The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood
308 pages
published in 1985

About a decade ago, when promoting her book Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said some dumb things while distancing it and herself from science fiction, insising it was “speculative fiction” (ironically a term invented by that most hardcore of sf writers, Robert Heinlein when he tried to make sf respectable half a century before Atwood) and being dismissive about “talking squid in space”. Science fiction fandom has a long history for (imagined) sleights and while Atwood has long since walked back her remarks, sf fans tend to still be a bit grumpy about it. Yet Atwood does have a point that she isn’t writing for science fiction readers and therefore her books shouldn’t be judged by science fiction standards.

Which is fair enough. If you read the Handmaid’s Tale it soon becomes clear that though it is science fiction, it’s science fiction in the dystopian tradition of Orwell and Huxley rather than in the tradition of e.g. Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, another story of religious oppression in a future America. That has flying cars and blaster guns and other sfnal paraphernalia though no space squid, while Atwood’s story is set in what are still recognisable eighties suburbs.

Read more

The Blue Place — Nicola Griffith

Cover of The Blue Place


The Blue Place
Nicola Griffith
308 pages
published in 1998

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been as frustrated with the ending to a novel as I am with The Blue Place. I had seen it building up from at least halfway through the story, hoping that its seeming inevitable conclusion would be subverted at the last minute, the same way Nicola Griffith did earlier in the novel, with another plot point that seemed to descent into hardboiled cliché until it didn’t. But the ending wasn’t subverted, was hardboiled cliché, did upset me and yet fitted perfectly with what is an incredibly smart, engaging novel by a writer who has never gone for the easy route in her stories. So what’s going here? To try and find out will take some effort and certainly some spoilers.

Let’s start with Nicola Griffith herself first. Yorkshire born, she moved to Seattle to live with her wife, the writer Kelley Eskridge. Her first fiction was published in the late eighties, her first novel in 1993. So far she’s written six novels, of which I have now read half. As you may have guessed, The Blue Place is a hardboiled detective novel, her third, the first two being Ammonite and Slow River, both science fiction. she would go on to write two sequels to the The Blue Place, while her latest novel, Hild, is a historical novel about 7th century CE saint Hilda. So far all her novels have had lesbian protagonists and The Blue Place is no exception.

Read more

Monument — Lloyd Biggle

Cover of Monument


Monument
Lloyd Biggle
173 pages
published in 1974

It’s been a while since I’d read any of Lloyd Biggle’s novels; the last one had been The World Menders back in 2007. I’ve always liked his writing, quietly liberal and anti-colonialist in a way that few other science fiction authors of his generation were. His belief in the idea that “democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” seemed especially apt during the darkest days of War Against Terror triumphalism. He is however, not a writer much read these days, having done the bulk of his writing in the sixties and seventies. He died relatively recently, in 2002, after a long illnes, having written only some six novels since the seventies.

Science fiction is often an imperialist, colonialist genre, in which it’s taken as natural or even desirable for there to be a galactic imperium to which newly discovered worlds should be gently or firmly — depending on the author’s preference — be persuaded to join. Sometimes this is dressed up as the need to avoid interstellar wars and even in stories with a Galactic Federation rather than an empire the need for newly discovered worlds to be assimilated is rarely questioned. Not so with Lloyd Biggle; several of his books question this mentality and Monument is one of them. Taken its lead from what was happening in e.g. Polynesia at the time, it’s an sfnal attack on ill considered economic development imposed from the outside.

Read more

Books read December

Ten books read in December brings the total for 2014 up to eightyeight in total, six up from 2013. I’d hoped to have more of an end spurt, but a short illness put paid to that. 2014 has been the most unbalanced reading year since I started keeping count in 2001: seventyfour fiction books, of which fortysix science fiction and twentysix fantasy, against only fourteen non-fiction.

There are a couple of reasons for this of course. Because I went to Worldcon this year I got to read the Hugo Voters Package, meaning July and August were spent reading through that, while I also got interested in Dutch language science fiction again, reading a lot more Dutch sf than I had in a long time. Nevertheless I want to read more non-fiction this year.

Genderwise I’m still trying to fix the balance in my reading, having calculated back in 2010 that less than ten percent of the books I read had been written by women. So of the fortysix science fiction books, thirtyone were by female writers as were eighteen of the twentysix fantasy books. Since the only crime novels I read were by Nicola Griffith, the total for my fiction reading was fiftyone books by female versus twentythree books by male writers. Non-fiction on the other hand was male dominated: four women versus ten men. Something to pay attention to this year.

Though to be honest I’m less bothered by this, then I am with keeping my science fiction and fantasy more balanced and diverse; those are the genres I like the best and read the most of. What I like to do in 2015 is to keep reading more books by women, but also start reading more stories by authors from outside the UK or US. There’s a wide world of fantasy and science fiction outside these two countries and I want to know more about it.

In any case the last books I read in 2014 were the following:

The Violent Century — Lavie Tidhard
What if, only a few years before WWII, one particular quantum physics experiment creates a probability wave that gives some people superpowers?

The Dark Colony — Richard Penn
A self published, hard science fiction police procedural set on an asteroid belt colony.

De Scrypturist — Paul Evanby
A great steampunkesque Dutch fantasy story by what I suspect is one of Holland’s best sf&f writers.

The Nemesis from Terra — Leigh Brackett
Another of Brackett’s tightly plotted Mars adventures.

Meeting the Sculptur — Floris M. Kleijne
A clever little time travel story.

The Martian — Andy Weir
One of the sleeper hits of the year, this hard science fiction novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars and how he’s saved through ingenuity, can do spirit and NASA led teamwork.

Falling Free — Lois McMaster Bujold
The last novel in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga I hadn’t read yet, set 200 years before the main series and showing how the Quaddies got their freedom in a sort of eighties update of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The Story of the Stone — Barry Hughart
The second in Hughart’s series of fantasies set in mystical China and the only one I hadn’t read yet.

High Wizardry — Diane Duane
The third in the Young Wizards series: great YA fantasy adventure.

Monument — Lloyd Biggle Jr
A classic anti-colonialist science fiction story.

Furies — Lauro Martines

Cover of Furies


Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700
Lauro Martines
320 pages, including index
published in 2013

A lot of history books about war and warfare, even when they look at the impact war had on wider society, on the civilians and soldiers caught up in it, are remarkably clinical and dry about the violence it brings with it. Not so Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700. Before it’s good and well started, you get the first grizly massacre to process, no horrid detail spared, all the better to prepare you for the rest of the book. This is not an easy read, not your average military history wankfest, this is a book with a message and that message is that war in Early Modern/Renaissance Europe was hell, a total war where nobody cared if you lived or died.

That period from roughly 1450 to 1700 was one in which a military revolution took place, with Europe emerging from feudalism and war as a noble pursuit for knights and aristocrats giving way to mass warfare by any means necessary. It was a revolution brought about through the introduction of gundpower weapons making possible new ways of making war, as well as the growing strength of the emerging European nation-states. Add to that increasing religious schism and you have a recipe for warfare on an apocalyptic scale and Martines is not afraid to show what that meant on the ground, for the people caught up in the war.

Read more

Books read November

Nine books read this month, which began strongly but petered out a bit as a couple of tough books slowed me down.

Schitterende Wereld — Mel Hartman
A disappointing collection of sf short stories based on an interesting concept: twelve stories based on the work of six world famous scientists.

Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch
Fourth in a series about a hapless London police officer being caught up in its magical underworld.

Styx — Bavo Dhooge
A bent cop in Oostende returns from the death as a zombie to bring a serial killer to justice

Ter Ziele — Esther Scherpenisse
Sometimes Death has pity for a dying person and brings them to its palace….

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
A decent introduction to the history of the Vandals, one of the few such actually available in English.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Lois McMaster Bujold
The latest so far in the Vorkosigan saga, now starring Miles cousin, that idiot Ivan.

Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 — Lauro Martines
A distressing look at warfare in Early Modern Europe.

Who Fears Death — Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s first adult novel, a harrowing coming of age tale & quest story.

Het Laatste Verhaal — Guido Eekhaut
In the near future republic of Flanders, two street outcasts team up with a Japanese woman from an alternate world who has a sword that can cut through time and space…

The Dark Colony — Richard Penn

Cover of The Dark Colony


The Dark Colony
Richard Penn
327 pages
published in 2014

James Nicoll is a longtime science fan active on Usenet and Livejournal, who has been working as an internal reviewer for various publishers. As that work started to dry up earlier this year, he started doing sponsored reviews, where people (but not authors) can buy reviews of books they’re interested in, suspect James would like, or at least would have an enjoyable reaction to. I’ve known James for a long time and he’s one of the people I absolutely trust their taste in books of, so I pay attention when he says something he’s worth reading. Which is exactly what he did with Richard Penn’s The Dark Colony and since it was cheap on *m*z*n, I bought it.

Now there was a risk with this. At times James’ fondness for exactly the kind of setting The Dark Colony provides — near future, the real Solar System, no magical rocket propulsion to let people pootle around it in hours or even days, no cheating — can blind him to some of the other qualities (or lack thereof) of a book. Fortunately however, in this case, the book’s appeal exists beyond its setting. Basically, this is a police procedural: it starts with the discovery of a body floating around in the the giant free fall hangar of Terpsichore Station. What’s remarkable is that it’s the body of a stranger to the Terpsichore colony, which only has a few hundred people living in the station and the asteroid itself. It’s up to constable Lisa Johansen to find out where the stranger comes from and in the process she finds herself unravelling a huge conspiracy in the heart of her community and beyond. Yes, this is not just a police procedural, it’s a gloomy Scandinavian one…

Read more

Blind book dates at ABC

window dressing for the ABC blind book date

So yesterday I went to the Blind Book Date at the American Book Center. This was an idea that their sf book buyer Tiemen Zwaan had come up with, an extension of his own experiments in selling books wrapped in brown paper with only crypic clues to reveal their identity. Now it was our turn to both baffle our fellow readers and crack their own codes. It made me realise one thing: I’m woefully under read.

I’d expected only sf or fantasy books would be represented, but in fact there was a wide spread of books, both fiction and non-fiction being offered by the 17-18 or so participants. Some of the clues were obvious, some obvious with hindsight, some had me racking my brains trying to remember what book this had to be, while some were brilliant but impossible to guess, like the book shown above. The woman who brought the book on the left had actually hidden her clues in the wrapping paper itself. Clever but perhaps too clever and it was only because somebody else brought the same book with more conventional clues, that people were able to guess which book it was…

As for my book, the clues I brought were:

  • Secret History
  • Kim Philby
  • Cold War Magic
  • Mount Ararat

Can you tell what book it is?

Incidently, the smartypants at Making Light have been hosting their own blind book date party, not just writing cryptic clues, but writing them in the style of a different author, which is far too clever by half.

Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch

Cover of Broken Homes


Broken Homes
Ben Aaronovitch
357 pages
published in 2013

Peter Grant was a normal copper until he noticed he could talk to dead people in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Now he’s part of the Folly, the Metropolitian Police’s special unit for magic, which apart from him consists of one elderly but backwards aging survivor of the glory days of British wizardry before the war, as well as his colleague Lesley May, Toby the dog and Molly, the folly’s housekeeper of indefinitive species, currently experimenting with cooking from one of Jamie Oliver’s recipe books, to mixed results.

Broken Homes is the fourth novel in the Rivers of London series. There has been a mini boom in London based fantasy these past few years and Aaronovitch isn’t the only one either who has his protagonist working for the Met. There’s a sort of inevitability about the idea. London with its long history and dominant presence in the psyche of not just Britain, but arguably the world, just fits as a nexus of magic in a way that say Amsterdam wouldn’t. Of course the Met would have its own magical police force, some hangover from Victorian times, staffed with aging public schoolboys, into which the thoroughly modern London figure of police constable Peter Grant fits awkwardly. That tension between the gentlemanly tradition of magic and modern policing is part of the charm of the series.

Read more

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Cover of A History of the Vandals


A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012

Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.

This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Read more