightest hint of something towards the end). But it wouldn’t be the first novel the the Clarke Award has noticed for which that is true. And Hinton wrote some SF himself, and inspired various SF writers as well as Rucker, so it kind of sits near the genre.

    Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch (Books 2021, 9)

    The second of Aaronovitch’s series about the division of the Metropolitan Police that deals with magical goings-on. It’s a fun romp – I laughed more often than you might expect.

    I don’t know how long ago I read the first one, Rivers of London, but I didn’t write about it here, and it must be a while, because I don’t remember much of it. Still, the backstory is handled nicely here, so I could get by fine.

    A lot of it is about jazz and jazz musicians. It’s likely to make you check out the odd track.

    Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Books 2021, 7)

    I know, JK Rowling is a somewhat troubling figure now. When this book came out, last year, my daughter was adamant that we not buy it, because of Rowling’s anti-trans statements, and I had respected her feelings up till now; as well as having my own concerns. But… the art, not the artist, I guess? Even if I’m further enriching her by buying the art?

    The truth is twofold: one, I don’t think she’s actively antithetical to trans people. She has a complex, nuanced position about various aspects of the situation, which gets blown out of all proportion on Twitter, when nuance, as it does, heads over there to die. And which, surprisingly and disappointingly for a wordsmith, she doesn’t seem able to elucidate that well.

    And two, I really like the books and wanted to read it.

    Furthermore, I was sick, and I had decided that I was going to treat the time on the sofa as an extension of the holiday, and not try to get back to working on the novel/dissertation till the Monday. I wanted some comfort reading, and this was what I wanted. I knew I’d rip through it in a few days, even if I was trying to work at the time. So I killed two birds with one stone.

    It’s good, as ever. I don’t really understand how she makes the pages turn so fast (there are a lot of them, especially as an ebook). I did pick up a couple of typos, and some odd line break errors, which might be to do with the translation to ebook – either way, it’s very sloppy editing/proofreading by the publishers. Also some – several – places where I would have edited a line to make it better. I noticed fewer of those as the plot roared on, unsurprisingly. Which at least means I’m reading even a book like this in a more writerly fashion. Or I was at the start.

    The main other weaknesses are:

    • Everything comes together just a bit too tidily.
    • There’s too much about some of the secondary cases the agency is working on, over and above the main one. Those can be interesting or amusing, and sure, it’s realistic that they’d have to have more than just a forty-year-old cold case to work on, over a year. But in the end they feel like padding.
    • As the denouement unfolds she uses a gimmick where the characters learn or work out something, which they relate to each other, but which is not revealed to us. It’s kind of annoying, because it’s suddenly hiding info from the reader that the characters have, where earlier in the story that wasn’t happening. I think she’s done it before in some (maybe all) of the Strike novels.

    But a lot of fun, anyway.

    Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan (Books 2021, 6)

    This is a story of a family – especially two sisters – and things that brought them together and pushed them apart. It varies between straightforward realist events, and ambiguous, almost fantastic scenes, which may be memories, or partly memories, or a way for the character to deal with memories.

    It’s part of a series that Bernardine Evaristo has curated for Penguin, called Black Britain: Writing Back, aiming to bring lost works back into publication. This one won awards back in 1997 (even though, confusingly, the copyright date is 1998). It’s been out of print since.

    Worth checking out.

    Heartburn by Nora Ephron (Books 2021, 5)

    When I wrote about watching When Harry Met Sally… last year, I said that ‘Nora Ephron may be my favourite screenwriter after Aaron Sorkin, where dialogue is concerned.’ The dialogue in this novel isn’t so sparkling, but the narration is.

    It’s a fictionalisation of the breakdown of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein, and it’s amazing how funny she makes it, considering how painful the experience clearly was.

    Seems to be her only novel, which is kind of a shame.

    The strangest thing is that the woman Bernstein had an affair with is the daughter of prime minister Jim Callaghan.

    Far more interestingly, though, is that, according to Wikipedia, Ephron was one of the few people who knew the identity of Deep Throat.

    None of which has anything to do with the book, which you should just read.

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

    Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

    But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

    I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

    His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

    I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.

    Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Books 2021, 3)

    This book is infuriating. At times, and in certain ways, at least. Or not the book, but some of the characters.

    For example, the parents, especially the dad – are so fucking pathetic it makes me angry. He can’t even boil an egg for his kids' breakfast when his wife’s away.

    And throughout the early part you’re wondering why do they both love Lydia much more than their other two kids? Even before she dies, I mean?

    Oh, yes it’s a dead girl story, did I mention that? Lydia is fridged in the first line, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s totally a fridging, though. That page tells you that the term means killing a female character ‘often as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story arc forward.’ Lydia’s death drives the whole plot, including the actions of her father and brother, so it definitely qualifies.

    Her mother and little sister too, but that doesn’t lessen the truth of it.

    It’s a very good exposition of a family with secrets at its heart. Though in the case of some of the secrets, there’s no very good reason for the person to keep them secret. A lot of problems could have been avoided – including, probably, the death of Lydia – if people had just talked to each other. That’s part of what’s so infuriating about it at times.

    But maybe that – the difficulties people, families, have in communicating – is the point.

    I also wondered why she chose to set it in the time she does. The present day parts are in 1977-8. I think it’s so that she can write about the particular immigrant experience she does: second and third generation Chinese immigrants to the US.

    I picked this up because one of my tutors recommended it to me, due to its use of an omniscient narrator. I’m trying something similar with something I’m working on at the moment. This article in the New York Times practically credits Ng with bringing omniscient narration back into fashion. I don’t feel that it ever really went away, but maybe it has remained more common in SF than in literary fiction. Though as I write that I’m not sure I could cite an example from recent SF either, so maybe I’m wrong.

    Here’s a good article by Ng herself about her decision to use the device. It’s been useful to me, anyway. And I actually enjoyed the book, aside from being annoyed at times.

    Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Books 2021, 2)

    It took me quite a long while to read this. I enjoyed it whenever I read a section, and I read it in large chunks at a time; but between times I wasn’t particularly drawn back to it. I think that’s probably because it doesn’t have any significant plot.

    Instead it’s a series of character explorations, looking at a series of Black women (and a few men) over several decades of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first.

    Each story is compelling and enjoyable, and they’re all interlinked – almost too interlinked at times, you might say, because there’s an element of coincidence. But that doesn’t matter: coincidences happen, after all.

    Perhaps the major downside is that you get interested and invested in a character, and their chapter ends and we move on to another one. So it’s like you’re always starting fresh. Or fresh-ish. That’s probably also part of why I had the experience I described at the start, of not being drawn back to it.

    Because of my course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices writers make. So I was particularly aware of Evaristo’s unconventional choices regarding punctuation and capitalisation. Specifically, she capitalises proper nouns, but no other words. So sentences all start with lower-case letters. And she eschews almost all punctuation. Only the comma, the apostrophe, the question mark, and an occasional exclamation mark, are used.1 {.has-dropcap}

    No full stops means – and I only consciously realised this when looking it over to write this – that every sentence starts a new paragraph, and comprises the whole of the paragraph. Even when a sentence does end with a question mark or exclamation mark, she has it end the paragraph.

    All of which is fine. I found it noticeable, but not distracting. I just wonder what the intended effect is. Some people say they find things like quotes to delineate speech intrusive, and I’ve heard it said that leaving capitals off the start of sentences feels more informal. But I feel generally that most established conventions have good reasons for existing, and that the best approach is to keep to them, unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. I don’t think this novel would in any way be lessened if it were capitalised and punctuated conventionally.

    And then I would be talking more about the content, not the form.

    1. There may be the odd colon or semicolon, but I couldn’t find any on looking it over just now. And there are probably a couple of dashes and brackets. ↩︎

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (Books 2021, 1)

    It looks as if I haven’t read anything yet this year. That’s far from true, of course, but this is the first book-length work I’ve finished. Though that ‘book-length’ is extremely deceptive, as it’s very short.

    I read it for my course – specifically the Creative Nonfiction module that I’m doing this term. It’s a powerful statement about the position of Black people in America in the early 60s, when it was written. Things have sadly not changed much.

    In terms of presentation, it’s a little odd. It’s titled as two letters: one to his nephew, and another ‘from a region in my mind.’ The first is short, and does read as if it were a letter. The second, not so much.

    It’s more of a personal essay, combining memoir and political analysis. It shows a great deal of empathy, both for Black people and the white majority in his country. And it ends with a note of hope, that America can still become the country it claimed to be. I wonder what he’d think of things now.

    Both parts are available at those links, so you don’t even have to buy it if you want to check it out, which you should.