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Five Mount Rushmores

Someone did the Mount Rushmore thing on a podcast I was listening to the other day. You know: pick the four people you would install on your own personal Rushmore if you were carving it to recognise importance in X field. I’ve always quite liked it as a parlour game/meme. So, while staring vacantly into space, or whatever other important writerly task I was carrying out the other day, I idly started musing about my own personal Mount Rushmores. Not just people, though. Books, films, etc. Which I know is impractical, given the difficulties and indeed tediousness of carving 60ft book likenesses into a cliff, but hey ho. It’s just a bit of fun.

A bit of fun I spent far more time than is sensible musing about, mind you. Thing is, these are not necessarily my favourite items from each category (though a lot of them are), let alone the ‘best’. They’re the things that came to mind when I thought: ‘You’re going to memoralise this is gargantuan stone effigy, as an exemplar of its kind. What you going to choose?’ That, it turns out, is ever so slightly, subtly different from favourite, best, ultimate, whatever other superlative you care to apply. I don’t quite how or why it’s different, but it is.  It’s got something to do with being representative of the high points in my personal experience of whatever category is under consideration.  I think.  Maybe.

I do know, as is traditional with this kind of thing, that if you asked me again next week, I’d likely have a whole different set of answers.

Mount SF Books Rushmore

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Not sure definining this as sf is really accurate or informative, but let’s call it that for the sake of argument.

Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller.  There’s something about this book – something I can’t quite put my finger on – that’s captivated me ever since I first read it long, long ago.

Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. More than one book, technically. But my games, my rule-bending.  A crazy ride, that maybe tails off a little bit towards the end, but when I first read it it felt entertaining, wild, inventive in a way none of my other sf reading had for some time.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Arguably the first true sf novel. Arguably still the best. Genius. Nuff said.

Mount Books in General Rushmore

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  I do like a bit of old Russian novelising, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re into it doesn’t get much better than this.  (Though let’s be honest, Crime and Punishment is also rather good).

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.  Short, sharp, to-the-point and very nicely written.  Me like.

Frankenstein by you-know-who.  So good it gets onto two Mount Rushmores.  Nuff said.  Again.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  A close call, but this sneaked in ahead of various other possibilities, by virtue of being short, sharp, to-the-point and very nicely written.  Which I’ve heard somewhere before, I think?  But it also has the merit of being self-evidently ‘important’, saying something potentially profound, while being not only enormously accessible and straightforward but also not at all self-important or too-clever-by-half.

Mount Films Rushmore

Seven Samurai.  Beautiful to look at, thematically rich, laden with atmosphere.

The Godfather. Part I or II, as you like; in fact, both together. Let us not speak of anything subsequent to that.

Bladerunner.  As good as SF cinema ever got; at least I can’t think of anything better off the top of my head.  The plot and acting are all fine, but of course it’s the design and mood that really sticks.

The Graduate? Maybe? I dunno. First three came pretty easily, to be honest, but number four’s a bit harder to pin down. I really like The Hustler. Heck, there’re undoubtedly dozens and dozens of films that I like almost as much as, or more than, The Graduate but I’m blanking on them at the moment.  So The Graduate it is.  Nice music.

Mount Countries Rushmore

I’ve no idea why I would want to put countries up on a Mount Rushmore.  It just popped into my head while I was thinking about other stuff.  I’ve no idea what the criteria are: I think it’s just the places that are lodged, affectionately or impressively, in my memory.

Scotland.  Obviously.

United States of America.  I’m a USAphile.

Malaysia.  I like Indonesia too, but Malaysia gets the nod just because I’ve been there more than once.  That whole part of the world is just astonishing, from a culture, energy, culinary, wildlife, etc etc point of view.

Chile.  I’ve only seen a small bit of Chile (apart from the capital), but it was a good bit: the south.  Wild landscapes unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else.  And by all acounts the rest of the country is astonishing too.  I liked it quite a bit.

Mount TV Series Rushmore

The Wire.  No contest.  Best TV series ever made.  I haven’t even seen all of it, and I know that much.  Debate neither necessary nor permitted.

And you know what?  After The Wire, I couldn’t think of a single other series that I’d obviously put up there.  That’s ridiculous, because I’m sure there’ve been other series that I completely adored at the time of watching, but I honestly can’t think of a single one that’s an obvious candidate for sculptural immortality.  I do know none of them are as good as The Wire, though, so I guess it’s OK; my TV Rushmore has but one carving upon it, but it’s a good one …

A mere four days late, it’s time for … Moving Pictures on a Friday, on a Tuesday.  No point in being overly literal about these categories, I say; go with the flow.

A friend of mine was a point of light in this rather crowd-sourced performance, called Speed of Light, during the recent Edinburgh festival.  It’s a fun show, made by the context: a big dark hill, with an illuminated Edinburgh as the backdrop.  Especially cool: the point just over a minute in when fireworks start erupting from the Castle (a fortuitous part of an entirely unrelated show):

And in other news: if, a couple of weeks ago, you had asked me whether I had read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I would have unhesitatingly, confidently said ‘Yes. Liked it quite a bit. Literary fiction with an SF spin. Jolly good.’ Then I saw this trailer, and I was befuddled:

It looks like a pretty interesting, ambitious, thoughtful bit of sf movie-making. And it bears almost no relation to my memories of the book I thought I had read. Now, those memories are decidedly vague, more to do with the overall tone and feel of the book than its details, but even so it’s amazing how little overlap there is between them and the content of the trailer.

What am I to make of this?  Have the film-makers produced what you might call a ‘loose’ adaptation, working some kind of transformation on the source material?  Have the trailer-makers gone nuts and cut together a completely misleading (though really quite interesting) advert for the film?  Or, as seems more likely, is the problem at my end?

I guess it’s possible that I got completely the wrong end of the stick about the book when I read it, and consequently have an accurate memory of a completely inaccurate impression of it.  I don’t think that’s the answer.  It’s also possible I’m an idiot, and have never actually read Cloud Atlas.  Maybe I saw it at the time and thought ‘I really should read that’, and the progressive degradation of my brain has somehow convinced that I did in fact read it, and enjoy it, and formed an opinion about it.  Yikes.  I wish I could be absolutely certain that’s not the answer … but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Most likely, though, seems that I’ve forgotten far more than I would have thought plausible about a book I have indeed read, and enjoyed.  That seems a pity, if true.  Has my head space reached saturation point, where stuff – even stuff that’s worth remembering – is getting squeezed out to make way for new stuff?  It’s not just book-reading, but experience in general: if something has given me pleasure, I want to be able to remember it.  Is an unremembered pleasure worth as much as a remembered one?  Does it even exist, as an experience, if I’ve forgotten or misremembered it?  Memory.  It’s not a simple thing.

Anyway.  Cloud Atlas.  Good book.  I recommend it, to anyone who likes literary fiction with an SF spin.  At least I think I do.  Not really sure.

The Gift Alan Garner Gave Me

I discovered a couple of interesting things from a recent episode of the often interesting Coode Street Podcast.  Both of those things relate to one man; a man of some significance in my childhood.  Alan Garner.  The wonderful Alan Garner, I’m tempted to say.

A step back.  Four authors – setting aside Tolkein for now, who rather goes without saying  – four authors whose  fantastical works made a lasting impression on me as a young child: Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, C S Lewis, and Alan Garner.  All of them hitting some sort of sweet spot in my open, pliable child’s mind; immersing me utterly in their magical worlds.  Setting me on a path, perhaps, that I’ve never strayed too far from as the (too many!) years have passed.

Of those four, Cooper and Garner probably left the most indelible imaginative mark upon me.  I remember vividly not so much every detail of their books – it’s many, many years since I read them, after all – but the experience of reading them.  It was a powerful, transporting, absorbing experience of the sort that becomes progressively rarer, at least as far as reading is concerned, as we age.  Those two in particular, I think, because the fantasies they wove were located and entirely, richly rooted in the landscapes and myths of the land I was growing up in.

I don’t know, because I don’t really read them, but I wonder if the children’s and YA fantasies of today encourage children to see the world around them – not an imagined, impossible world, but the one right there, outside their window – with new eyes, to think about it in new ways, to populate it, in their own imaginations, with stories of wonder, of possibility, of magic.  To look outward, and deeper; see, with the mind’s eye, beneath the surface.  As Alan Garner did for me, way back then.

I wouldn’t have articulated or understood it this way at the time, but he was one of the first to introduce me to the idea that the world in which I lived could be seen as the abode of myth and magic, of deep story and deep time.  That is a gift worth the giving.

He gave it to me most potently in the form of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.  The latter is a direct sequel to the former, but to the young me seemed decidedly, and interestingly, darker and more menacing.  Together, they must be amongst the most important and influential children’s fantasies ever written; they’re certainly amongst the best, if you ask me.  Then, when I was a only a little older, he showed subtler, more troublingly real kinds of magic and myth to me, in The Owl Service and Red Shift, which I guess nowadays would be called YA, but are perfectly suitable for not-so-young adults too.

All of which is by way of explaining why I found the two things I heard interesting.

First up, Alan Garner is getting a 2012 Life Achievement World Fantasy Award.  Seems like an eminently good idea to me.

Second up, and this surprised me a good deal more: a third and final book in the (as it turns out) trilogy started with Weirdstone of Brisingamen is being published in just a month or so.  It’s called Boneland.  Wow.  Its two predecessors were published over forty years ago!  I’m utterly fascinated, because I find it difficult to imagine him writing in quite the same style and voice, or with quite the same sensibility, after so many years and in such a changed world.  But who knows?

Either way, it might make now a good time to give a gift to any children you know, as Alan Garner – and my parents, who no doubt bought me the book – did for me all those years ago.  Let them try The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  You never know, it might change their minds.  In a good way.

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As previously noted, I’ve developed a minor fixation with finding interesting, good value stuff lurking in the recesses of the Kindle store since I acquired the e-reading habit.

Here’s an update on recent discoveries.  As before, these are treasures found in the UK Kindle store, which may or may not be similarly keenly-priced in the US (but probably are, I’d guess).

Having read and enjoyed Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, I grabbed his Hardwired for a fairly modest £3.25.  It’s a cyberpunkish novel from 1986, and it’s good fun.  Didn’t wow me quite as much as Aristoi, but well worth the read.  The basic set-up, of a rather anarchic, balkanised Earth left behind by the all-powerful corporations who have relocated into orbit, is very strong, and a lot of the action sequences are done well.  Recommended.

Shadow Unit (currently a mere £0.72 for the first volume, rising to less than £2 for subsequent instalments) is utterly fascinating, and something that could only really be done through digital publishing, I suspect.  A team of authors, led by Emma Bull and in the first volume including Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, got together to produce tales of an elite team of FBI detectives who work on paranormal cases.  It’s a deliberate, meticulous attempt to reproduce the effect of a TV series in prose, and I was downright startled by how successful it is in that.  It borrows its structure and tropes straight from serialised crime drama, and is so absurdly perfect in mimicing the tone and feel that it’s almost disorientating.  Very, very clever.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online short story magazine, and probably my favourite source of podcast fantasy fiction.  Although the stories are enormously varied, it’s got a definite house style: high quality prose telling tales that are set in imaginary worlds and have definite beginning, middle and ends.  No ‘mood’ or snapshot pieces, on the whole; just well-told, imaginative stories in which stuff happens.  So although I haven’t read them all, I feel pretty confident in predicting that The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One, which contains fourteen stories for just £1.53, will be a safe purchase offering excellent value.

Leaving speculative fiction behind, here’s an example of the kind of thing I would never have stumbled across but for the advent of e-reading. Crossfire: An Australian Reconnaissance Unit in Vietnam is currently priced at £1.79, and worth checking out for anyone interested in getting another, subtly different angle on that whole messy war.  It’s main focus is on the experiences of a young man who had the misfortune to spend a lot of time, along with a small, tight-knit group of colleagues, doing advance reconnaissance in southern Vietnam.  The writing is competent, if unremarkable, and there’s not much that’s really revelatory, but it’s quite effective in conveying the day-to-day horrors and tedium of that kind of combat.  I was particularly struck by the horrific effect, both phsycial and psychological, of the ubiquitous mines and booby traps, which was eerily reminiscent of more recent and equally messy conflicts.

And finally, a freebie.  For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you can get South, the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica, written by the man himself.  Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say things go fairly spectacularly wrong for the expedition, and it becomes a tale of understated but nonetheless astonishing endurance and survival.  Adventuring and heroism from a bygone age.

 

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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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I’ll have more to say at some point about the bargains (real and illusory) available in ebook world, now that I’ve had some time to poke around in the unregulated, mapless swamp that is the Kindle Store.  But to jump the gun, I’ve just finished (re-)reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which cost me all of nothing.

This is a book that comes with a certain vague nostalgia attached for me.  I read it, and I think perhaps saw the not very good 1960 movie adaptation, at a young and impressionable age (certainly long before the cultural zeitgeist had a chance to teach me that Sherlock Holmes was Doyle’s only consequential creation).

The impression it made on impressionable me back then was of vivid adventure; so much so that I’ve got a feeling – impossible to absolutely confirm, given my hazy memory – that I produced my own fanfic set on the dinosaur-infested plateau.  Possibly even illustrated, since I didn’t realise until I was into my teens that the kindest thing I could for the world was to refrain from inflicting my art upon it.

Anyway, what did I make of The Lost World now that I’m a jaded, cyncial grown-up?  I had quite a bit of fun, that’s what.

Like a lot of old novels – this one appeared in 1912, I believe – it’s almost comically out of synch with what we’d call good prose writing these days.  It takes a ludicrous number of pages to get our heroes out of London, let alone up onto the famed plateau, and once there the narrative suddenly becomes frantic, cramming plot developments in one on top of another with relatively little regard for their plausibility.

The sexual, racial and environmental assumptions underlying the text are … not exactly attuned to mainstream 21st century thinking, to say the least.  (I found it oddly entertaining, as something of a conservationist by education and background, the way exploration and research in the novel – and at the time of its writing – revolve principally around shooting everything.  It’s a real taste of a different kind of lost world, and one that has an element of appeal in its certainties and privileges and ambitions.).  One of the central threads of the plot even sees our heroes participating enthusiastically in what might nowadays be seen as at best environmental sin of the highest order, and at worst something approximating to geoncide.

The science of the whole thing is utterly implausible in modern terms, unsurprisingly.  I imagine it seemed a good deal more believeable to its contemporary audience, and the lengthy scene-setting and character introductions at the start of the book were presumably intended to root the thing in the real world, and thereby render the speculations to come even more credible.  That said, the plot has plenty of hand-waving, and if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ask questions, most of them will be of the ‘… huh?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ variety.

For all these potential barriers to enjoyment that the modern reader faces, though, The Lost World has plenty going for it.  Parts are really quite well and evocatively written; certainly better than Doyle’s early Holmes stories imho.

Professor Challenger, whose titanic, hubristic vision is the driving force behind the plot, is a wonderful creation.  Bombastic, rude, self-absorbed and arguably sociopathic; he’s great fun, and Doyle knows it.  I’d entirely forgotten quite how consistent, funny and thorough his writing of Challenger is.  Personally, I could have done with rather more Challenger stories and rather fewer Holmes, but that’s just me.

I had also forgotten that it’s a kind of epistolatory novel, the entire tale told through letters/article submitted by a journalist to his editor.  It may be entirely coincidental, but given that Frankenstein‘s got major epistolatory elements, and Dracula‘s epistolatory through and through, I wonder if these early writers of spec fic were deliberately using the form to enhance the illusion of reality in their tales.  Perhaps in the 19th and early 20th century ‘documents’ – letters, article, reports, whatever – were more likely to be unconsciously interpreted by the reader as having some kind of intrinsic authority, which they lent to the fantastical events being narrated.  Now, we live in an age of uncertainty and doubt, and are programmed to take nothing at face value.

Above all, I was sucked in by the sheer bravado and ambition of Doyle’s imagination.  At a time long before speculative fiction was the culturally ubiquitous commercial juggernaut of today, here he is spinning a wild tale of adventurers and dinosaurs and apemen in the Amazon; conjuring up visions that must have seemed truly extraordinary to his first readers, and still have the power to excite.

As I said, I don’t think the 1960 film version of The Lost World has very much to offer the modern viewer.  (An aside: whatever our misgivings about CG effects in movies, and I have a few, we should all rejoice unconditionally in the knowledge that the age of adorning real lizards with spurious horns and frills and filming them in close up to pretend that they’re dinosaurs is gone forever.  There can have been few more aesthetically disastrous and reptile-demeaning dead-ends in the evolution of sf cinema.).

So here, instead, is the 1925 silent version in its entirety.  Yes, book to big screen adaptation in just 13 years; even back then, the Hollywood blockbuster machine liked its ideas second-hand.

Like the novel, it takes quite a while to get going, but the dinosaur model animations are terrific, given that it was done almost 90 years ago, and the cast all look just right for their parts and for the time.  It also, arguably, has a better ending than the novel, and one that perfectly prefigures – and to some extent probably directly inspired – the modern obsession with monster-initiated urban destruction on the silver screen.

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Old Apocalypses

Post-apocalyptic fiction is pretty popular these days, especially in its flesh-eating zombie variant, but – for no other reason than that my eye noticed a book on my shelves the other day – I’ve recently been thinking idly about a couple of older novels of the world gone to ruin.  They’re interestingly different from, and similar to, each other and their modern counterparts.

These were both pretty famous in their day (late 40s for Earth Abides, late 50s for On The Beach), and I guess still are, to a rather more modest extent.  It’s a while since I read them, but both are pretty firmly lodged in my memory; the tone and feel of them is, at least, if not every detail of the plots.  They have more memorable ‘voices’ than a great many books.

Those voices, it’s got to be said, comes across as pretty dated these days, both in language and attitudes.  In one way they’re quite modern, mind you: in neither of these books is there a great deal of optimism.  Earth Abides is a good deal less bleak than On The Beach, but even so it’s – in one sense – a story of failure.  Its hero wants to preserve or restore the norms of the civilized world, despite most of its inhabitants having succumbed to a plague.  He fails (not really a spoiler, since it says as much in the back cover blurb of my copy), but does so nobly, and with dignity.  The book closes with one of my favourite endings in all of science fiction: an elegy for the lost human civilization, as the natural world and the planet itself continue.  Really, really good stuff.

On The Beach is a slightly different kettle of fish.  It was written a decade later, by which time the threat of nuclear war was pretty much the only kind of apocalypse on anyone’s mind.  Its end of the world is about as complete as you can get: a vast radioactive cloud, the result of global war, spreading gradually across the planet and killing everyone.  Absolutely everyone.  No brave bands of survivors holed up here or there.  Everyone who’s not already dead is going to be, before long.

The last bastion of human life is in Australia, but the cloud is slowly coming closer and there’s no escape.  No hope of last-minute salvation.  If this book was being written nowadays, chaos would no doubt ensue.  There’d be a complete breakdown of law and order, a wanton free-for-all.  But in On The Beach, virtually everybody behaves really quite extraordinarily well.  They mostly continue, in stiff-upper-lip 50s style, to lead ordered, restrained lives.  Remarkably little really happens in the book.  There’s a submarine voyage to look for signs of life in the northern hemisphere, but that’s about it in terms of what you might call ‘action’.  Most of the novel’s about people quietly preparing themselves for the inevitable end; not just their own, but that of life itself.

That quiet, subdued tone of voice makes the few moments that really bring home the horror and desperation of the survivors’ plight all the more striking.  There’s a very good scene where everyone decamps to a racing circuit for a final festival of motor sports, acting almost as if it was just a normal track day in a normal world.  Except the drivers throw all caution to the wind, and practially invite their own fiery deaths.  Because why not?  They’re all going to die soon anyway.

What struck me, thinking about these books, is that they do something no modern post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read does (and I should stipulate here that I’m by no means an expert of the sub-genre.  I haven’t even read The Road, because … well, to be honest, I’m not sure I can handle quite that level of bleak these days).  Neither Earth Abides nor On The Beach is exactly what you’d call an exciting read, although Earth Abides has its moments.  Both of them are based on assumptions about human behaviour and the nature of apocalypses that seem a little implausible to the modern reader, and both are a bit old-fashioned in their writing style.

But if you can get past all that (not necessarily easy, I’m the first to admit), and let yourself go along with them, they do this thing that in my experience not a lot of modern sf novels do.  They move you.  No cheap emotional twists or contrived conflicts, no wanton torture of characters to induce the reader’s pity.  Not that much grand drama of any sort.  They just, in their quiet, persistent ways, move you.  That’s a very powerful and – if you’re anything like me – pretty rare thing for a book to do.

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I am a naughty, naughty reader.  Even knowing that, these days, it takes me a looong time to reach the end of a novel, I’m apparently incapable of resisting the urge to have more than one book on the go at any given time.  Sometimes three or four, in fact.  As a result, books often languish for months on my bedside table, silently bemoaning their misfortune of having fallen into the hands of such a reckless reader.

Still, perhaps a couple of them might be comforted if I go public with my affection for them.  (And to be fair, I didn’t actually start reading them until December, so I’m not in exactly flagrant breach of article 3.2 of the Responsible Reader’s Code: Timely Completion of Books Once Begun).  As I’ve not finished either of them, it’s possible they’ll go horribly wrong in their latter stages, but I think it’s unlikely.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding is the kind of book I find myself more and more drawn to as I get older, and ever poorer in available time.  It’s energetic, entertaining stuff that carries you along very comfortably at a decent pace.  A sort of blend of fantasy, steampunkish sf and pirate romp, it’s got a  faintly indiosycrantic vibe to it that makes it almost, but not quite, like stuff you’ve read before (as did the other Wooding book I read and enjoyed, The Fade).  Airships, golems, daemons, guns and swords abound in this tale of piracy gone wrong and brigands on the run.  The characters flirt with being unsympathetically selfish and hard-nosed, but so far Wooding’s kept them just on the right side of that line, for me at least.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald hardly needs me to trumpet its worth, since it’s been praised hither and yon from the moment of its publication.  But I’m going to do it anyway, because when he’s firing on all cylinders – as he seems to be here, so far – I find Ian McDonald to be a quite extraordinarily good writer.

On a word to word, sentence to sentence, scene to scene basis he’s just brilliant.  If anyone wants to know what science fiction looks like when it’s produced by someone who absolutely knows and understands the genre, but also has a mastery of written English to match almost any author of literary fiction, this is it.  I’ve always believed that you might be able to teach someone to write fiction competently, but you can never instil in someone an instinctive ear for the intricate ebb and flow of prose, and the rhythms of description.  An author’s either got that somewhere inside them or they haven’t, and McDonald’s got it in spades.

Near-future Istanbul is the setting for this multi-viewpoint exploration of nanotechnology, urban history, terrorism and old mysticism.  On balance, I think it’s the best stuff I’ve ever read from McDonald, and that’s saying a whole lot.

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Don’t know quite what got me started thinking about this the other day, but it struck me there’s a difference between books I really, really like and those I kind of wish I’d written. It’s difficult to pin down the exact nature of that difference. Despite the misleading title to this post, I don’t 100% literally mean that I wish I had written another author’s book; it’s more that there are certain books that leave me profoundly envious of some aspect or aspects of the author’s craft, art, vision or whatever, and make me imagine how immensely satisfying it would be to emulate their achievement in my own (different) way and voice.

For whatever reason, plenty of excellent books don’t elicit quite that response. My reaction to the vast majority of the books I enjoy is simply that: I enjoy them, and admire the writer’s talent, but don’t get that odd little twinge of aspirational envy. I’m not quite sure exactly how this works, but I think it’s down to specificity. There needs to be some very particular, distinctive element of a book that dazzles me in some way before I’ll get that ‘man, I wish I’d achieved/thought of that’ response. The presence or absence of that response doesn’t make me like a book any more or less, it’s just a subtly different mental reaction to the text. I’m a big fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books, for example, but not in a ‘wish I’d written that’ sense.  (Though I’d be pretty pleased with myself if I had written them …)

Anyway, I was gazing at my bookshelves, and one or two examples of this odd little phenomenom caught my eye.  Books I kind of, but not really, wish I’d written:

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.  For it’s adeptly handled density, visionary sense of an interconnected world and stupendously brilliant title.  Honestly, I’d be satisfied with just coming up with a title for a book as awesomely intriguing, clever and fitting as that.  That the enormous tome backing up that title is every bit as intriguing and clever is very cool.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.  A clear case of writerly envy, this.  The central concept underlying this book, and all its sequels, is one I’ve always found dazzling in its simplicity and elegance: a wood that is larger on the inside than the outside, and has the power to give physical form to the mythic archetypes lurking in the subconscious of all those who enter it.  I would like to have an idea as good and rich in potential as that, please.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  An historical crime novel that’s about books, religious philosophy, medieval history and a whole lot more.  To make such an intricately put together intellectual puzzle read like a thriller is a work of something close to genius, I reckon.  Any writer with a grain of sense’d be pretty happy to hit such a pinnacle just once in their career.

Regeneration by Pat Barker.  It’s a long time since I read this, but it’s stayed with me as one of my very favourite examples of ‘literary’ fiction.  It’s about young men suffering from shell shock during the First World War, and is good in all sorts of ways, but what impressed me most about it at the time I read it, and still lingers in my mind, is the straightforward clarity with which it is written.  The prose is not at all fancy or convoluted, yet it conveys very powerfully complex emotions and themes.  Very clever.

Thought I’d resurrect an old tradition around here – not that something that’s only happened once before, long ago, really qualifies as a tradition – and provide a randomish smorgasbord of odds and ends to mark the festive season.  So, without further ado:

For Movie Fans (and Superhero Fans), the trailer for one of the latest in the apparently endless sequence of movies based on comic books.  Thor, which I confidently predict will be the highest grossing superhero-fantasy-Norse mythology mash-up of 2011:

Considerably more promising than I thought it might be when I first heard it was in the pipeline, but I’m saying that from a position of low, low expectations. Vastly more promising, in my humble yet obviously expert opinion, than the other big budget superhero trailer doing the rounds at the moment: Green Lantern.  Still, trailers are only trailers; who knows how the final products will measure up.

For Book Fans, and in a somewhat self-serving spirit entirely out of tune with the season, my author copies of the Subterranean Press Speculative Horizons anthology edited by Patrick St-Denis turned up the other day, and things of compact but considerable beauty they are too.

The limited edition signed copies are very pleasing, with a whole page of signatures bound into the book.  Enough to make a chap giddy, to be keeping such august authorial company:

Available from the Subterranean Press website (where those nifty limited editions reside), or from the usual online venues, should anyone fancy a post-Xmas treat.

For Podcast Fans, I offer a couple of the more unusual items from the long list of stuff I’m subscribed to, in case there’s someone out there who shares my peculiar combination of interests.

The Norman Centuries.  An excellent, straightforward narrative history of the Normans.  For fans of medieval history, this is rich pickings.  Most folk – round here anyway – know the Normans as the conquerors of England, but less generally known is their habit of conquering all sorts of other folks, wherever they went: the French, the Italians, the Byzantines, the Sicilian Muslims.  Just about everyone they came across, really.

The Ink Panthers Show.  Exactly the kind of thing, in many ways, podcasting was invented for.  Two guys, with occasional semi-random guests, talk to each other about … well, about almost anything they feel like talking about, really.  They’re both comics creators, so that comes up now and again, but a lot of it is just about what’s going on in their lives and families.  I find them pretty personable, articulate and funny.  Once – if – you get on their wavelength, it’s a pleasant listen.  It’s mostly quite family-friendly, but sometimes strays into slightly more adult or non-PC areas, so consider yourself so advised.

For Fans of Ye Olde Classical Music … well, this (in case any overseas visitors don’t know, by the way, the chap introducing things is Matt Lucas, one of the current movers and shakers of British comedy):

You can only wonder what the neighbours thought …

And, come to think of it, I’m going to repost the musical clip from that long ago first iteration of the Christmas Miscellany, just because I still think, as I did then, that it’s one of the nicer sounds on the web and sounds to me suitably restful, reflective and contented for the holiday season.  How’s that for keeping a tradition going?

And For Everyone Else: well, just my best wishes for the festive season, however you choose to spend it, or celebrate it, or ignore it.  I’ll be back and blogging once the inevitable gluttony-induced lethargy and inertia wear off.  Happy Christmas!

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