February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.

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“A kind of visionary energy”

“Self-censorship is central. Writers are avoiding difficulty in the structure or surface, difficulty in the science (when there is any); they’re avoiding political or philosophical positions which might offend, characters whose strengths or eccentricities might prevent reader-identification & stories which go against the broad grain of audience expectation & preference. The reasons for it are obvious, commercial & long term; but, since the 80s, turbo-publishing has turned timidity into a technical discipline–part of the “craft” of being a writer. The result is a novel without a meaning &–worse–without the pulp vigour of genre. For me these are the real losses SF has suffered: the loss of connection to the world, the loss of something to say about it & the loss of drive & energy to make the point in cascades of live imagery. I’ve had a problematic relationship with genre all my writing life, but at its best it has a kind of visionary energy–open, untutored, uncluttered by the need to be literary or to conform to the commentariat consensus of its day. It’s a kind of trash collider where half-digested science can be smashed together with metaphysics & politics in search of exotic states–demotic ontologies and epistemologies–showers of gorgeous if shortlived intellectual & emotional sparks. I could probably name a score of authors who do that, or try to, every time they write; but against their efforts have to be balanced thousands of LFTB happymeals a year.”

– M. John Harrison, “Pink Slime Fiction” (in the comments)

Quote #14

nova-swing“This used to be her profession. A sun-diver like the Saucy Sal was more mathematics than substance. It didn’t really know what to be, and without an active pilot interface would revert instantly to a slurry of nanotech and smart carbon components, a few collapsing magnetic fields. It was in the class of emergent artefacts, a neurosis with an engine. You don’t so much fly your hyperdip as nurse it through a programme of dynamic self-reinvention.”

– M. John Harrison, Nova Swing

Book Order from the UK

I had a £30 credit on Amazon UK that needed to be used by December, so I picked up a few books to clear it out. I wish I’d waited a week in order to get Iain M. Banks collection State of the Art, which as I mentioned in my review of The Player of Games is hard to find in the US (even used editions are expensive) but is just another retail book in the UK.

Aside from that, though, it’s a good little haul:

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I enjoyed M. John Harrison’s Light enough that I was eager to try one of his few (maybe his only?) mainstream novels, Climbers. Should be interesting — I know very little about climbing, though I often leaf through my prized edition of Alan Blackshaw’s Penguin Handbook Mountaineering. (The only 60s Penguin Handbook that could possibly match it is the long-coveted-by-me Gardening for Australians).

alnblckshwSheri Tepper’s Grass, unlike the other two, is available in a US edition. But I wanted to pick up the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition from the UK. The SF Masterworks series is one of publishing’s noble endeavors right now (or endeavours, since we’re being all British) and they deserve your patronage! I’ve been intrigued by Grass for a while now — it gets a lot of comparisons to Dune, but without the bloat that encroached on Dune later on. I’m assuming it’s about a planet of post-apocalyptic potheads but don’t spoil it for me if I’m wrong (also please don’t disillusion me about PKD’s Galactic Pot-Healer).

State of Emergency is part of Dominic Sandbrook’s history of 20th-century Britain. This one covers 1970-1974; last year I read and really enjoyed White Heat, which covers 1964-1970, so it seemed like the logical next one to read in the series.

Not sure when I’ll get to any of these, considering my backlog of library books, but hopefully it’ll be soon.

Scuzzily Stylistic

light-m-john-harrison-paperback-cover-artM. John Harrison’s 2002 SF novel Light follows three main characters, one in 1999 and two in 2400: the modern-day quantum physicist Michael Kearney, haunted by a mysterious entity called the Shrander that can only be held at bay by murder; Chinese Ed, a 25th-century down-and-out pilot addicted to virtual reality; and Seria Mau, a woman who has a touchy symbiotic existence as/with the space vessel the White Cat.

On the novel’s Amazon detail page, you’ll find a whole slew of one-star customer reviews complaining that the author tosses around a lot of unfamiliar terms and concepts without much explanation. This is undeniably true:

Seria Mau had the data piped into her tank in the form of a signature diagram and studied them. What she saw was limited by the White Cat’s ability to represent ten spatial dimensions as four: an irradiated-looking grey space, near the center of which you could see, knotted together, some worms of spectral yellow light, constantly shifting, pulsing, bifurcating and changing colour. Various grids could be laid over this model, to represent different regimes and analyses.

But a paragraph like this is less half-assed info dump than evocative impressionism. For a reader willing to dwell in uncertainties and to trust a writer’s intentions (and if you’re not willing, why are you reading novels?) the passage shouldn’t be particularly traumatizing. Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s going on, you can see that he’s trying to convey the sense of a suite of complicated technologies that can do complicated things.

The complaint ultimately seems to be that he doesn’t engage in enough worldbuilding. Harrison has famously stated his opposition to the dense, detail-heavy worldbuilding in SFF, calling it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”, and he has made eloquent pleas for its demise. But it’s indisputably the ruling dogma among SFF fandom right now, and a writer spits in its face at his own reputation’s peril.

Aside from that, though, a passage like this sounds right. Why would you want the concepts he alludes to vivisected for your understanding, even if they could be? I don’t want to know what he means by “regimes” any more than I need explained to me the intricacies of a sentence like: “Somewhere off in its parallel mazes, the Beowulf system began modelling the decoherence-free subspace — the Kielpinski space — of an ion-pair.” This is meant to be the bleeding edge of applied physics. Ignoring the question of whether it’s actual real-world science, it would be dispiriting if it was something that could easily be broken down for the layman, and it would work against the book. Technology in SF should always have a bit of bullshit built in — though Harrison isn’t necessarily a proponent of hard science fiction either:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything. If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with — if you had to catch a wave — that didn’t preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing the same tranche of empty space. It was even possible to build drives on the basis of superstring-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago, had never really worked at all.

This is almost a cheerful two-finger salute to the hard SF movement (another very vocal subset of fandom) and it made me laugh out loud. Fiction can do this, man, he seems to be buoyantly declaring. A novel is not a textbook.

The colon in that passage’s first sentence, used where a semicolon or dash would conventionally be, is pure Martin Amis. There’s a fair sprinking of Amis here, and William Gibson is obviously a huge influence as well: we get a lot of brittle-yet-tough characters and dialogue, as well as a distinctly scuzzy, down-at-heel aura — for instance, when Chinese Ed comforts an apparently dying female rickshaw driver who suddenly comes back to life:

“You were dead,” Ed whispered.

She shrugged. “Too much speed. I can fix that with more speed. You wanna go somewhere?”

Ed got up and backed away.

“No thanks.”

“Hey, climb in, man. It’s free. You got a ride.” She looked up at the stars, then slowly around at the waste ground, as if she wasn’t sure how she came to be there. “I owe you, I can’t remember why.”

This is a rare sentimental scene in the novel — really, almost an iconic narrative sentimental moment, ministrations to a dying lost cause. It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray’s character tending to the old homeless man in Groundhog Day, or e.e. cummings’s poem “a man who had fallen among thieves”:

Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

And there really is a lot of puke in this book. Nearly every chapter has someone throwing up from emotion, or G-induced nausea, or just to punctuate a particularly dry passage. The novel starts to feel like a sort of sequel to Viriconium, Harrison’s earlier classic of the genre: Vomitorium. Possibly it’s intended as an internal echo across characters and settings, like the shred of tobacco various characters remove from their lips — but it seems more like a cheap and unnecessary effect to both heighten the emotional import of a scene and emphasize the incessant scuzziness of the milieu.

The Gibson influence really is a bit of a shame — the style and settings start to feel awfully derivative and “post-cyberpunk” early in the proceedings. But Harrison has literary chops without a doubt. His dialogue, when it’s not influenced by Gibson’s noirish pasticherie, is allusive without being willfully gnomic, especially in the modern day scenes with the quantum researcher/serial killer Michael Kearney and his ex-wife Anna. And almost every paragraph holds a striking metaphor or image:

He saw himself driving through the heartlands trying to read a Triple A map in the dark; or staring out of a train window like someone in a Richard Ford story, someone whose life has long ago pivoted onto its bad side and is being held down by its own weight.

Or:

Fierce annular shockwaves in no detectable medium were spilling back along the White Cat’s course. They were the colour of mercury. A moment or two later she reached the point where Einstein’s universe would no longer put up with her, and vanished.

Despite some painfully familiar SF tropes (the advanced tech left behind by a long-dead alien intelligence, as well as a few other tropes the listing of which would spoil the book’s ending) and a somewhat derivative narrative texture, Harrison’s filigree prose style and literary sensibility come together to make Light a very enjoyable read.

Stray observations:

  • The Shrander feels very, very similar to the Shrike from Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (at least to someone who only read the first twenty pages of Hyperion before getting a dodgy feeling and turning to the last page to confirm that that instinct was sound).
  • Presumably it’s intentional, but Harrison misspells Alcubierre as Alcubiere.
  • There’s an interesting continuity error where Valentine Sprake’s sister first has “olive skin”, then later “very white skin”.
  • Proteome might now be my favorite word, to the point where I would rename this blog with some sort of variation on it if I weren’t so lazy. I get the feeling it’s also one of Harrison’s favorite words, along with actinic, protino, and throw up.
  • The serial killer angle ultimately feels very sensationalistic and unnecessary — Kearney never really explains why he believes it will stop the Shrander, and the Shrander seems baffled by it as well.