Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins

Cover of Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
303 pages
published in 2013

Despite buying more books than’s probably good for me, I still keep a library membership and thanks to that I still end up finding science fiction or fantasy writers and books I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Case in point: Peter Higgins Wolfhound Century, which I saw lying on the pile of new fiction books near the entrance and whose cover drew my attention. Reading the back cover blurb and the first few pages was enough to take a punt on it. They confirmed what the cover artwork seemed to suggest, that this was a fantasy novel inspired by Soviet Russia, not a setting you see much in fantasy.

The protagonist, investigator Vissation Lom, is the classic honest cop in a totalitarian system and his honesty has of course made him enemies. Nevertheless he’s one of the best investigators in Vlast, which is why he has been summoned to the capital Mirgorod by the head of the secret police. He is to stop and catch Josef Kantor, a terrorist protected by powerful forces from within the Vlast security apparatus itself. Without ties to any of the political factions in the capital or the security services, Lom is hoped to have a better chance at getting Kantor.

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Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Reaper Man

Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
287 pages
published in 1991

Even before rereading the day after pTerry’s death, Reaper Man was mired in grieving for me. Because I reread it in 2012, the year after Sandra’s death, when I had fallen back on Pratchett’s Discworld series as comfort reading, something to lose yourself in and forget for a while. And then I hit Reaper Man, in which DEATH has been retired by the Auditors for having become too human, has to find a new living as BILL DOOR and a fragile, predoomed romance starts between him and Miss Flitworth, the never married widow he ends up working as a farmhand for. It’s a novel about death and life and humanity and the essence of it is captured by what DEATH argues at the climax of it:


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Books read February

A slightly disappointing total of seven books read this month, down from eleven last month. Partially this is because I started a short SF marathon over at my booklog, which I hope to finish on Sunday. At least it’s up from last year, when I only finished two books.

A History of Future Cities — Daniel Brook
Looks at the development and history of four “artificial” cities and the role they played in the development of their respective countries: Saint Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai.

The Myth of the Strong Leader — Archie Brown
A synthetic history book that takes aim at the desire for strong leaders, both in democracies and autocratic systems.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet — Becky Chambers
Self published, old school adventure science fiction about a crew of wormhole punchers who get involved in something way above their pay grade…

Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer
Brilliant first entry in a science fiction trilogy all published last year. It reminded me of Roadside Picnic though VanderMeer said to me he hadn’t read that before writing this.

The March North — Graydon Saunders
Graydon is an old acquaintance from rec.arts.sf.* known for his smart but sometimes slightly gnomic posts, this is his first published fantasy, somewhat less gnomic but still smart.

My Real Children — Jo Walton
An alternate history domestic novel that almost made it on my Hugo ballot.

Sarah Canary — Karen Joy Fowler
I asked Twitter to choose me a book to read and this is what it came up with, Karen Joy Fowler’s debut novel, science fiction in name only about a mysterious woman stumbling into a Chinese railway workers camp one day in 1873. If you put your SF hat on, it’s a First Contact novel, but it’s easy to read it as “just” a story about the mythology of the west, feminism and racism too.

Short SF Marathon Week 3

Richly late, halfway through week 4, but here are the short stories reviewed in week 3 of my Short SF Marathon:

  • Day 15: Yoon Ha Lee, Rose Lemberg
  • Day 16: Kelly Link, Ken Liu
  • Day 17: Carmen Maria Machado, Usman T. Malik
  • Day 18: Usman T. Malik,Tim Maughan, Sandra McDonald
  • Day 19: Sam J. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Sunny Moraine
  • Day 20: Sunny Moraine, John P. Murphy, Anna Noyes
  • Day 21: An Owomoyela, Susan Palwick, K. J. Parker

Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer

Cover of Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer
208 pages
published in 2014

Last year Jeff VanderMeer (or rather his publisher) did something rarely done, releasing an entire trilogy in one year. Annihilation is the first of this Southern Reach trilogy and has gotten steady buzz as one of the shoe-ins for Hugo and Nebula nominations; it already managed the latter, in fact. VanderMeer is arguably the father of the American New Weird, that mid-noughties movement that came bubbling up from England and got codified across the pond, mainly through his and Ann VanderMeer’s contributions. I’ve only read one story of his before this, the deliberately confusing The Situation.

Annihilation is a much more straightforward story, of a four woman expedition into Area X, as told by the biologist through her field journal; the other three members are the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. Their names are never told: “names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X”. They’re the twelfth such expedition into the Area; the previous eleven all came to grief one way or another. What they’re setting out to discover is left vague; they themselves only know in general terms what they’re doing or what they can expect, though the psychologist seems to know more than she lets show.

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Books read January

That’s the first month of 2015 done and dusted. Eleven books read, ten more reviewed over at the booklog. Which puts me on track for reading a hundred plus books this year, which would be nice. Four fantasy novels, three science fiction, two history books and one disappointing book on steampunk.

A Natural History of Dragons — Marie Brennan
The first in a series about a natural explorer obsessed by dragons in a mock-Georgian fantasy world. Excellently done.

Half Life — SL Huang
The sequel to Zero Sum Game, in which math savant Cas Russell learns how to fake friendship like a normal human being.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting — Vijay Prashad
Excellent overview of the history of intersectionality between the South Asian and Black experiences, largely in the context of US history.

A Wizard Abroad — Diane Duane
The YA wizards series goes to Ireland, the country its author also moved to. Coincidence? Luckily not at all as Oirish as you may expect from an American author dabbling in Celtic myths.

The Golem and the Djinni — Helene Wecker
At the American Book Center they compared this to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and I can see why. They share the same sensibility and willingness to let the story breathe.

The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe — Adriaan Verhulst
A bit of a misnomer as it only looks at roughly fifteen cities in the southern Netherlands between the Somme and the Meuse. Somewhat more worthy than I’d expected.

Steampunk — Paul Roland
A disappointing overview of the steampunk subculture.

Pandora’s Planet — Christopher Anvil
Light hearted semi-libertarian fun about humans outsmarting alien invaders — written from the point of view of the invaders.

The Lion Game — James H. Schmitz
Fifteen year old psionic wonderkind Telzey Amberdon outsmarts a hidden invasion of the Hub. Fun adventure science fiction.

Spies of the Balkans — Alan Furst
Another of Furst’s usually quite depressing spy thrillers set just before and during World War II, this one has what you might call a happy ending.

Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins
Epic fantasy set in a sort of steampunk fantasy Soviet Russia.

Steampunk — Paul Roland

Cover of Steampunk

Paul Roland
191 pages including index
published in 2014

If I felt more nasty Reginald Pikedevant’s excellent cri de coeur against steampunk fakery would be my whole review. I spotted Steampunk: Back to the Future with the New Victorians in the library among the new books and thought “great, just the sort of field guide I need to come to grips with this newfangled steampunk nonsense”. Sadly though this turned out to be just a shallow cash in which told me little I didn’t know written in an irritating manner that had my hackles up halfway through the first chapter.

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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.

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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.

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Monument — Lloyd Biggle

Cover of 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.

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