books 2021

    Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod (Books 2021, 28)

    Ken posted about this on his blog, along with a link to the first chapter on the publisher’s site. I read the chapter and instantly ordered the book from my local bookshop. Finished it on New Year’s Day, so it counts as 2021.

    He describes it as ‘the first volume of the Lightspeed Trilogy’, and adds that ‘the second volume is well underway.’ Which is fine, but I usually make it a rule not to start unfinished serieses. So not so much a rule as a preference, let’s say.

    This particular book ends in a way that is satisfactorily complete, but open enough for the followups to go in all sorts of directions. Plenty of unanswered questions, but none so burning that the wait should be annoying.

    It’s set in 2070, after that initial chapter which is three years earlier. Humanity is about to develop lightspeed travel. Or it already has. What intelligences will be waiting out there? Some people think the answer is ‘none’, because of the Fermi Paradox.

    The political situation is interesting. The countries of the world have largely coalesced into three blocks: the Alliance, which is the Anglosphere minus Scotland and Ireland, but including India; the Union, which is most of Europe including Scotland and Ireland; and the Coordinated States, which is Russia and China. We don’t hear anything about Africa or the Middle East. There has been (or is ongoing) an event called the Cold Revolution.

    Also artificial intelligences are commonplace, including androids that are essentially indistinguishable from humans.

    And if you need to build a starship, obviously you’re going to add the FTL drive to a submarine. And where do you build such ships? On the Clyde, of course. A lot of this is set in places from my childhood, which is fun for me.

    Planetfall by Emma Newman (Books 2021, 27)

    This is a novel about a human colony on an unnamed planet. There are, as we soon learn from the first-person narrator, Renata, lies and mysteries at the heart of the colony. Not least of those is how and why the humans came to live on this particular planet, in this particular place.

    The place is at the foot of a mountain-like, biological, probably engineered structure they call the ‘City of God’. Twenty years ago — or more: the colony has existed for twenty years, but it’s not clear how long the journey through space took — a small group of humans managed to get there in a spaceship. They were led by ‘The Pathfinder’, a woman who, we discover through flashbacks, knew what planet to head for because of a revelation she had had after ingesting the seed of a mysterious plant.

    The intrigue of the novel is about how that backstory and the rest is filled in, how the colony keeps going, and what happens in the ‘now’ of the story, when a mysterious human arrives.

    How they designed and built a ship capable of getting there is not explained, and how far away from Earth it is is never stated. But I don’t think Newman really understands the scales applicable to astronomical distances. On several occasions characters refer to having travelled (or in flashback, being about to travel) ‘millions of miles’ to get to the new planet.

    Our sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. If we’re talking about distances that are sensibly expressed in terms of millions of miles, then we’re talking about places inside our own solar system. And this is definitely not that.

    Just to check, I asked Siri how far in miles it is to Alpha Centauri. It looked up Wolfram Alpha and told me, ‘About 25.8 trillion miles.’ That’s the closest star system to our own. It’s not wrong to call that ‘millions of miles’, but it’s not exactly accurate. A trillion, after all, is a million million. And that’s just the closest system.

    It doesn’t affect the story, but it’s a weird thing for an SF writer to have missed, for no beta reader to have picked up, for an editor working at an SF publisher not to have caught.

    Other than that, she does a great job of telling a first-person narrative from the point of view of someone who has some mental issues. All narrators are unreliable, and perhaps this one more so than usual. So we wonder how much we can rely on her telling of what happens, especially at the end.

    There’s a religious background to this: the Pathfinder believed — and convinced those who came with her — that they would find God in the mysterious ‘city’. Did they? Maybe, maybe not.

    It’s part of a four-book series, which apparently can be read in any order. The next one (in terms of when they were written) looks like it takes place back on Earth, so we may learn nothing more about what happened in the colony, which was cut off from home.

    Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots (Books 2021, 26)

    The title comes from ‘henchman’ — or -woman. We are in a world where superheroes exist, and thereby, also super villains. Anna Tromedlov works as a ‘hench’ — or tries to. As the novel starts she’s using a temp agency, trying to pick up work.

    At first it seems to be a comedy, but then she’s at a press conference given by the villain she’s working for, when the heroes arrive. Things get a lot darker.

    Are superheroes, with their disregard for public safety, the real danger in a world like this? This novel takes a good look at that question, with accompanying adventure, threat, and romance.

    It’s good. Cory Doctorow recommended it.

    If she didn’t start out planning to call herself ‘The Palindrome’, would you ever think to read her surname backwards?

    Comet Weather by Liz Williams (Books 2021, 25)

    An enjoyable present-day story of magic in Somerset and London. Mostly the country, with Glastonbury and Avebury and such places featuring in passing.

    Four adult sisters are making their different ways in the world, but their mother disappeared a year ago. Ghosts and the spirits of stars sometimes wander the family home, where one of the sisters still lives, and the others come and go. A comet is due in the sky soon, and magic threats appear to be building.

    Magic realism, you could call it, in the sense that it’s set in the real worlds and magic is just there, for this family and a few other people at least. Everyday problems of relationships and such are part of it. The boyfriend of one of the sisters is a ghost.

    I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel, which is out. My main problem with it was that the four sisters' voices weren’t distinctive enough. The story is told from their multiple viewpoints. This is helpful to me, because it’s something I’m struggling with myself. Indeed, my supervisor suggested that maybe I shouldn’t have so many viewpoints.

    Three. I have three. Hands up who thinks that’s too many?

    The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones (Books 2021, 24)

    I read this because I happened on an article about it on ‘Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time of the Ghost Breaks All the Rules of How To Write a Book’, by Emily Tesh. Let’s ignore the incorrect possessive apostrophe in the title1; it was the assertion about it breaking all the rules that drew me, made me want to read the article. A few paragraphs in I realised that I wanted to read the book, and the article was heading deep into spoiler territory. So I stopped reading it and downloaded the book. Read it as soon as I finished the last one.

    It’s the story of four neglected sisters, whose parents run a boys' boarding school and have no time for anything else, including their daughters; and of a ghost that is haunting them, and who might be one of them. And of an ancient darkness that the sisters accidentally invoked.

    But the real darkness is the neglect.

    Highly recommended, and the article I linked above is very good and insightful (but deeply spoilerific) too.

    1. Jones is not plural, so it should be Jones’s. ↩︎

    The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren (Books 2021, 23)

    Dan Moren writes about Apple stuff over at Six Colours, and at Macworld and so on, but he’s also an SF writer. This is his first novel, and there are already a couple of sequels. The series is described as ‘The Galactic Cold War,’ and that’s a pretty good description.

    There are several planets, linked by wormholes. From what I can tell, they’re all originally Earth colonies, but there is at least one empire and one commonwealth, and Earth itself has been conquered by the empire. No aliens, at least so far.

    It’s pretty good, in an ‘SF meets cold-war thriller’ kind of way. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but a set of characters I wouldn’t mind spending more time with, and an intersting situation.

    What struck me, as a Scot, was the ‘Caledonian’ part. Moren is American, but he spent some time in Scotland. Caledonia is the name of one of the colony planets – predictably, the one where most of the action happens. Part of its capital city is called Leith. Just down the coast there’s Berwick.1 Various other towns or areas have names drawn from Scotland. It has moons called Skye and Aran. A group of terrorists or freedom fighters are called the Black Watch – though slightly oddly their leader is called De Valera.

    Worth a read.

    1. Berwick is not actually in Scotland, though it has been at various times in history. North Berwick is in Scotland. ↩︎

    Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (Books 2021, 22)

    Talk about not remembering books: I’ve got to ask myself whether I ever did read this one. I remembered one thing from it, but it’s not how I remembered it. When people jack in to the matrix they use headsets – ‘trodes’ – with electrodes that connect to their temples.

    There is a transition between the real world and cyberspace when they connect, and I had this memory of one cowboy (people who enter the matrix or cyberspace are called ‘cowboys’ or ‘jockeys’) who had a set of trodes that made the transition feel like the world was falling apart. I’ve been half waiting for that bit through these three books. Here’s a quote:


    ‘Yes,’ she said, and Tick’s room was gone, its walls a flutter of cards, tumbling and receding, against the bright grid, the towering forms of data.

    ‘Nice transition, that,’ she heard him say. ‘Built into the trodes, that is. But of drama…’

    So that must be the bit I remembered, but if you had asked me I’d have said I thought it came a book or two earlier, and was mentioned more than once.

    But what of the book itself? It keeps up the standard, maybe raises it slightly. We have four interconnected stories, four viewpoint characters, told in alternating chapters. One of the stories – that of Kumiko, who is experiencing the flutter of cards, above – isn’t really relevant, in the sense that it doesn’t drive the plot at all. Things that happen around her do affect the main plot, but she’s not really aware of them.

    What surprised me about this and the three books overall, is how much they really are a trilogy. I had the impression that they were considered only to be very loosely connected at best; essentially three stories set in the same milieu. But in fact not only do characters recur, everything here ties back to the events of Neuromancer, which happened some fourteen years before.

    All very worth reading if you haven’t already.

    Count Zero by William Gibson (Books 2021, 21)

    The only thing I remembered about this was its opening line, which is nowhere near as memorable as that of its predecessor.

    It’s also not as good as Neuromancer, by a long shot. Difficult second album syndrome, I’d imagine. It came out a year or two later. It’s not actively bad, don’t get me wrong. But it just doesn’t have the spark, it never quite catches fire, you know?

    Still, plenty of gritty Sprawl-drama, and the obligatory trip to a space station.

    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.

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