What We're Reading: March 2016


I’ve had a slower reading this month for a few reasons. First of that is submissions, with my count for the month including a few exciting things. You’ll have to wait for those though…

First up was a second pass on J.G. Ballard with The Drowned World. I enjoyed this a lot more than The Unlimited Dream Company (see February). His knack for visual imagery is really striking and the symbolism of this drowned London, the sticky sun-scorched claustrophobia of it all was excellent. It’s a great argument for keeping things shorter as well because the weirdness of it all was intensified by the pace and relatively compact length. My main criticisms were a lack of distinction between the characters, and I wasn’t comfortable with the presentation of Strangman’s crew. However, it also has a really satisfying ending, which was appropriately unresolved. Not everything needs to be tied up in a bow, after all.

Second up was a palate cleanser in the form of The Greeks Had a Word For It: Words You Never Knew You Can't Do Without. Much like The Etymologicon, this has all sorts of tidbits to amuse friends with, and generally make you appear more clever than you are.

Finally, my on-going mission to read classics I’ve missed hit gold with The Dispossessed. Those of you who grew up on this book will likely be nodding now. To those who are thinking, ‘I still need to read that’ – move it up the list right now. It’s an exploration of the planet Anarres and its moon Urras. Urras has a stable anarchist society, Anarres a more familiar capitalist one. The story follows Shevek, a physicist with the secret to instant interstellar communication, as he travels from to Anarres. Essential stuff. Reflective, objective, compelling, endlessly quotable, thought-provoking, elegantly structured... You get the idea. 


Michael Moorcock – The Whispering Swarm

In my early twenties I came down with something of a Moorcock obsession, reading a ton of his work, especially the Jerry Cornelius stuff (A Cure for Cancer and The English Assassin remain essential) and his brilliant London fictions: Mother London, King of the City and London Bone. In backwards fashion, I ended up reading his more pulpy works like Elric and Corum later. I was very taken at the time with his cheerful iconoclasm of writers like Tolkien, who I considered stuffy and conservative (and still do). Moorcock provided a real antidote to the conservative tendencies of fantasy and sci-fi, and as such was very exciting.

The Whispering Swarm, his latest novel, is a curious mix of autobiography, his London fiction and swashbuckling pulp

I think the novel works best if you have an interest in Moorcock himself and his life story – as it's the story of a young writer and editor called Michael Moorcock in 1960s London who finds a door to a secret and magical undiscovered part of London called the Alsacia. Moorcock is surprisingly candid about how awfully he treats his wife and family, abandoning them for long periods to live in the Alsacia (a fairly obvious metaphor for the life of the SFFH writer, or at least one like Moorcock) with the inevitable negative consequences. 

I was mainly interested in the accounts of his (semi-fictionalised) life as editor of New Worlds, how he created characters like Elric and Cornelius and his friendship with people such as Jack Allard and Rex Fisch (i.e. J.G. Ballard and Thomas Disch). I appreciate the metaphor of retreating into fantasy-land at the expense of friends and family, but there were too many lengthy sections of pulp swashbuckling that ultimately detracted from the meat of the story. I realised that Moorcock can write literary fiction AND genre pulp about 15-years ago; it seems odd that this point is stressed so heavily here. Still, when The Whispering Swarm works it's wonderful and definitely worth your time.

China Miéville – This Census Taker

One of those rare writers whose huge popularity is actually matched by his skill, China Miéville’s new novella is the kind of book a writer can only get away with, I think, after a good 15 years of success. Switching between first, third and second (!) person POV, the novella is a folkloric tale of a young boy living in an isolated mountain home with his mother and father, above a small town in a unnamed country in an unspecified time and place. He witnesses a traumatic event (or does he?)  that the adult narrator recollecting his childhood may or may not be remembering accurately, before meeting the enigmatic census taker of the title – if indeed this census taker is genuine. A book that is definitely going to require a reread; but what is great to see is a writer like Miéville still really pushing himself and taking bold risks. 

NB: Christina Scholz, writing in Strange Horizonshas suggested this is a 'secret' Bas-Lag story (i.e. set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council). It's a compelling premise and only adds to a fascinating book.

Italo Calvino - If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

A curious one this; as a meta deconstruction of both the writing, editing and reading process, Calvino's formally daring novel succeeds completely (though I imagine the ideas here seemed a lot fresher and more groundbreaking back in 1979) but it doesn't really work as a novel in its own right.

The story is about you, the reader, picking up a novel titled If on a Winter's Night a Traveller only to discover a publisher's error has caused part of a different novel to be printed in what you thought was a Calvino book. The search for this other novel leads you down a rabbit hole of misprints, forgeries, facsimiles, translations and false-starts in many different genres by non-existent writers from around the globe. 

I enjoyed parts of it greatly, but the problem was that though undeniably well-executed, each alleged novel fragment doesn't really go anywhere – more a showcase for Calvino's ability to write Westerns, detective fiction, romance and other genres than anything else. It gives the book a stop/start nature that I found frustrating. The sections with 'you' are much more engaging, especially if you take an interest in the mechanics and constructs of fiction. 

As a meta-narrative commenting on the process of writing and reading, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller works; but it’s more of an extended intellectual exercise than a truly enjoyable read.

Jonathan Green – YOU are the Hero!

This book relates to a concept explored by Calvino (honest); if you are the hero of If a Winter’s Night a Traveller, then you are also the hero of Deathtrap Dungeon, anguishing less about the intricate nature of fiction and more about the bloodbeast about to disembowel you in Baron Sukumvit’s dungeon. 

Like many people of a certain age, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks had a huge formative impact on me as a young reader. The sense of interacting in a huge shared world, populated by fantastic and malevolent beings, cant be ignored. I have a lot to thank Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone for in what they did to my imagination. I know many other writers and editors who say the same thing. Once you see that shapechanger in The Forest of Doom, there’s no going back. 

A bloodbeast, yesterday

A bloodbeast, yesterday

Jonathan Green’s history of the FF phenomenon is a great read for anyone interested in the series, and as a writer and editor myself I found the discussion of the mechanics of writing gamebooks and the process of creating such a series really interesting. As a child I don’t remember even being aware that writers other than Jackson and Livingstone wrote the books (now of course I realise it’s unlikely they’d have written a book a month themselves). There are moments where the history recounted becomes a bit too much of an info-dump, but this is still a fascinating read. 

(Some of my favourite FF books were the later ones set in the Old World, full of gothic doom and dread, containing genuinely unsettling imagery and themes– titles like Dead of Night, Legend of the Shadow Warriors and Knights of Doom. A personal highlight is Moonrunner – where YOU the hero are charged with hunting down a former war criminal wanted for crimes of genocide and mass torture. It was all good kid-friendly fun…)

Other highlights in March were Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (George has already gushed about it here so I’ll go with what he said), Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life, all of which were excellent.

I finished March in Suffolk reading W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, the perfect accompaniment to that weird, bleak and compelling landscape. A doomy Germanic rumination on death,history and memory as the author walks from Lowestoft to Bungay might not sound like a page-turner, but this really deserves the hype.