Through the Dark Labyrinth|
[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in
[ << Previous 20 ]
[ << Previous 20 ]
|Sunday, May 1st, 2011|
Another month when I managed to read more than usual, not sure how I'm managing to keep up with all this.
#22: The Philosophical Breakfast Club
by Laura J. Snyder, which I wrote about at Big Other
#23: Hull Zero Three
by Greg Bear, a very familiar sort of hard sf, there isn't an incident that you won't recognise from somewhere else, but quite nicely done in its way.
#24: Among Others
by Jo Walton, reviewed for SF Site
#25: Sleight of Hand
by Peter S. Beagle, also reviewed for SF Site.
#26: Anatomy of Criticism
by Northrop Frye, read in conjunction with the discussion currently taking place at PaperKnife, so far here
by China Miéville, reviewed for Interzone.
#28: A Study in Scarlet
by Arthur Conan Doyle. It's years since I read any Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I'd start with the great man's first appearance in this short novel, novella really, though it actually gives us no more of Holmes than we find in many of the short stories, and the structure of the novel is, to say the least, awkward, with the long interlude in Utah stuck clumsily in the middle.
by Tim Powers, an overlong, over-fussy book. Powers is blatantly doing a Le Carre (he steals Le Carre's reference to Moscow Central, every other spy writer I know, and all the non-fiction (including Philby's My Secret War
, which I first read many years ago) refers rather to Dzerzhinsky Street, and most of the tradecraft is also taken directly from Le Carre's books), but unlike Le Carre, the line of story is not clear and straightforward. If he cut out about 200 pages and at least two of the plot strands, this would be a much better novel.
|Saturday, April 23rd, 2011|
|BSFA Non-Fiction Award
I mean, without wanting to sound big-headed, I'm sort of used to being shortlisted. But I always convince myself that I'm not going to win.
Now I have, and I honestly don't know how to respond. I feel weird, a strange mixture of elation and deflation, I am ecstatically happy and I want to burst into tears at the same time. Now I know why you get those rambling speeches at the Oscars, because you can't really process how this feels.
Thank you to everyone who voted, regardless of whether you voted for me. And very many congratulations to the other winners, especially Ian McDonald.
|Friday, April 1st, 2011|
Another month when I seemed to get through more books than usual. A fair bit for review this month as well.
#15 Betrayed by Rita Hayworth
by Manuel Puig – which prompted this post
at Big Other.
by Joe Haldeman – a perfectly competent piece of heartland sf that reads like a good writer who can't really be bothered to come up with anything fresh any more.
by Gregory Feeley – this, on the other hand, is pretty well assured of a place on my books of the year list. Three essays and three short stories that circle a theme from a pretty obscure Greek Myth; the stories are good but the essays are stunning. I'm reviewing this for the online journal Requited.
#18 This Shared Dream
by Kathleen Ann Goonan – the sequel to In War Times
, which I'm reviewing for The New York Review of Science Fiction.
#19 Carmen Dog
by Carol Emshwiller – a glorious surreal fable that I'm reviewing for Strange Horizons.
#20 Camera Lucida
by Roland Barthes – there was an article about this book in the Guardian last weekend which made it sound interesting, and I remembered we actually had a copy on our shelves. It is interesting, but in a curious way. The first part is a fascinating meditation on photography that partly inspired this post
at Big Other; the second part revolves around the death of his mother and is, frankly, bonkers. But I'm glad I read it.
#21 The Immortalization Commission
by John Gray – another interesting but bonkers book. Gray looks at ways the scientific community got involved in ideas about life after death. The first part of the book deals with the Society for Psychical Research in late Victorian and Edwardian England, and in particular exercises in automatic writing. There is a large cast of Victorian intellectuals, including eminent scientists and a prime minister (Balfour), though the cast isn't really all that large since there seems to have been intermarriage and other family ties between the members of the group. The second part looks at Soviet science in the early years of the new regime, in particular focussing upon the embalming of Lenin which seemed to reflect a genuine belief that he might at some point be restored to life, and upon the curious figure of Moura Budberg who was at the same time the mistress of Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells and also, by various accounts, a KGB agent. It's a broken-backed book, the two halves never really cohere, and also Gray doesn't seem at all clear what sort of book he is writing, at times journalism, popular biography, general political and scientific history, and fairly heavyweight philosophical argument (far and away the best part of the book). For all that, it is a book that always holds the interest, and there are some fascinating arguments about the relationship between science and religion, and about the nature of belief, that are casually dropped in along the way.
|Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011|
|Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011|
Back to a more usual reading rate this last month, but I still managed the following:
#10 The Anatomy of Utopia
by Karoly Pinter, reviewed at SF Site
#11 The Restoration Game
by Ken MacLeod, a novel that has one tremendous coup de theatre that comes about three quarters of the way through the novel. But this should have been the start of the story, and MacLeod uses it to close the story off. Up to this point it has been a fairly routine tale of an ordinary person getting caught up in dirty intelligence work. Disappointing.
#12 All the Lives he Led
by Frederik Pohl, another disappointment, this one reviewed for Strange Horizons.
#13 Life on Mars
edited by Jonathan Strahan, a YA anthology that I'm reviewing for Bull Spec.
#14 New Model Army
by Adam Roberts. I think I've finally worked out how to read Roberts's fiction. I still think there are fatal flaws in this story (not least the overblown and rather incoherent ending) but the whole thing worked far better than anything else of his I've read.
|Saturday, February 12th, 2011|
I am currently reading what may be the most depressing book I have read for a long time, The Thirties
by Juliet Gardiner. Depressing not because of what is in there, though the stories about the effects of unemployment and poor housing and so forth are just terrible. No, this is depressing because I could be reading about the present.
It's all in there: Conservatives convinced that anyone claiming unemployment benefit is a cheat, the belief that dole is an easy option, how cuts were presented as necessary to the economy as a whole even though they disproportionally affected the poor, and so on.
I've just come across a line about how the Conservative government believed that the private sector would be eager to take on without a subsidy what the public sector had been unable to achieve with a subsidy. And I thought, 80 years on and they haven't learned a bloody thing!
|Friday, February 11th, 2011|
|Saturday, February 5th, 2011|
|Save Our Libraries
I can't remember the first time I used a library, but I was little and it was housed in a very big very old very ornate building in the middle of my home town, and there were a few years back then when I have more memories of time in the library than of just about anything else. I exhausted the children's library in, it now seems, seconds flat, and got permission to use the adult section. Heaven knows what I discovered there, but I read a lot, at a rate I can only look back on with envy. Was it six books a week we were allowed to borrow? Whatever, I used the allowance to the full.
When I first moved to Folkestone I also used the library a lot, particularly when I was freelancing and I seemed to camp out in the reference section. Then I became a bloated capitalist or something, or at any rate I came to own a large proportion of the books I need to specialise in. At the same time the library became rather more (and rather less) than a place for books. Maureen and I were in the local library just the other week, and you really have to search to find any books (though it still seems to be heavily used).
Nevertheless I believe passionately that libraries are an essential part of the cultural life of any community. That everyone needs and deserves to have ready access to books.
Unfortunately, our government does not feel the same. In fact, our government appears to have no time for cultural life, period! They have tripled university fees for students. They have scrapped all funding for university arts and humanities courses. They have slashed arts funding. And their cuts to local governments mean that libraries across the country will close.
Today is Save Our Libraries Day
, part of a campaign to reverse those cuts or at least force local government to think again. In the war against the philistinism of this government, it is a battle we must win.
Throughout this post I put some of the brilliant posters that Phil Bradley has devised to support this campaign. There are more here
|Tuesday, February 1st, 2011|
No, this is not a post about Egypt, however much I'd like to devote all my attention to what's happening there, but I've nothing further to add and all I can do is direct everyone to Al Jazeera, which is clearly providing the best coverage.
In the meantime, let's just look back at what I've read this past month, which turns out to be an astounding nine books. I can't remember when I last read nine books in a month. And these included several rather big books that seriously engaged my attention.
Anyway, they number:
#1: Angelica Lost and Found
by Russell Hoban, which I wrote about here
#2: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu, one of the most intellectually exciting and engaging novels I’ve read in a long time. If you haven’t yet read it, go away and do so now. Science Fiction often works by rather obvious metaphors, but in this novel you can read it as either one very cleverly sustained metaphor, or you can read the events as real, and the book works equally well both ways. In fact the ability to switch mentally back and forth between a real and a metaphorical reading of the book is one of its great delights.
#3: Elegy for April
by Benjamin Black, which prompted this post
#4: Sunset Park
by Paul Auster, which I wrote about here
#5: What Ever Happened to Modernism?
by Gabriel Josipovici, which prompted two posts, here
#6: State of Emergency
by Dominic Sandbrook, the third of his massive histories covering Britain from the mid-50s. This volume is devoted to the Heath government, 1970-74, and he seems rather more prepared to give Heath the benefit of the doubt than most other commentators I've read. Not so long ago I read Andy Beckett's book on the same period, but while Beckett was better at the set-pieces, I got far more sense of context from Sandbrook. Perhaps because Beckett's book was primarily a work of journalism, Sandbrook's clearly a work of history. It's curious, during the years in question I was at university in Northern Ireland and remember the time vividly; Sandbrook was only conceived during the blackouts of 1974. For me this is contemporary, for Sandbrook it is history; a strange feeling.
by David Karp, reviewed for SF Site.
by Tom McCarthy, which I wrote about as part of the Big Other's book club here
by Greg Egan. I always feel with Egan that the surface is glittering and intricate and brilliant, but I can never feel my way to any depth below the surface. This is sentimental, in a way that made me feel manipulated, but everything is foreordained, moves along precisely laid out lines and never achieves anything that might pass for dramatic surprise. I must also say that, for a novel set in Teheran, I felt far less sense of place than I did, for instance, with Istanbul in The Dervish House
|Saturday, January 1st, 2011|
|Wednesday, December 29th, 2010|
|Review of 2010: Writing
Over the course of the year I wrote something in excess of 63,000 words of essays and reviews. Since that total doesn't include the things I've written here and at Big Other, or other things I've been working on but haven't completed, the full total is probably closer to 85,000 words. Not bad when you consider I have a full time job and spend five hours a day commuting.
So, where has all that writing gone? In the course of the year I've had:
13 reviews at SF Site (with 2 as yet awaiting publication)
9 reviews at Strange Horizons (1 awaiting publication)
4 reviews + 1 interview in Interzone (1 awaiting publication)
3 reviews in Science Fiction Studies (1 awaiting publication)
2 reviews in Vector (1 awaiting publication)
2 reviews in New York Review of Science Fiction (1 awaiting publication)
1 review in Bull Spec (2 awaiting publication)
1 review in Foundation (1 awaiting publication)
1 review in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (1 awaiting publication)
1 review + 1 essay in World Literature Today
In addition I've completed pieces for one book, and there are two other books in which I have contributions, one at least is due to see publication during 2011. Oh, and I've just submitted the first of a new column for Vector. If I keep up this sort of rate, I could have an entire book's-worth of material every two or three years.
|Tuesday, December 28th, 2010|
Over the last couple of years my interest in post-war British history has become almost an obsession. But the more I read, the more I'm struck by one curious but little-mentioned thing: how alike party leaders tend to be.
Take Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, leaders of their parties from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Both were grammar school boys (unusual in British politics at that time) who did extraordinarily well at university. Both saw themselves as technocrats and modernisers. In private they agreed on a number of issues (such as joining Europe) that put them at odds with their own parties. In fact, they probably had more differences with the party they led than with each other.
Then there was Margaret Thatcher, who dominated British politics throughout the 80s. Labour tried and failed repeatedly to find a leader who could take her on, and only succeeded (several years after she herself had been ousted from power) when they elected a leader who was as close as it was possible to get to Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair echoed her in speech mannerisms, in style, in reliance on conviction, and indeed on many of his policies.
And now, as party leaders grow more and more alike, we have David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband. Tell me honestly, can anyone distinguish any difference between the three of them, they are identikit politicians with identical backgrounds, identical educations, identical experience, identical approaches.
(Oh, there were the inbetween prime ministers, Jim Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown, each of whom assumed the premiership in mid-term without an election, each of whom was elevated on the basis that they would cause the least friction within their own party, and each of whom has pretty much faded from view in comparison to the more dominant personalities who bracketted them.)
If party politics is structurally adversarial, what does it say about the system that the leaders become so convergent?
|Wednesday, December 1st, 2010|
I don't think I listed the books I'd been reading in October, so this is actually the product of two months.
#60 Sacred Space
by Douglas E. Cowan, reviewed for Bull Spec. A study of the idea of transcendence in science fiction (mostly sf film and television, though there is a very interesting discussion of the different approaches to religion in the novel and film versions of The War of the Worlds
). There's good stuff in here, but I was distinctly inclined to argue with it on a lot of points.
by Gary K. Wolfe, reviewed for SF Site. Another collection of his Locus reviews, which is really all you need to know.
#62 The Infinity Box
by Kate Wilhelm, re-read for an essay I'm planning to write. I wrote about my response to the book at Big Other
#63 Four Quartets
by T.S. Eliot, another re-read, and again I wrote about it at Big Other.
#64 Defined by a Hollow
by Darko Suvin, reviewed for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. A collection of essays. I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the broad sweep of what he says, but disagree profoundly with a lot of the detail, so writing the (rather long) review was a very interesting exercise.
#65 An Inspector Calls
by J.B. Priestley. After a very producting day trip to a second hand bookshop with brisingamen
, I now have all four of Priestley's Time Plays (though not, alas, in one volume). This is the one I know best, and it is fascinating on reading the text to see how radically political it is. I cannot remember a work that shows such straightforward disdain for the monied class.
by Tricia Sullivan, reviewed for Interzone, and a novel that has staked a place in my top books of the year.
#67 The Secret History of Fantasy
edited by Peter S. Beagle, and another big review for what is in one respect a superb collection of stories, but in another a very partial and flawed account of what fantasy is.
#68 Nexus : Ascension
by Robert Boyczuk, reviewed for The New York Review of Science Fiction. A first novel, for which I suppose we make allowances, but the first half is dire, the second half much much better (so different you wonder if the two halfs were written a long time apart), but in the end the basic plot really doesn't hold up.
#69 Search for Philip K. Dick
by Anne R. Dick, reviewed for SF Site. A revised edition of her memoir, which is remarkably tender and yet still makes me glad I never knew Dick.
|Saturday, November 13th, 2010|
Lately I've seen a number of people talking about the devastating funding changes for British universities saying that surely market forces will ensure that the best institutions/courses will survive. (I note that survival is seen as more important than flourishing, but that's not what I want to write about here.) There seems to have got into the popular British consciousness the idea that 'market forces' is a simple, straightforward, neutral description of what actually happens in any economy. It isn't, it is an expression of right wing ideology, and nothing more than that.
Market forces is an expression of laissez faire economics that has been the basis of right wing economics from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman. At its most extreme it argues that all business should be left purely to businessmen, that whatever happens the market will correct itself, that no government planning, social concerns or ideas of ethics should have any influence on the operation of the market.
It is not actually a widely held view among economists any more, and has been discredited in many ways. I note that market forces were in operation at the time of the Wall Street Crash (right wing economists now claim that the market would have corrected itself without Roosevelt's central planning, but in fact it was showing no sign of doing so between the crash and Roosevelt's election). Market forces were in operation at the time of the 2008 crash also, and are still in operation now, and are still showing no signs of correcting itself. J.K. Galbraith demonstrated that between 1978 and 1988, during the period of Reaganomics, the institutionalisation of market forces in America, the number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by 28%. Amartya Sen showed that during the Ethiopian famines of 1972-74, food production in Ethiopia as actually going up, but market forces resulted in those at the top hoarding and those at the bottom being denied access.
Market forces is not a fair, effective or efficient way of operating any system. It is a way of benefitting those with money at the expense of those without. If market forces are to be the guiding principle of universities in this country it will not provide a wide ranging liberal education, because that is not what market forces are designed to do. It will suit the needs of the few and there will be, at best, a trickle down to the rest.
'Trickle down', remember that? Yes, we're back in the days of Thatcher. And remember also Thatcher's odd, excessive, almost visceral hatred of the place of universities in British life. Her legacy is being enacted before our very eyes.
So yes, what is being done to British universities is purely ideological!
|Thursday, November 11th, 2010|
There's a great line in Tricia Sullivan's new novel, Lightborn
America, says our heroine, is "the word people use when they don't want to take personal responsibility."
And I immediately thought of the way the Tea Party and so many others drape the flag around their most obnoxious doings.
|Monday, October 25th, 2010|
As far as I am concerned, 'momentarily' relates to momentary, that is it refers to something that is very brief. It does not mean, 'in a moment'. Yet every time I come across the word in an academic or critical text (most recently in a preface by Philip Wegner to the new collection of essays by Darko Suvin), it is used in the latter and incorrect sense. 'I will consider this momentarily' means I will give it scant, brief attention, not I will come back to it shortly.
Part of me thinks this is a consequence of the preference so many academics and theorists have for one long word over a short but more accurate phrase. Part of me wonders whether this is just one more example of the difference between English English and American English.
|Tuesday, October 12th, 2010|
Since the 1960s we have had a string of people from all walks of life standing up to proclaim: "I was the first person in my family to go to university."
Now they will be saying: "I was the last person in my family to go to university."
I have been undecided about whether I can still be a member of the LibDems while they are in coalition with the Tories. But if the party now abandons its principles and supports the Browne report, I'm out!
|Wednesday, October 6th, 2010|
I've just entered Surface Detail
on Readerware. I have it set to pull down stuff from the British Library, Library of Congress, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and a few other places, and sometimes the results can be a little bizarre. Surface Detail
by Iain M. Banks is apparently categorised by at least one of these institutions under Careers.
A slower rate of reading this month (a couple of big books and a holiday interfered with the usual rate) but I'm still well ahead of schedule.
#55 The End of Mr Y
by Scarlett Thomas. Thomas teaches creative writing at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and there's an awful lot of that university visible in this novel, including buildings collapsing into a disused tunnel. But I don't really see why everyone went ga-ga over the book, it strikes me as a rather messy generic mash-up. The old bit of advice to crime writers used to be that when things slowed down, have someone walk in with a gun. Thomas seems to have updated that advice: when things slow down, have someone walk in with a new genre. For me the book was pleasingly but not brilliantly written, and the plot was incoherent.
#56 Manhattan Transfer
by John Dos Passos. An example of the sort of serendipity that reviewers live for. I'd been having difficulty finding the way in to my review of The Dervish House
by Ian McDonald, when I happened to pick this novel up. It's not an easy or a pleasant read, but it is a stunning work for all that. And purely by chance it gave me the way into that review
#57 Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction
by John Rieder. Reviewed for Foundation. One of the essential works of sf criticism.
#58 Surface Detail
by Iain M. Banks. Reviewed for Interzone. Bigger than it needs to be, familiar territory in many ways, and like all his sf since Look to Windward
obsessed with the idea of death, but still as vivid and readable and fun as his novels usually are.
by Richard Powers. I'm currently working through my review for Strange Horizons, so I don't want to say much here, except that this is now my book of the year.