Occasional Readings 27 September

Jon Courtenay Grimwood posted a photo of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalani (Periscope Books, £9.99) on Twitter and in a fit of excitement, I got a copy at Blackwells whilst looking for something else.

The novel tells “Estebanico’s” story, the black slave who was taken on a doomed Spanish journey of conquest in Florida. Splicing his story with the Spanish and his own life pre-being captured as Mustafa, he builds up an uncertain narrative about having his identity refashioned by both himself and his owners, the would-be conquerors.

The wider narrative is uncertain as the world is being made from stories. The Spanish sped across the Atlantic for the fabled cities of gold and the internal political struggle that fuels this as well as the slave trade. Added to this is Mustafa’s recollection of his life and that he is translator and narrator. The narrative is under his control. In this gap in history, his voice is the only one that really matters, the only one with which we might converse.

At first it might be read as a purely a novel about the iniquities of slavery and its barbarism. Lalani deftly unpicks the onion layers of the issue and gets to the fear of the unknown that underlies some of the responses. Yet she shows how little the attitudes change, despite the words, of the Spanish who are less worried about the native people than their social position, whatever they say. Lalani shows the unmoving and unthinking nature of the conqueror.

The novel is certainly timely given the fear engendered in Europe about migration. The subtle narrative of political ear and lack of humanity and the stronger one that we have to listen to all voices in the larger story. By ignoring them, we are committing similar acts now to historical ones and as a set of societies, we cannot afford this to take place. I will be looking for her earlier writing now.

I finally got around to reading David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (Snow Books) which is an enjoyable romp around Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Science Fiction cultures. Barnett provides a light hearted story that wears its scholarship lightly but enjoyably.

The final collection was The Names by Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez (Vertigo). I waited for the graphic novel collection to come out. Using the idea of a unnamed cooperative called the Names, they present a world in which the secret masters cannot control any more. Merging the cyber with the human in terms of language, they create a frightening world which is out of control. It does feel slightly hurried towards the end of the series but I hope that we might see something more in this vein at some point.

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Occasional reading notes 28 Aug

I am having a few days off at the moment and so catching up on some long overdue reading.

I have been able to read The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee (Angry Robot, £8.99). I picked this up browsing in Blackwell a while ago. A mixture of nineteenth century fairy tales and modernism, it tells the stories of three people – Jonathan, Mirror and Goliath – and the way that they respond to life or lack of it.

Ambitiously the book uses both nineteenth and twentieth century narrative structures and typesetting tricks to embed the reader in the world. The novel comes across as whimsical but there is a delicious thread of horror which builds up but does not swamp the rest of the novel. At the end of this novel I was reminded that I should reread the Gail Carriger novels (I have a new series of these to read as well), or perhaps Jesse Bullington’s first novel. Egypt continues to overshadow the weird fantastic.

At the suggestion of a post by Farah Mendlesohn, I read the Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99). I ought to re-read this soon but it is an impressive first novel that crosses UK and Japan. She creates a wonderful historical fantasy with touches of steampunk and conspiracies. I do wonder if there is some Joseph Conrad about the book, crossing cultures and appearing to enjoy itself.

I saw a mention of Genevieve Cogman‘s The Invisible Library (Tor UK, £7.99). Ostensibly about the search for a forbidden book through a multiverse. Superficially this book is about the journey of Irene, a professional spy, and Kai, a “distinctly not what he appears to be” assistant, to find a book for their library employers. It would be easy to ignore Cogan’s musing on the nature of reading, where the reader takes pleasure in crossing through multiverse of the genres and types. Our reading and rereading takes into new place and times, allowing us to search and enjoy the search. Rather than disappear into a pseudo- Umberto Eco or Alberto Manguel reading, I am looking forward to other volumes in this series. There are some ambitious ideas in this novel that are in skeleton form.  I look forward to the stop motion of seeing it animated as I read more.

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Now is the shortlist of our discontent

Adam Roberts has two posts on thoughtful posts on awards on his Sibilant Fricative blog.

Firstly his thoughtful post on this year’s Hugo’s, “Hugos 2015: Delenda est Hugo” considers many angles and puts it into a wider context of self-promotion as well as the use of force within the rules. It follows on in part from Nick Mamatas’s post on the subject.

Secondly and far more positive is his post on the Clarke Award shortlist which has recently been announced. It has reminded me that there are two books on there that I must get. As he points out, there is a fair amount of post-apocalypse in it which perhaps says more about the context than the books.

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The eeriness of the land

Robert Macfarlane, in this week’s Guardian, has published an article on “The eeriness of the English Landscape“. Using MR James as a starting point, he gets into the weirdness of the land and how it fascinates writers.

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A misreading of Fantasy and some thoughts on fairy tales

John Mullan is a writer whom I enjoy reading in the Guardian Books section. He is an astute reader but his piece on fantasy,”George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction“, misses the mark by quite some distance. As well as ignoring women writers, he also ignores the writers who blend in genre with their own writing.

I can vaguely forgive him for not knowing the underrated Aimee Bender but Jonathan  Lethem, Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz? None of these writers are really unknown. Also they are men – which causes me some anxiety. Debut novels from  Anna Smaill, The Chimes, and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship blend in genre without worrying or batting an eyelid.

To be fair, I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant yet but have it on the shelf to read next. I am looking forward to it and also thinking, given the pieces that I have seen so far, about the relationship with Gawain and the Green Knight and also perhaps John Gordon’s work.

It was a frustrating read from someone whom I had a lot of respect for. I wish he had given the respect back to genre fiction and readers in general.

Update: Maureen Kincaid Speller has posted an excellent analysis of the article on her blog, Paper Knife.

On the other hand, Michael Newton, editor of Victorian Fairy Tales, wrote an entertaining piece on Cinderella in film as yet another version comes to entertain us.

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Traversing the scarce universe

Neptune’s Brood, the second of the Saturn’s Children novels by Charles Stross, is nominally a space opera. Set in a post-human universe, AIs have spread across the planets but the costs of doing this are crippling. The worlds are divided into those with slow and fast lives and currency.

Poking holes at the space opera, such as the failings of faster than light drives and the move into the stars, as the realm of the rich and impossible, Stross merrily converses with Clarke and Heinlein’s dreams. Of course, different times call for different dreams.

Post scarcity in a post-financial crash world leads to the less rosy picture of the world. The emptiness of the world is explored and the immorality of the founders who worked out how to manufacture ways of spreading the debt and costs around the wolds in largely invisible fashion. The laws of robotics are gleefully abandoned as the intelligences seek to create their own nests.

I wonder if I would have a different reading if I had read John Lanchester’s Capital and other post crash fiction. At the same time, this is a gleeful conversation with the space opera whilst also trying to see how it might work when the author’s world has changed. It no longer holds entirely true but perhaps Alistair Reynolds saw this in his current series.

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Lost in translation

As far as I remember the novel, which is rusty, the film of Horns is not terribly faithful to the novel and I am not entirely shocked by this. It does make me want to re-read Joe Hill’s novels though. The film echoes the Crow and Stand By Me.

Yet it reminds me of a conversation that was had this morning at Sarah Churchwell’s discussion of F Scott Fitzgerald and her book, Careless People. She talked about the need for a morality in satire and irony for it to work. For her that core is needed  to really make the Great Gatsby work.

A pillar of Hill’s work is the morality play of horror  – the horror of the small town world, be it the US or the UK. The supernatural echoes the secrets of the world around the outsider; even though the outsider is a member of their community. In part the world is fearful of itself and its inability to face up to its demons.

Alexandre Aja tries to get this but becomes lost in the supernatural and special effects, rather than the play being explored. The Gothic becomes lost in the spectacle and perhaps another film was created.

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A flame to a moth

I’ve been meaning to read Rachel Klein‘s The Moth Diaries for some time and, having made the time, I can only wonder why.

In true Nineteenth century style, the novel is told in the form of a diary kept by the narrator. Immediately we know that the narration is fundamentally unreliable as it the memory that it purports to tell us. More subtly it links us to stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and nineteenth century vampire literature whilst also being set in a boarding school.

The narrator becomes obsessed with Lucy and the new girl, Ernessa. Confessional posts would become more nervous and obsessive, the reality portrayed becomes increasingly frayed, hinting at the reason why the narrator is in hospital. It is a subtle book that is going to repay reading and also reading some of the potential source material.

The Gothic comes through the discussion of the madness; it is a safety valve in that respect for one of the taboos for our society. Teen female madness is a particular horror for society and this plays so well on it. It reminds me of the episode in Buffy where where she is in the asylum or perhaps the Bell Jar. We never know the reality but can guess it.

This is one of those books that slipped through my net originally which is frustrating as it is so wonderful and well written. It is a truly strange piece of Gothic fiction.

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Weeknotes: Bodies and texts

Reading this week seems to have followed self-referential texts. There is a sense that this has been done all before and so cleverly all before but these books seem to have the balance.

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Nemo: Roses of Berlin was a racy alternative history set in a 1930s Berlin. As Nemo races through the city, she comes across characters taken from German cinema, such as Maria or Dr Mabeuse. It is less frenetic than the Century books and coming together with an enjoyment that seemed to lack towards the last Century book.

I’ve also been Carey and Gross’s Underwritten: Apocalypse which is coming together really quite neatly with some simple but potent truths about stories and their power. It has moved from pastiching series such as Harry Potter or Narnia into something deeper.

The second book was Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions (Corsair, £8.99).

A final comic series that is intriguing me is Si Spencer’s latest, Bodies published by Vertigo. A time travel murder mystery, Spencer digs into London in a similar way to Iain Sinclair.

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The consolations of literature – The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

The Revolutions, Felix Gilman‘s latest book, reflects the Nineteenth Century novel with a position of respect and love. Like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork century novels or G Dahlquist’s Dream Eaters books, this is a world that immerses itself in its antecedents but is not slavishly bound to them.

In the great storm, Arthur loses his journalistic job whilst at the library. Finding a post as an accountant, he enters the employee of Mr Atwood and becomes embroiled in a strange work. Instructions come in that make little sense, as do the calculations. Meanwhile, he meets Josephine and becomes engaged.

Josephine becomes involved with a group interested in the Occult. During one of the rituals, she is psychically transported to Mars, whilst her body remains earthbound. Arthur takes care of her as Atwood’s Engine is rebuilt.

Gilman revels in the cultural and literary tensions between magic and science that exist in the nineteenth century. Authors such as Bram Stoker explore the boundaries of the belief in magic against the rationality of science in their novels and W B Yeats indulged in the mystical in private. As the century progressed, there was a stronger belief in power of science and its role for improving society, though in a way perhaps in a a way that Fritz Lang might satirise in Metropolis. The lost potential of the Babbage engine powered the Difference Engine and to an extent drives this novel, though perhaps with echoes of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The calculations echo algorithms with Atwood’s Engine being part of the great work of the century.

Against this rationality and move away from religious belief came a belief in the supernatural in terms of ghosts and the powers of the mind. The rise in mentalism and ghosts suggests wider fear of the unknown, the idea that death is not the end. The Revolutions plays this to good effect through the transporting of Josephine between the spheres. The novel’s structure suggests a more Mediaeval view of the heavens as a gateway to and from the divine. As the journey goes through the degrees, they become a little more like the Inferno or the spheres from which one might approach the divine, suggesting that this mindset was still strong in the nineteenth century, driving obsessions

Alongside Atwood’s Engine, other social notables becomes involved in a magical war, part of which manifested itself as the Great Storm. Gilman leaves it as a subtle social comment on the failings of the leadership which writers such as Kipling would begin to indulge in in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill. This extends into the wry humour concerning the conspiracy theories such as the Tibetan masters and Atwood’s needing to be backed by them rather than leading naturally.

Josephine adapts to the new society, learning about their ways. Adapting to Martian culture, she works out how to communicate with them, in strong contrast to Andrew and Atwood. There is a wry humour to Gilman’s portrayal of the men and their colonial approach. Gilman begins approaching the question of the alien and who this might be in an anthropological sense. Blish’s A Case for Conscience explores this, as does Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, with equal critical view but the fact that this question needs to be queried again shows that it is still unresolved, that colonial attitudes still remain to be challenged.

In one sense this review appears to be arguing the nothing changes, that culture has not entirely moved on in many senses. The Revolutions is an exciting read that understands the literary culture that it comes from and builds upon it. As well as containing deep ideas, it rattles along with pace. Gilman’s critical love pulls together many ideas and explores them. It comes across as a love song to an earlier set of fantastic texts, in the same fashion as James Stoddart’s False House and High House books. One gets a sense of a writer having a fair amount of critical fun. He never loses his sense of wonder and enjoyment in reading and writing.

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