April Reads

This month has been about the comic books. I’d never been a huge fan of comics, but I’ve, as noted before, recently discovered the joys of graphic art. Apart from that, I’ve been reading another of the Clarke Award shorlisted novels and catching up on something I’d been meaning to read for a while now.

Next month, I think I’ll catch up on all of the Kim Stanley Robinson I’d been meaning to read in advance of 2312. I’ve fallen behind a little on things that I had been planning to do over the past couple of years; notably the attempt to increase the amount of literature by women I read, particularly genre. I shall attempt to pick up the pace on that a little too.

The City of Shifting Waters – J.-C. Mezieres and P. Christin
This is the first of the Valerian and Laureline comic books. Valerian and and Laureline are spatio-temporal agents from the 28th Century. In this book, they are sent back to New York in 1986, where they are to prevent Xombul, a renegade, who wishes to – what else – take over the galaxy. These comics aren’t overly long, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but I have to admit I found this a little weak. That said, I have been told the series does get better.
The Empire of a Thousand Planets – J.-C. Mezieres and P. Christin
The follow-up to The City of Shifting Waters. In this, Valerian and Laureline have to discover if the titular Empire of a Thousand planets is a threat to Galixity (the capital of Earth in the 28th Century). I enjoyed this a little more than The City of Shifting Waters. At the end of the comic, the publishers ask if some of the similarities in design between this and the Star Wars films is coincidence or more borrowing by George Lucas.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains – Ian Sales
Full review.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – Alison Bechdel
I was more familiar with Bechdel through the Bechdel test (which I have now learned came from one of her older comics, which I will be sure to look out for). Fun Home is, definitely worth your time, though. It’s Bechdel’s autobiography dealing with her family life, her discovering her sexuality and resolving issues with the relationship with her father. I urge anyone interested in comic books to read this.
Dotter of her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot
It was purely chance that led me to read this immediately after the Bechdel, but I think the two share some themes. The Talbot’s book is both autobiographical and biographical, dealing as it does with Mary Talbot’s father’s worth chronicling the life and work of James Joyce and her own childhood, adolescence and early relationship with Bryan Talbot. There are some interesting scenes examining gender relations, parental expectations and literature (also, Bryan Talbot’s artwork is superb as ever). This is as good as the Bechdel. Read it.
The Arctic Marauder – Jacques Tardi
More Tardi; the artwork is in Tardi’s own inimitable style with the work itself being an homage to the work of Jules Verne. Excellent!
Coltrane – Paolo Parisi
More biographical gubbins told through the medium of comics. This is, once again, an interesting take on a reasonably familiar story. It is, of course, a story about Coltrane’s life and music. The book also looks at themes of how art is produced, addiction and racial divisions. This is also worth reading.
Sita’s Ramayana – Samhita & Moyna Chitrakar
This is a retelling of the classic Ramayana; something with which, I am now ashamed to say, I was previously completely unfamiliar with. This new interpretation takes a female view of the classic epic war saga. By doing so, Sita gains agency (which I assume she did not have before?) This is a beautiful piece of graphic art and one which prompts me to seek out some classic Indian literature.
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
This is, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the second in The Hunger Games trilogy. I quite liked The Hunger Games. However, remember when you’d be told that it’s not acceptable to describe a novel as boring? Well, I think in some cases, one should be allowed to do so. This is crashingly dull. Awful.
Nel-son – Edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix
This was an experiment, with the profits going to the homeless charity, Shelter. 54 different artists and writers collaborate to each present a day in each year of the life of Nel. Given the many different styles and voices, there is a danger that this could be of little more than academic interest as an experiment in storytelling. Kudos to the creative team, however, this really worked.
The Tourmaline – Paul Park
The follow up to A Princess of Roumania, this picks up where the last novel left off with Miranda growing into her role and the ambitions of her enemies being realised. A strange and fascinating world. Park also writes with a distinctive voice. I’ve been enjoying this series a great deal.
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
See Catching Fire. I was happy when this ended.
Rocket Science – Edited by Ian Sales
It’s been a good month for Ian Sales – he’s got his Moon-based series of novellas underway and has curated his first anthology. I’ve noted before that I appreciate his taste in genre fiction. He has, I believe, a good eye (or, at least, some similar tastes to me) for what is worth reading. Rocket Science brings together a number of space-based short stories and non-fiction pieces on science and engineering in space. Some of which were fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed this and hope he decides to work on another anthology in future.
Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson
Icehenge is set over hundreds of years and concerns the mystery of an ice circle built on Pluto (then, of course, Pluto was still considered a planet). The plot concerns the mystery of how such a structure would end up so far from (as far as anyone was aware at the time) intelligent life. Robinson also covers the study of history and archaeology. Especially interesting in this novel, given that people can live for hundreds of years and would have memories of the events being described (although this does happen in real life too. Hooray for historical revisionism).
Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke – Edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
Some stories set in and about London. Some good stories in this, I particularly enjoyed Lavie Tidhar’s guide to London pubs and Adam Roberts’ Martin Citywit, it had some terrible, terrible punning. Which is great.
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
This is quite a work of literature. A take on and subversion of western myths this novel is my favourite work (that I’ve read so far) of McCarthy’s. This novel is one which doesn’t shy from its portrayal of the baser elements of human behaviour. It is certainly hard to read in that sense, but it is an admirable work. Fantastic.
Hull Zero Three – Greg Bear
This was shortlisted for Clarke Award this year. Some of it is quite nice, in places Bear has quite a way with words. A mystery set aboard a generation starship, an SF trope that I have to admit I quite enjoy, this didn’t quite click with me. I think I’m just not a huge fan of Greg Bear, in novels, anyway; I thoroughly enjoyed the novella length version of Blood Music, but was less keen on the full novel – I felt it overstayed its welcome. The same with this, I think.
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Adrift on the Sea of Rains – Ian Sales

Adrift on the Sea of Rains - Ian SalesAdrift on the Sea of Rains is the first novella in Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet. An alternate history in which the Apollo programme didn’t fizzle out in the disappointing manner that it did. The US has a permanent presence on the moon and a space station named Freedom. In this reality, however, the cold war has become decidedly hot, leaving the astronauts stranded on the moon to wait for death.

The novella follows Vance Peterson, one of the men on the moonbase, from being a pilot to the commander of the base. The narrative is set in the present of the novel and through a series of flashbacks telling Peterson’s back story.

This is an interesting piece of writing. It is a piece of fiction and yet Sales has clearly done a great deal of research into the science and technology behind the moon landings. I sometimes have a problem with hard-SF because it spends too much time on the science part and not enough on characterisation and story and yet, with even my dilettantish knowledge of the sciences, I know they have failed to get that part of it right. The result being that I’d rather just have read a decently written popular science book.

Sales avoids this by writing actual human beings. Though this is a short novella, the hopes and fears of the men on the moon are expertly evoked. The destruction of the world in a nuclear war leaves the astronauts isolated and doomed to a lingering death as they run out of that which is necessary to sustain human life. Whilst, admittedly, I wasn’t old when the Soviet Union collapsed ending the cold war, I do still have a sense of what Mutually Assured Destruction and cold war paranoia felt like. Sales evokes this well in his novella.

I noted that Sales has meticulously researched the novella (really, check out the glossary; fascinating in its own right). This is SF, though, so there is a major fictional element to it. It transpires that one of the reasons for the US maintaining a permanent moonbase was to house and research Nazi wunderwaffe (wonder weapons). In this case the mysterious device is capable of shifting people between parallel realities.

This, of course, presents the men on the moon base with a very real opportunity to escape the inevitability of their death by finding a world which wasn’t destroyed in a nuclear war. The discovery of a living earth doesn’t provide the safety desired by Peterson and leads us to our, slightly grim, but satisfying conclusion.

All in all, this is a wonderful little novella. I recommend it to any of you who desire a good piece of hard SF with a strong sense of humanity. The realism of the science makes the central fiction all the easier to accept; I didn’t feel at all cheated by the author with some hand-wavium. Further more, the sense of isolation and paranoia evoked is believable when compared to my own memories of a childish fear of nuclear Armageddon and looking at cold war art now. Not to say (at all!) that he is coming from the same place, but I watched early 80s oddity, Red Dawn, a few days ago and believe that this novella evokes that same sense of fear and paranoia but without looking backwards.

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March Reads

Bah, still struggling to get through that much at the moment. Hopefully a wee week off work will get me back on the reading road…

Robot – Stanislaw Lem, A Klimowski, D. Schejbal
This is a couple of comic-based interpretations of Stanislaw Lem short stories. My favourite is the first of the two, in which a despotic robot overlord prevents his people from gathering in large groups by making their ears out of fissile material. Too many people close together will result in critical mass and a nuclear explosion. Good stuff (and I quite enjoyed the artwork too).
Mazeworld – Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson
A collection of comics that ran between 1998 and 2000 in 200AD, Mazeworld is the story of a man hanged who awakes in an alternate reality where the architecture and ethos are based around mazes (nicely, this extends in places to the story panels). The (somewhat selfish) hero of the Mazeworld has been hanged in what appears to be an experiment with reintroducing the death penalty. He isn’t killed, however and his comatose body is taken away to be observed and, latterly, experimented upon. The authorities are able to get away with this because nobody is aware of the existence of this man. His adventures in the alternate universe invoilve fantasy, violence and treachery. I enjoyed this.
The End Specialist – Drew Magary
This has been shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year. I didn’t know this at the time I read it (the shortlist not having been announced at the time), but there was a wee bit of positive chat about it, so I thought I’d try it out. Magary’s novel is based on the idea that humanity manages to cure death. You are given a treatment which freezes you at the age you were at at the time you first receive the treatment. Death by violence and disease is still possible; but you won’t get older. It’s an interesting take on the idea of immortality, exploring the (mostly negative) consequences for people. Worth a read.
Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
I was keen on Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, her wonderful début novel. This, her fourth, by nature of it’s premise, perhaps doesn’t hold together quite so well, but it is playful, witty and features some genuinely superb writing. The idea is that Mary Foxe, the eponymous Mr Fox’s Muse, pops up to upbraid St. John Fox for his tendency to mistreat his characters. She suggests that he is a serial killer and that he should not treat people so. This brings us to a series of wonderful little stories which explore many themes. Oyeyemi is a talent to be treasured. Excellent stuff.
A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park
The first in a series of four novels featuring Miranda Popescu, a young girl who has always known that she was adopted, yet is not aware (why would you be?) that she was actually from an alternate reality. She is a Princess (duh, of Roumania) in this world, where our technology is far in advance of theirs, though where magic is powerful, though illegal and taboo. The continuation of her relationships with people (altered by the switch to the alternate world), gives this, for me, anyway a bit of an edge over the little fantasy I have read. Paul Park is a wonderful writer too.
The Incal – Jodorowsky and Moebius
It was the Jodorowsky connection that attracted me to these comics. They are, as anyone who has ever seen a Jodorowsky film will attest, odd. But rather wonderful.
The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood
The Godless Boys presents an alternate England where the non-Christian are persecuted and (after some conflict) are exiled to an island in the north sea. Wood uses this island and a 10 year old mystery to explore faith, atheism, extremism, adolescence and love. It is an effective novel and there is no question about Wood’s ability. However (though it wasn’t unexpected), the ending annoyed me a great deal. I felt a little manipulated by the way that we got there. Admittedly, the book is refreshingly free of bloat, of which I approve and this means that events can feel a little rushed. Despite that, I would recommend this novel. My grumble there is a personal one.
Nairobi Heat – Mukoma Wa Ngugi
I have to confess that the plot, characterisation and the writing wouldn’t do a huge amount to recommend this to me. However the ideas explored in the novel do lift it for me, anyway. Detective Ishmael (an African-American Detective), on the trail of the killer (believed to be a black man) of a young white girl – it is important, politically, that he is successful, goes to Nairobi to investigate the crime. Initially he finds himself regarded by the local people as a white man. Making friends with local police, he does get his way to the heart of the crime. However, what lifts this novel is the examination of white liberal guilt (conscience-salving charity, which does little to ease the problems) and the racist removal of agency from local people. Perhaps this aspect touched me a little more because the Kony campaign has been in my mind. This all does lift the novel. Though one does wonder if you’d be better served by some non-fiction on this subject.
The Tourmaline – Paul Park
The follow up to A Princess of Roumania. Still enjoying the series, although I can see this getting a little cloying. Will try and finish the series soon.
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February Reads

I read very little this month; I think I shall blame Iain M. Banks for this. Must blame someone, right?

That said, from the enjoyment point of view, everything was pretty good. Introduced to a new comic writer (Tardi) with whom I was previously unfamiliar, which is pleasing. The Jane Rogers novel was excellent and I read some history for the first time in a while. Granted it was a little grim, but certainly thought-provoking.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers
I’ve already reviewed this one. Suffice to say it is an excellent novel and I highly recommend it. Hoping to see it on the Clarke Award short-list, too.
The Morbid Age – Richard Overy
Richard Overy’s history of Britain between the first and second world wars. It’s a grim read, as the title might suggest, but it was an interesting read. Also, the section on eugenics reminded me why I was so uncomfortable with the film Idiocracy.
It Was The War Of The Trenches – Jacques Tardi
I think I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t particularly grow up with comic books, which makes me a little sad, now that I’ve discovered the joy that they can give. However, this does mean that I’m a little less tolerant of bad comics than I might be (in, say, the way that I am sometimes with trashy SF).
This was superb, though. Tardi has constructed a brutal, but moving, account of trench warfare. It’s not particularly concerned with the grand sweep of history, rather it focuses on a series of incidents in people’s lives. Highly recommend this and I think that I shall have to track down more of Tardi’s work.
Matter – Iain M. Banks
Though I am generally quite keen on Iain M. Banks’ SF (less so, these days, on his mainstream fiction as Iain Banks – I think that has lost some of its potency), I wasn’t so keen on The Algebraist. I’d found that a bit of a chore and was hugely disappointed in it. Matter, despite being fairly hefty still, is a far better proposition. I’m quite looking forward to Surface Detail, now.
Camera Obscura – Lavie Tidhar
I have been enjoying what I’ve read of Lavie Tidhar’s stuff for a while now. This, while not up to the standards of Osama, is still good fun and (despite the odd misstep in the actual writing) a good alt-take on the Victorian era.
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The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, opens with a young woman introducing herself and her story. She is being held against her will, though at this stage it is by no means clear by whom. It is also clear that the world has been drastically changed by a disease, Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) which has rendered the bearing of children fatal to women. We are never told in the novel how this happened. There is speculation as to what caused MDS, but the causes are largely irrelevant for the novel. The novel is sustained by how people react to it and, especially Jessie Lamb and her parents.

The inability of women to have children is based on them suffering from a prion diesase; their brain is destroyed although it is possible that a healthy baby could be delivered. The set up of a world without children is similar to the (inferior) Children of Men although that novel treats the subject differently and in this world children can be born, it means death for the mother, though.

Jessie is young. Events have matured her, but she is not even seventeen at the start of the novel. Her reaction to MDS changes as she sees how it affects people and the wider impact it will have on the world. Initially, MDS only means something to her in that it may inconvenience her as they are caught up in a traffic jam because of a mass funeral service for women who have died due to MDS. She and her friends are judging of a classmate who is removed from school and that they suspect has fallen pregnant.

Until this point, MDS has been largely abstract and it is only when the consequences of it begin to affect those close to her that she begins to realise that the world is changing and that their lives will be different from their parents.

Some of the fear for what the future holds for Jessie and her peers is directed at the older generation in the form of anger at their profligate use of the worlds resources. Many children have already been orphaned by the death of their mothers and some look to set up homes free from adult interference or supervision (depending upod your view). They believe that MDS is punishment for the older generations failure to look after the planet.

There are drives by members of the groups to reduce their own resource use and, amongst those who live with their families still, an attempt to reduce their families resource use.

If attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, there is a sense that such efforts are for naught. The young – angry that they are being made to pay for their parents mistakes – mostly don’t share this view. They believe that the healing should begin today. This contrasts interestingly with the well they’ll find a solution, they always do, view of her mother.

There is research into the problem of MDS. Indeed, Jessies’ father is involved in this. A number of solutions are being pursued. One, which came from necessity when the nature and scale of the problem became apparent was to put the women into a coma and put them on life support to allow them to carry their child to term. This, once the researchers realise that they have a way of vaccinating embryos against MDS (they have many stored from couples undergoing IVF) is used deliberately to birth a new generation of babies born free of MDS. Young women (the Doctors are insistent that they be young, as the success rates are higher) volunteer to be implanted with an embryo and are put into a coma. A death sentence.

This part of the novel raised some of the most interesting questions in it. Firstly, there is the question of the role of science. Tackling an issue, such as this, does raise the spectre of something that could be anti-science in tone. The delicacy with which Rogers treats this aspect of the novel does mean that, though some incidental characters do have an element of that in their make up, I didn’t find that foregrounded or the most important aspect of the novel.

What interested me most was the feminist aspects of the novel. One of Jessie’s friends is raped by friends of her boyfriend. The act is never dwelt upon, but there is an immediate reaction in that she refuses to go to the police, as she feels that little will happen.

Her experience leads her to a feminist group who begin to take an interest in the work of Jessie’s father’s clinic. They see the work carried out as an attempt by men to control the reproductive process and control women’s bodies; indeed, some solutions, including using pig wombs, would eliiminate the need for women at all.

These groups begin to picket and attack clinics who carry out such research. Jessie’s father rejects this view and, for a while, seeing this path as a necessary one, buys into the idea of the girls being ‘Sleeping Beauties’, clearly taking a pragmatic view of their decision to end their lives as they are entering adulthood. He, while it does not affect him personally, successfully abstracts their lives.

The reader learns, as things progress, that it is her father that is holding het captive. This is due to a decision taken by Jessie of which he does not approve. Once we learn of the Sleeping Beauties and that Jessie is being held captive by her parents, it isn’t hard to work out what she has decided to do. Jessie has a strong relationship with her parents; especially her father. Running jokes and games (the perfect crime) are used to give a picture of the emotional and intellectual intimacy that they share.

This aspect of Jessie’s life is given a rather unfortunate twist when we learn that, due to legal challenges by those people whose embryos they are. The clinics are only able to use those fertilised by the researchers. In practice, this means that the child Jessie will have will be her half brother or sister.

Jessie’s father, after realising what the programme he has worked on means for young women and their families, leaves his job and tries to dissuade Jessie from pursuing her suicidal course. He begins to fear that people are not fully aware of the consequences of pursuing this path.

Indeed, Jessie believes that a girl that she knows who has also volunteered is merely attention seeking. Of course, though she proclaims that her reasons ate sound. She is the narrator: her voice may not be entirely reliable. Having said that, throughout the novel, she had striven to make a difference. She has come to believe this is the only way she truly can. I trust this. She may well be wrong, but she seems to believe this.

A wonderful novel, one that muses upon science, mortality, relationships and possibly gives a little more resonance to the French idiom, la petite mort. Give it some of your time.

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January Reads

I’ve been a bit more infrequent in my posting here lately. So, in an attempt to discipline myself further, I’m doing an end of month round-up. This should help me keep a track of my reading, too.

So, welcome to the first one! Bit of a weak start, I’m afraid (and I had intended to have read a bit more by now). Still, they’ll improve – promise.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Bit late on this one. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical that I’d enjoy it, given that it was pretty hyped. Enjoyed it quite a lot more than I’d expected to, though. That said, I’m dubious that the sequels will add much. Shall probably read them soon, though.
The Owl Service – Alan Garner
Alan Garner is, as noted several times before, excellent. I am in the process of re-reading his stuff this year along with the excellent Maureen Kincaid Speller and Aishwarya Subramanian. It’s been about 20 years since I last read The Owl Service. This was a mistake.
Osama – Lavie Tidhar
Full review.
The Recollection – Gareth L. Powell
Enjoyed this well enough. Far from perfect, however. I think that the characters left a little to be desired, for example. Still, be interested to see what Powell comes up with next.
Heart of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia
Full review.
Black Hole – Charles Burns
This was excellent. I’ve only really discovered the joys of comics in the last few years. This has meant that I do struggle a little to identify stuff that may be up my street. Anyway, this comic muses on folks maturity and all that goes with it. Props to Paul Smith for the recommendation.
Paintwork – Tim Maughan
Three linked short stories. My favourite of these was the first, Paintwork, which features AR and advertising hoardings. Some good stuff in here; imagine Cory Doctorow if his books weren’t mind-spankingly shit (sorry, being lazy, I just really can’t stand Doctorow’s novels). I shall do a proper write up, though, as there is some good stuff in these stories, especially the first, which is relevant to my interests (corporate destruction of public space and the like).

The Inheritors – William Golding
Until I read this, the only novel by Golding I’d read was (go on, guess), Lord of the Flies. That was, for a long while, a favourite of mine. I’d expected to like this more than I did. It’s not a bad novel by any stretch. However, I have to confess that I found the People a little on the overly-innocent side. Bit sledgehammer, perhaps? Shall try something else by Golding, though.
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
An baffling and sometimes hilarious novel. Brilliant.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
Right. So this is acknowledged as a classic. But we all know that Frank Miller has become a bit of a dick. Also, there is the sneaking suspicion that he may never have met a real woman (well, if Sin City is any guide). Well… this was shit. I dread to think what Frank Miller losing it is like. This was dreadful. None-too-interesting art, boring dialogue and a weak attempt to engage with the problems inherent in the Batman character.
Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again – Frank Miller
Bleargh. Worse than the first one.
Batman: Year One – Frank Miller
Marginally better. But that may just be due to this being a sprucing up of the creation story?
Batman R.I.P. – Grant Morrison
I did enjoy this a little more than the Miller Batman comics. There is the suspicion that, all my moaning about artwork an poor philosophising in the Miller Batman books aside, I just don’t particularly like superhero comics.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate – Stewart Lee
Stewart Lee is one of my favourite stand-ups at the moment. A fair chunk of this book is taken up with transcripts of shows that I have seen live and on DVD later. They are, however, greatly enriched by his commentary on the shows and circumstances surrounding them. Smart and funny.

“And then he said to me – this is honestly true – he said to me, ‘Well you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

That bit always cheers me up because I have had a conversation/argument that has ended exactly that way. Still, as full of shit as I undoubtedly am, I’d like to think that my soft-headed liberal opinions are based upon some kind of facts, eh?

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
This was picked up by quite a few folk last year and (as far as I’m aware) reactions were mostly positive. I’m not sure why this is, though. It wasn’t particularly hateful and (despite one or two tedious bits) it managed to avoid outstaying its welcome. I won’t be ranting about losing hours of my life to this but I can imagine that this one will be fairly quickly forgotten. Ho-hum.
Castles Made of Sand – Gwyneth Jones
Second in the Bold of Love series. It’s Gwyneth Jones and so it is, of course, awesome. I do wonder how much she likes her characters. It’s pretty grim in places, too. This did put me in mind of some of the chat about the use of rape as a device in genre fiction. Rape features in these novels – specifically one of the main characters was the victim of abuse by her father. However, Jones doesn’t particularly dwell on the act to the extent that others might (there’s certainly no titillation). It’s not a lazy way to depict someone as bad or (worse) BADASS. Interestingly, what makes it less horrible in these novels is that the consequences of her ordeal are the more important part of this aspect of the novels.

High Rise – J.G. Ballard
Life in a modern high rise breaks down and the inhabitants revel in their own squalor and violence. Just getting back into Ballard. Intend to read more soon.
The Furies – Keith Roberts
OK, it’s nowhere near as good as his alt-history classic, Pavane. But it does have GIANT SPACE WASPS. It did remind me a little of John Wyndham, but not so good. But it does have GIANT SPACE WASPS.


Until next time!

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Heart of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia

Heart Of Iron - Ekaterina Sedia (cover)Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron, an alternate history novel (in this the Russian Decemberists revolt of 1825 was successful), follows Sasha Trubetskaya as she becomes embroiled in the growing conflict between the British, Chinese and Russian empires.

Heart of Iron, with a divergent history which has led to the early completion of the Trans-Siberian railway and the development of airships, is reminiscent of the sub-genre of steampunk. I have noted before that I am a little suspicious of steampunk. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed plenty of work that could be described. I have read the odd thing, though, that takes the aesthetic (fun though that can be) and does little of interest with it. That is to say that giant steam-powered robots and a Babbage inspired computing revolution are all well and good, but it seems to me that steampunk could be  used to do so much more. The Victorian era had many technological advances for which we should be thankful.

However, I am far less enamoured of Victorian morality. This might seem irrelevant now, but I live in a country where the current government has members who espouse a return to the values of our forbears. The conservative love of a time when fewer people had rights may be just weak minded rhetorical guff. However, anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to the actions of the current coalition government will be aware that they are doing their damnedest to drag us back there.

What, you may reasonably ask, does this have to do with Ekaterina Sedia’s novel? Well, as I said, it certainly has some of the trappings of steampunk. These are worn lightly, though. She tries something, I think, a little more interesting with her characters. At the opening of the novel, Sasha is looking forward to her début. So far, so traditional for the female offspring of the European elite. Her family, however, while powerful is not in favour. Her aunt has decided that Sasha should become educated.

Sasha starts attending university and becomes determined to prove herself. She is suspicious of the motives of those tasked with her and her peers instruction:

“And thus my education had begun. I quickly got the impression that even if women students were not admitted solely to prove their inferiority, it was viewed as a desirable outcome.

Professor Ipatiev, the lecturer who had delivered the very first lecture in my student career, proved to be a lasting influence. His class was in turns fascinating and upsetting, and Olga, who had swiftly become my closest friend and something of a confidante, shared my feelings.

‘I do not understand,’ she complained one September evening, as the two of us sat in the parlor of my apartment, drinking strong sweet tea thoughtfully prepared by Anastasia before she left to visit with Natalia Sergeevna. ‘Professor Ipatiev seems like a kind man. And yet he looks directly at you and me when he talks about women’s brain’s being smaller than men’s.’

Ipatiev’s pseudo-scientific bigotry extends beyond misogyny into racial stereotyping of non-European races. This feeds into another facet of the novel (and one which draws from the history of the Russian empire). Is the Russian Empire, which straddles Europe and Asia to look east or west? The construction of St. Petersberg would suggest a desire to look to Europe rather than east. In the novel, Ipatiev’s racist insistence that Asian people are mentally inferior is another example of this. His views here become more pointed, given that there are several Chinese attending the university.

Sasha’s initial acceptance, with a shrug, that Ipatiev must be correct as he is the one lecturing demonstrates the dangers of appeals to authority but, as she comes to realise that she (and her Asian colleagues) are as capable as anyone else at the institution, she works hard to prove herself. Her self-confidence grows with her education, but it is events outside her schooling that shape Sasha and drive the plot.

She becomes aware of wider political tensions as the Chinese students, with some of whom she had made friends, fall foul of the secret police. The British and Russian empires are working to form an alliance which, given that the Chinese have recently ceded Hong Kong to the British, makes any Chinese in Russia, the object of suspicion by the authorities. Sasha makes the acquaintance of some of the Britons in Russia at the time. Some of whom are engaged in espionage including one Florence Nightingale. I liked that her alt-history role was to act as a spy. Though her place in history is deservedly assured, it is for a role which is now regarded as a safely feminine one (even now, I think). Her intrusion into a more male dominated area is refreshing.

The other British person to feature heavily in the novel is the mystery cloaked Jack Bartram. His role in the first half of the novel does point to one of the more glaring problems that Sedia’s book has. His arrival as an important character is signalled by his ability to be there in the nick of time. There isn’t much wrong with this, used sparingly. However, his fantastical abilities do tend to kill any tension or interest in the plot in the second half or the novel.

Sasha (dressed as a young soldier) and Bartram set out on a quest to prevent war between Britain, Russia and China. Sadly the interest of the first half is lost, somewhat given that the first time that someone improbably escapes peril, any pretence that the outcome is going to be anything other than a good one is lost (though I can think of at least one novel that riffs on the implausibility of the survival of pulp-fiction characters). Admittedly, Bartram’s love of penny dreadfuls does suggest that the rip-roaring nature of the chase is deliberate. That didn’t stop me from losing interest though. Though my bigger gripe is that it was disappointing following the relative subtlety and interest of the opening sections.

This novel certainly wasn’t perfect, but Sedia has a delicate touch and I did enjoy the first half of the novel a lot. I wouldn’t, therefore, discourage anyone from reading this and I shall certainly be giving some of her other work a look.

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