“Whiskey and Water” Elizabeth Bear

Whiskey and Water is the second half of the duology started with Blood and Iron (post). It is set 7 years later and in many ways deals with the unfinished business from and consequences of the end of the first book. But where Elaine and the stories of the Fae & Merlin were the centre of the last book, in this one it’s Matthew Magus and the stories of Hell & the Devil in his many forms that take centre stage. I finished reading this a while ago but I’ve been putting off talking about it because while I know what happened on a surface level I have a tantalising feeling of not quite getting it on a deeper level. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, I just have a sense of something just outside my grasp.

The plot proper kicks off with the murder of a girl in New York – by a Fae. Matthew Magus is no longer what he was, he was damaged by his part in the end of the Faerie War and his magic isn’t under his control. But he still feels a duty to protect Manhattan, even tho he can’t quite do it, and he still feels guilty that he couldn’t prevent the murder (like he maybe once would’ve). And so he takes the girl’s friends under his wing to help them find out who and why.

There are also subplots revolving around the losses of the war. Murchaud, a Prince of Hell, died in that war and Jane Andraste bears a responsibility for that death as he was only there as part of her alliance with Hell. Murchaud is a gaping wound round which the story bends – he’s Morgan le Fay’s son, he’s Elaine Queen of the Daoine Sidhe’s father, he was Kit Marlowe’s lover. And Kit wants revenge on Jane Andraste for his death so he leaves Hell where he was living with Murchaud to challenge her to a duel. And so many of the other key players in the story have reason to smooth his path to that – not just those I mentioned already, but also Lucifer Morningstar (one of the several Devils) and Matthew. Matthew has his own issues with Jane – his whole life has been twisted into one of loss by Jane and the Prometheans’ desire for war against Faerie.

Whiskey is the centre of another subplot. He was given Elaine’s soul and name as a part of her becoming Fae enough to be Queen. And so he has a conscience and he isn’t doing what needs to be done as the foremost of the water Fae. The Bunyip comes to challenge him because Whiskey is weak from his refusal to kill. Which means that the Bunyip gets drawn into the conflict in alliance with Jane Andraste.

Loss is one of the themes running through the book. Not just Matthew’s losses, Kit’s losses, Elaine’s losses etc: Hell itself is a loss of God’s presence, and Lucifer suffers from what he sees as God’s refusal to forgive him and the loss of God’s love. The end of that particular thread took me a little by surprise. I don’t think it really came out of nowhere, I think I just missed the things that should’ve clued me in. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, is another theme. And I think pride too – several characters are brought down, or nearly so, by their own pride or the pride of others.

This book doesn’t work for me quite as well as Blood and Iron does, but it’s still good. And perhaps if I read it again I might get it next time.

“Blood and Iron” Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron was, I think, the second Elizabeth Bear book I ever read and it’s the one that made me a fan. This and its companion volumes (there are four in the series so far) are Bear’s take on the urban fairies/elves and urban fantasy sub genres. This one and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern day and the other duology (Ink and Steel & Hell and Earth) are set in Shakespeare’s England (with Shakespeare as a character). The basic premise is “what if the Fair Folk of myth and legend were real?”. It’s not the cosy imaginings of Mercedes Lackey’s urban elves books (which I do like too) instead it’s more akin to the old ballads and the Celtic mythology. The Tam Lin story is one of the stories that binds this book together, along with the story of Arthur.

There are three viewpoint characters – Elaine Andraste, Matthew Szczegielniak and Keith MacNeill. The other two are important, but Elaine is the pivot around which the story turns. She is a changeling, part fae and stolen away from her mortal life some years ago by the Daoine Sidhe. Her name was used to bind her to the service of the Mebd, Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, she is now the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe and at the beginning of the book she has done her best to subsume her sense of self into her office. She never thinks of herself as Elaine, instead she is Seeker. To some degree the book is about her coming to terms with who she is, who she was and what her heritage is – both from her Fae ancestry and the surprises in her human ancestry.

When the book opens the world is beginning to go through another iteration of a cyclical story. The Dragon Prince has been chosen. The Merlin has been born, but not come into true power yet. And the Mebd sends the Seeker off to find and bind the Merlin – like Nimue did before her. We know the story best as the story of Arthur: at times of need the Dragon Prince arises and fights back against the threatened conquerors aided by the power of the Merlin. But the Dragon requires a price for this – the Dragon Prince must spill the blood of innocents and if he doesn’t, then he will fail. And it’s also told that he will be betrayed by someone close to him. Bear works various historical figures into this narrative as past Dragon Princes so the cycle is repeating roughly once in 500 years. I particularly liked the inclusion of Harold Godwinson as a Dragon Prince, betrayed by his brother and refusing to pay the Dragon’s price so lost to William the Bastard in the end.

The Seeker and Keith MacNeill are linked by the past – Keith is the father of her child, and the man who gave her name to the Mebd so she could be bound. The first of these resonates with the Tam Lin story – Janet has a claim to Tam because he is the father of her child, and that’s important for why she can win him back from the tithe to Hell. And the second link is important thematically within this story. He doesn’t betray her to the Mebd out of hate, but out of love. He’s a werewolf and lives much longer than a normal mortal – but if Elaine is bound to the Fae then he won’t have to watch her grow old and die. But even tho his intentions were good, she still feels it as betrayal. And choices are important in this story – the choices you make for yourself, the choices you make for others. And there’s a constant theme of that which you give freely or choose to do yourself being more important than the same actions when coerced.

Matthew is actually the viewpoint in which we start the book – he’s not Fae at all, he’s a mortal magic user and a member of the Prometheus Club. The Prometheans exist to protect humanity against the Fae. They try to stop them stealing people and are gearing up for an invasion and final binding of Faerie to complete the job started by the iron of the railways. Matthew’s beloved older brother is a mortal who was taken to dance for the Faerie court, and returned when he could dance no more – many years older and crippled. Revenge for this, and wanting to ensure it happens to no-one else, are what drives Matthew and why he is one of the Prometheans. He works closely with a senior Promethean, Jane Andraste, mother of Elaine. And he sees them as sharing the same motivations, although over the course of the story it becomes clear that it’s not as simple as that.

This is a very dense book (in a good way) – I’ve given, I think, some idea of some of the intertwining plotlines without giving away too much. But there’s more I’ve not mentioned – like the tithe to Hell, which you’d expect from the Tam Lin story. And Morgan le Fay and Arthur are both characters in the book. And there’s not just the Daoine Sidhe, but the Unseelie Sidhe as well ruled by their own Queen and with their own desire to bind the Merlin. One of the things I like about the book is the sense of complexity and a fully fleshed out world – there’s more going on than just what we see and even if what we see is of great importance that doesn’t mean that the other things aren’t also of great importance too. But it’s not the sort of complexity that makes me feel like it’s a game of Jenga – where if I pull out a piece to examine it too closely it’ll all fall to pieces. (Moffat era Doctor Who is a bit like that, for all that I enjoy it I do feel I need to be careful not to look too closely.) Blood and Iron is the sort of complex that almost makes me want to go through it taking notes to see how it all fits together. For instance in a conversation about the Tam Lin ballad one character says about something “it says it twice so it must be important”. And the line in question (Tam Lin being the father of Janet’s child) is important to the story, but there’s more than that. I’d noticed that “the rules are different for the ones who were gods” had come up a couple of times by then (and there’s a pay-off to that later in the book). So what else is there that’s said twice that I’ve missed? And I’m sure there’s plenty of passing “offhand” references in this book that will turn out to have pay-offs in one of the other books.

The choices people make is, I think, the thematic thread that connects the whole story together. For instance, a lot of the book revolves around the price one is willing to pay to get one’s goals. And about choosing your goals carefully. There’s a lot I could write about that side of it, but the thing that I wanted to talk about is the emphasis on stories. This is a world where the stories we tell shape the world itself. Arthur didn’t exist, and yet there he is asleep on his bier waiting for his foretold return. His story has been told so many times that he does exist now. You might wonder how come Hell exists in this world where the celtic mythology is true, but again that’s because of the stories – the rise of Christianity created Hell (and Heaven) and now they do exist. And you could see that as being fatalistic – if you find you’re caught up in a story then you know how it’s going to play out. And you could see that as absolving you from the need to choose, but that would be a choice in itself. Because the thing is – if the stories we tell are what shapes the world, then you can choose to tell the story differently. But like everything that will come with a price, and are you willing to pay it?

This is one of my favourite books, and definitely as good second time through when I knew roughly where it was going. I really should sit down one day and go through more slowly taking notes.

“Carnival” Elizabeth Bear

Carnival is a standalone science fiction novel by Elizabeth Bear, and the first of her books that I bought – also the only one I’ve ever seen in a bookshop over here. The several books I now have of hers seem to fall into groups which represent her take on a particular sub-genre – to me this one is Bear’s take on the eco/feminist science fiction story. By that I mean the sort of thing that Sherri S. Tepper writes. But as with the others of Bear’s books that I’ve read this takes the familiar tropes of that sub-genre and does something different with them.

Carnival is set in a future where Old Earth is still the political leader of several colony planets. The population of Earth is much reduced – the majority have been Assessed by the Governors. This is explained later in the book, the Governors are AI constructed by a group who felt humans were damaging the Earth too much so the best thing to do is to kill off most of them, then enforce strict controls on population and other ecologically damaging practices. The Governors use the ubiquitous nanotechnology to kill those they Assess as needing to die – starting in the first instance with all the white people (which included the creators of the Governors, something they would definitely have approved of). It’s an End of the World as We Know It catastrophe caused on purpose by a small group of extremists. After the first wave of Assessments several off-world colonies are founded, then the Governors bring the remaining population down to an “appropriate” number. Two of the protagonists are from Old Earth, on a diplomatic mission to one of the colonies.

Said colony is called New Amazonia – it’s the sort of society I have the impression Tepper would approve of. It’s completely run by women, who go armed and have a dueling culture. Men are studs, and second class citizens, unless they’re gay (“gentle”) in which case they might get a bit more education and rights but it’s not like they’re ever going to be on a par with a woman is it? New Amazonia has something Old Earth wants – a clean & limitless power source. Possessing that might make the Governors back off a bit on the population limits. And a third protagonist is the New Amazonian counterpart to the two Old Earth diplomats.

And there’s a third culture involved here too – this one totally alien. Kii’s species once lived on what is now New Amazonia, and there are several interludes from Kii’s point of view. At first Kii feels almost superfluous, but as the book goes on you find out why this is an essential thread of the narrative. And Kii too is a diplomat of sorts – Kii is explorer-caste “And things that are new are things that Kii’s caste is for”, who else would be observing the humans and maybe interacting with them?

One of the things I like about this book is that everyone (including the secondary characters) is the protagonist of their own story. The ones we follow are Michaelangelo & Vincent from Old Earth, Lesa from New Amazonia and Kii, but everyone has their own agenda and no-one is as simple as the mask they present to the world. And everyone is masking something. The conflict in the story comes from the clash between everyone’s goals, rather than a Good v. Bad struggle, even if some of the goals are more sympathetic to me than others. And people that we thought were on different sides aren’t, and people who seem on the same side might not be. Allegiances shift (or are revealed) several times during the story but it always feels like it grows out of who the characters are and what they want.

Something Bear does very deftly is keep each culture feeling both alien to us and yet still sympathetic. I think part of how she does this is to have the things that our current point of view character Others be things that are part of our culture, and the things that they just accept as the obvious axioms of existence be things that we look at in bemusement. So for instance, there’s a bit where one of the Old Earth men is observing in horror that Lesa has a pet, how could she? An example from the flip side of it is Lesa having a contemplative moment about how it’s not like you could expect a hormonal man to really cope with the pressure of government/civilisation, they’re just not biologically set up for it. And very much all the cultures on show have their own flaws. Vincent’s is from yet another culture, and it’s presented as having been almost an idyllic childhood, but I’m not really sure I believe that (and I don’t think Bear meant one to take it at face value).

There’s a lot of other stuff I could talk about too. Communication is definitely a key theme – all three of the human protagonists are very good with the unspoken sides of communication, Kii is in a First Contact situation (kinda). Which links in with the cultures stuff I just talked about – your basic axioms of society affect how you deal with people and the assumptions you make, and how you communicate. Sacrifice is another theme (often is in Bear’s stories, to get what you want you have to pay a high price and you have to decide if that price is worth it). This story also has something going on about choosing prices for other people – the very existence of Governors is a prime example of this. A few people chose that price on behalf of the whole world, and this was not a good and noble thing despite what they might’ve thought when they did it. And this ties in unsettlingly into the interactions with Kii towards the end of the book, ends and means again and I’m not quite comfortable with the choices made on behalf of Kii even if maybe there wasn’t anything else they could do, and maybe Kii was OK with it afterwards.

Pleasingly after the Banks I’ve been reading there’s a hopeful ending. It feels like maybe, just maybe, things will get better. The net change over the course of the story feels like a positive one.

“Against a Dark Background” Iain M. Banks

The last of the Iain M. Banks books we own is the non-Culture book Against a Dark Background. This story is set in some indeterminate future (or secondary world) and follows Sharrow as she tries to find the artifact that will buy off the people who’re hunting her – without losing too much in the process.

Sharrow is a member of the aristocracy, one of the party people with access to the wealth and lifestyle that implies. Expelled from several finishing schools she describes herself as a difficult child who became an easy adolescent.

Sharrow is a veteran, she fought, nearly died and lost her unborn child in a recent war. She and her squad mates were synchroneurobonded, able to anticipate each other’s reactions in combat. In some ways as close as family, in other ways, well, in other ways as close as family that knows how to twist the knife.

Sharrow is an Antiquities hunter, she hunts treasure for pay. A swashbuckling maniser*, with a smart ass reply for every situation (no matter how unwise it might be) and a plan for every heist.

*c.f. “womaniser”, she and her female team-mate Zefla play the James Bond role in love ’em & leave ’em relationships.

Sharrow is the product of her life so far – obvious perhaps, but not always true for fictional characters πŸ˜‰ Through the book there are flashbacks to formative events in her life, the book even starts with the scene of her mother’s assassination in front of her when she was only 5.

Sharrow is the umpteenth (and last) descendent in the female line from a woman who stole (or not) an artifact from a religious cult (or was abducted by them, or was abducted from them, it’s legend and origin story and the details fade into obscurity). Now the Huhsz must kill her before the new millenium so that their promised Messiah can be born. Or she can return the Lazy Gun her ancestor took (or didn’t) from them in the first place. Which is where the story starts – with her cousin Geis bringing the news that the Huhsz have their licences to legally hunt her.

On one level this is a book of adventure – I compared Sharrow above to James Bond, but she’s a James Bond that works with a team, who she brings back together for this one last hunt. They plot daring escapades, there are thrilling escapes and rescues, there are monomaniacally cackling villains to outwit and foil. But underneath that all there is a darker undercurrent. Sharrow’s life so far hasn’t been easy, her family is pretty dysfunctional and finding your chosen family in a military unit has its own stresses and fracture points. She’s done bad shit in the past, often with good intentions or at least not intentionally bad ones. But intent isn’t magic and she has to live with the real consequences. I didn’t think the ending was as bleak as the end of Consider Phlebas, but it’s still pretty bleak. I certainly wasn’t expecting the highlighted similarities between Sharrow & the Lazy Gun, nor was I expecting who the primary antagonist would turn out to be.

I enjoyed this one more than Consider Phlebas, so that’s a good note to finish re-reading Banks on. Next author on the shelf is Elizabeth Bear, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve got 9 of her books (and there are many more to buy), but she’s a relatively recent discovery for me so I’ve not re-read those before and they struck me on first reading as books that would have more to notice on a second read.

“Consider Phlebas” Iain M. Banks

I’ve been dragging my heels about writing up this book ever since I finished reading it nearly a month ago, because I’ve got no idea what to say about it. Consider Phlebas is the story of a Changer called Horza. Changers can alter their physiology to make themselves into a mimic of a person, and so make good spies or military agents. Horza is a minor figure in a vast war between the Indirans and the Culture. The war is about expansion and politics and beliefs, of course, but Horza’s part in it is down to a simple principle. The Indirans are all biological, but the Culture have machine AIs who are not just citizens of the Culture but heavily involved in running the Culture. And Horza feels that is wrong, on a deep fundamental level. He (and in fact his entire world/people) are on the Indiran side, despite the fact that the immortal Indirans regard mortals as not really people. At least they’re all biological, right?

Horza is rescued from near death after a mission goes wrong, and sent to capture a Mind (a Culture AI) which has gone to ground on a Planet of the Dead. A Planet of the Dead is sort of a museum exhibit – a particular civilisation preserve worlds where the sentient species self-destructed, and embargo them. Except that a few guardians are permitted, and for this particular Planet of the Dead those guardians are Changers, and Horza was once amongst their number. So he’s a good choice, but obviously things don’t go smoothly (there’d be no story otherwise). Horza ends up “rescued” by a mercenary ship after a space battle destroys the Indiran ship he was on, and must first ingratiate himself and then wait for his chance to fulfill his mission. As a supporting cast we have the various other mercenaries, and for a primary face of his antagonist we have the Special Circumstances agent Balveda who is trying to get to the Mind first (to rescue it).

And I got to the end of the book and just ended up feeling deflated. In retrospect I suppose it should’ve been obvious it was going to be a tragedy, but I wasn’t expecting it to end with it all feeling quite so pointless. Horza’s mission is important to him, but it’s not really important to the war, or to the Indirans. He just ends up a pawn ground to dust between vast forces he has no chance of affecting. He has chances to turn aside, to make a life for himself somewhere else away from the war – but he sticks to his principles, he does the right thing as he sees it. And the universe doesn’t care, the Indirans don’t care, mostly no-one even knows he existed. And his principles are misguided at best – the Indirans don’t care at all about him or anyone who isn’t an Indiran, Horza’s elevation of biologicalness as the most important thing is just convenient for the Indirans to make him more useful.

I prefer more optimism in my fiction, I think. Or maybe just less nihilism.

A note of comparison to the other books by Banks that I’ve read – identity is again a strong theme. Horza can change his entire appearance & mannerisms to mimic others, I don’t think we once see him in his natural form in the book. People are always interacting with who he’s presenting as, rather than who he is – and he definitely has issues with his identity, including recurring nightmares about forgetting his own name. I’m not sure if I missed something there – was Horza not his real name and I missed clues about that?

Another note is that I thought the Culture was “in our future” but this book makes it clear that’s not Banks’s intention – there are framing vignettes for the story that give Earth dates for the war, and it’s happening elsewhere in the universe during the past 600 years, or so.

“Look to Windward” Iain M. Banks

I took two Iain M. Banks books away on holiday, this was the other one. Look to Windward is also set in his Culture universe, this time centring on some visitors to a Culture Orbital. An Orbital is a massive artificial habitat orbiting a star inhabited by tens of billions of people (human, alien, AI), all run by a single AI. As the story opens the Orbital is gearing up for ceremonies to mark the appearance of light from two supernovas that are 800 light years away. They weren’t natural, they were caused by a weapon wielded during a war that the Culture was involved in – and the AI that runs the Orbital, called Hub, was a warship during that war. While the weapon wasn’t used by the Culture they feel responsible & guilty for their involvement in a war that lead to such terrible acts & terrible loss of life. Hence the marking of the light reaching the Orbital. One of the non-Culture protagonists is Ziller, a composer in self-imposed exile from Chel, who is composing a new piece for the occasion. Quillan, another Chelgrian has recently arrived on the Orbital, ostensibly with the mission of meeting with Ziller & persuading him to return home. But all is not what it seems here & we find out (along with Quilan) via flashback spaced out through the story. Quilan is also a veteran of war – a war caused by the Culture’s meddling in his civilisation’s politics, for which they now feel terribly guilty.

It’s been ages since I’ve read these books, and in my memory the Culture was always very much The Good Guys. But it actually seems more ambiguous than that. I mean, it’d be pretty cool to live in the Culture – it’s a true utopia, and post-scarcity one too. A Culture citizen seems pretty much to be able to do what they want to do and live how they want to live. However the overall civilisation is definitely prone to hubris when it comes to dealing with other civilisations. They (or at least Special Circumstances) meddle, and meddle “knowing” that they Know Best. And when it goes wrong, they’re oh so terribly sorry but they don’t seem to learn from it – 800 years on from a war that culminated in two supernovae they’re still meddling in others’ politics before they know enough to do so.

Culture AI are also definitely not bounded by human feelings about unnecessary brutality when they are “off the leash” and undertaking reprisals. Both the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw in Use of Weapons (post) and the unnamed weapon who appears in two vignettes in this book seem glad of the opportunity to cause suffering when they’ve got an excuse. Both scenes are unsettling because of the gleefulness of the AIs in question.

I had a couple of quibbles with the structure/pacing of the story. It’s obvious from the beginning that both Quilan and Hub are veterans of war, but the other parallels between them don’t appear till late on in the book just before you need to know about them for the ending to make sense. It would’ve been nice to have that seeded in the story earlier, but maybe I just missed some clues. There was also a sub-plot with an off-world Culture citizen who discovers the true plan for Quilan and is trying to get back to warn them. And it just didn’t really seem to go anywhere in the end. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was neat – particularly as this Culture citizen was studying another alien ecosystem where the aliens were truly alien rather than just differently shaped. But I’m not sure what it brought to the overall story.

It did tie in thematically by the end, though – memory & identity were a part of the ending of that thread as they were for the other threads. So far all three Banks books I’ve read have had something about identity, and concealment of parts of oneself – either internally or externally imposed. I’ll be looking out for it in the next ones.

“Use of Weapons” Iain M. Banks

I’m reading through the Iain M. Banks in “the order they are on the shelf” which I have a suspicion might be random. Most (all?) of the half a dozen or so that we own are standalone I believe, so this should work out OK. I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of them before but sufficiently long ago that I can’t remember what happens.

Use of Weapons is set in Banks’s Culture universe – a far future human & AI interstellar, well, culture who are very much post-scarcity. They are one of the more technologically advanced civilisations in their era & part of the universe, and they benevolently interfere in the affairs of other civilisations to make sure things go the way they feel they should. To do this they often hire members of other civilisations to do the dirty work, and Zakalwe was one of these operatives. He’s retired, mostly, but Special Circumstances (the interfering branch of the Culture) think he’s the only man for this particular job and Diziet Sma (a human Culture citizen) and Skaffen-Amtiskaw (a drone, an AI Culture citizen) are dispatched to persuade him to join them.

The story is told in a very non-linear fashion, and it’s not always entirely clear where the episode you’re reading fits into the narrative but it doesn’t feel confusing. Towards the end it begins to coalesce into a coherent whole, but it’s not until the last (pre-epilogue) scene that you get the final piece of information that makes it snap completely into focus. And not the focus you might’ve expected.

In some ways it reminded me of The Wasp Factory (post). Not in terms of gruesomeness, Use of Weapons wasn’t short of gruesome but it wasn’t as much front and centre as it was in The Wasp Factory. But it reminded me of it because of the way the very end of the book changes how all before it looked, yet you’re left feeling like the clues were there and you just didn’t see them. It did feel a bit like Banks cheated tho – there’s a couple of sections where the reader is misled as to whose point of view we’re seeing it from in a way that isn’t possible to figure out till after the fact. Despite that the conclusion feels satisfying.

I’m sure I missed a lot of the stuff that’s going on underneath the surface of the story, it felt like there was a lot of complexity there if you paid attention to it. Stuff to think about about identity, and atonement. But I’m not sure I’ve got my thoughts sufficiently sorted out to articulate any of them. Particularly not in a non-spoilery fashion, and it’s a book it would be a shame to spoil – worth a first read through not knowing where it ends up I think.

This will stay out on the shelves, I enjoyed reading it and it’s definitely worth a re-read (hopefully before I’ve forgotten what it was about again!).

“The Wasp Factory” Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory is technically part of my great re-read of the fiction on the shelves. It’s on the shelves, but I’ve never read it before. My brother had a copy when we both still lived at home (and he probably still has his copy) – so that must be late 80s or early 90s – and I remember flicking through a few pages here & there and deciding not to read it. I also remember my father reading it and mentioning it was gruesome. The copy on the shelf is one that J bought some time ago, and when I asked him to get it off the shelf (I can’t reach the top shelves of the bookcases without standing on chairs, it’s easier to ask) he said “oh, well that’ll be a ‘fun’ read for you”. So I approached the book with some trepidation …

Rightly so, as it very much lived up to the reputation it had built up in my head. And yet while I can’t say I enjoyed it per se, I’m glad I finally read it. Except now I’m stuck with trying to think of something to say about it! πŸ˜‰

We’re inside the head of Frank, our 17 year old protagonist. Frank is not what one might call sane, to put it mildly. He’s been brought up in semi-isolation by his not entirely mentally stable father since the unfortunate incident when he was 3 years old. The story picks up when his older brother Eric escapes from the loony bin and starts to make his way home. Frank thinks about the past as he prepares himself & his home for his brother’s return & we learn about what he’s done & what his brother’s done & eventually what made him & them as disturbed as they are. I clearly read a bit of the end of the book before – I knew what the big reveal was for Frank. And I equally clearly hadn’t chanced across the big reveal for Eric’s own unfortunate incident, as I’m sure I’d’ve remembered it if I had.

As well as the black humour I think what saves it from being gross & instead made it a compelling read is the matter of factness of the presentation. Frank admits to being a little eccentric, but as he goes about blowing things up and killing small animals to make wards for the island you can see as the reader that he’s deeply deeply fucked up, but he just trundles along with an air of “well, obviously I’m doing that, it’s so clearly the right thing to do”. I picked there a couple of the milder indications of Frank’s disturbed nature – there’s a lot of death in this book, and a lot of it caused deliberately by Frank (although not all). Very much not for the squeamish reader.

I’m not quite sure what I think of it as a book, nor what I think it was about under the twistedness of it – a lack of anything intelligent to say here I’m afraid. While I’m glad I read it, partly because it’s been on the periphery of my awareness for so long, it’s not filled me with any desire to read any of the rest of Banks’s non-SF books (luckily for me we don’t own any more of that side of his work).

Filed Under A

I’ve reached the end of the first letter of the alphabet in my great re-read of all the fiction on my shelves, so I thought this would be a good point for a retrospective on what I’ve read so far. I’m fond of stats & graphs, so that’s where we’ll start πŸ™‚

The books are as follows (links go to my posts):

Authors of the short stories in the anthologies were: Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, John W. Campbell, John D. Clark, Arthur C. Clarke, J. J. Coupling, Chan Davis, Raymond Z. Gallun, Martin Gardner, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward Grendon, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Hasse, Neil R Jones, Henry Kuttner (including writing as Lewis Padgett), Murray Leinster, John D. MacDonald, Laurence Manning, Capt. S. P. Meek, Judith Merril, P. Schuyler Miller, C. L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett), Peter Phillips, H. Beam Piper, Ross Rocklynne, Eric Frank Russell, Nat Schachner, T. L. Sherred, Wilmar H. Shiras, Clifford D. Simak, Leslie Frances Stone, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles R. Tanner, William Tenn, A. E. van Vogt, Donald Wandrei, Stanley G. Weinbaum and Jack Williamson.

graphs of statistics for books filed under A on the bookshelf

(You can click on the graph for a slightly bigger version where the text is a little easier to read.)

So out of the 13 books I read most were firmly in the “OK” territory (I’ve not put ratings in my blog posts, but I do put a star rating on them on my librarything). The outliers were the Armstrong book at 2 stars (which I think of as “meh”), and the Asher & Asimov’s “Nemesis” at 4 stars (“cool”). And that corresponds pretty much to what’s staying on the shelf and what’s going – although “Nemesis” is going into a box to keep it with the rest of the Asimovs.

For the gender ratio & publication stats I’ve added in the data for the individual short stories. In terms of gender split – it’s pretty poor. Even if I just count the three main authors there’s only one woman & she’s the one who wrote the book that’s leaving the house. When you add in the short stories the percentage gets worse, which can probably be explained by looking at the publication date breakdown. The anthologies are all old stuff – 1930s & 1940s fiction for the multi-author ones, 40s & 50s for the Asimov ones.

I’ve not done a graph for genre breakdown, genre boundaries & definitions are always fuzzy and I figured it makes more sense to talk about it than diagram it. Given this shelf was dominated by Asimov & Asimov-related stuff it’s dominated by science fiction. I’ve also got the bulk of the 1930s & 1940s stuff categorised under “science fiction” as an umbrella term – some of it would probably be better put as fantasy and some of it would be fantasy if published now but was still possibly science fiction back then (like the shrinking men stories). And that’s why it’s easier to talk about than to diagram! There’s only two non-Asimov related books – the Armstrong is urban fantasy and the Asher is science fiction (sub-category space opera). I think the main reason I was “meh” about the Armstrong is that I went through a phase of reading a lot of UF a few years ago and got tired of the clichΓ©s, and there’s nothing about “Bitten” that makes it rise above that to my eyes.

I’d wanted to see how the authors I’ve read here break down by ethnic identity, sexuality or other cultural groupings (like religion), but that sort of info appears to be hard to figure out. From the ISFDB and links from there (mostly wikipedia) I could normally figure out nationality (and that’s where I double checked gender) – but other info was notably lacking. I guess I could assume “white & straight unless otherwise specified” as that’s often the way things work out in places like wikipedia but that doesn’t seem right, so I’ll skip any conclusions here. In terms of nationality it was a predominantly US list, with a few Canadians & a few Brits – 33 of the 42 authors listed born in the US and while some moved away others moved in, the percentage of around 80% US is probably right. I’ve not done a graph because again it gets fuzzy – for instance does a British born man who moves to the US in childhood & stays there count as US or UK or both? Does it depend when he moves?

Something interesting I noticed while researching this – two authors that are US-born move to Canada in the 60s because of their politics. Chan Davis moved in the early 60s after he’d spent time in jail in the US because he was a member of the Communist Party of America. Judith Merril was first a Marxist then a Trotskyist (& also a Zionist in her youth), she moved in the late 60s in the Vietnam War era. She’s also referred to as a “genderbender” on the webpage for her but I’m not clear on how the phrase is being used there.

That’s the stats, what about the books? For Armstrong & Asher there’s only a single book apiece so I’ve nothing to add to the original posts. The various anthologies are interesting to me mostly as something historical – some of the individual stories were good, but the world & audience they were written for is almost as alien to me as the worlds they were written about. Particularly noticeable for the 30s stories, which also included a sub-genre that seems to’ve vanished – the “Lone Male Scientist & his Invention have Adventures” ones, think of H. G. Well’s “The Time Machine” as the archetype for this.

I’ve got a broader sweep for Asimov, but it’s an oddly skewed one. What I bought in the late 80s were books my mother didn’t already own – why buy things that were already in the house, after all? Of course now I don’t have easy access to those but I still don’t own them (with the exception of the two parts of the Foundation Trilogy that J bought back in the late 80s or early 90s). So I’ve only read 4 of Asimov’s novels here (plus a fifth as a library book). I much prefer his novels to his short stories, and Foundation (post) was the weakest of the novels for me and also the most obviously a fix-up of previous short stories. This is down to the lack of characterisation – it feels to me that Asimov didn’t bother making his characters into people in his short stories, but in a novel there was enough space for them to grow into more distinctive individuals. I preferred his (very few) female characters, I think he did a better job making them memorably distinct rather than names slapped on a stereotype. Having re-read the stories in Nightfall One I also wish he’d written more aliens in his career – I remember enjoying the alien section of The Gods Themselves years ago as well (another book Mum has that I don’t). My guess would be that in the case of both aliens & women he had put them in the story for a purpose & needed to take some time over thinking about their role, but men were his default & he was lazier about it. I.e. that he felt he needed an answer to the question of “why a woman?” but men were just the furniture for the story idea he was trying to show you.

For me, Asimov isn’t ageing well. The stuff I liked so much in my teens seems pedestrian now – I’ve read better books since, and even the one of his I liked best here didn’t rise up as high as the “awesome” category. Which seems a very odd thing to say about a man who’s held up as one of the Great Science Fiction Authors, but for me you need more than a good idea to make a good book you need some properly fleshed out characters & something more to the story. Sacrilege to some, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t recommend the Foundation trilogy to anyone unless they were interested in the history of the genre.

I’ll have another one of these round-up posts soon, about the other books I read while reading the ‘A’s. We’ll see how the stats on that balance up.

“Nightfall One” Isaac Asimov

The final book by Isaac Asimov on my shelves is another anthology. Nightfall One is the first half of a two volume collection of stories by Asimov, first published in 1969 (as a single volume). There are five stories in the book originally published between 1941 & 1951, with introductions by Asimov. One thing that struck me about these stories are that they have aliens in them, which is relatively unusual for Asimov. They’re also further demonstrations that Asimov is more of an ideas storyteller than a character one. I’d prefer to have both but at his best Asimov’s ideas are good enough to carry the somewhat shallow characters (and it’s not a surprise that the story I think is the weakest in this volume also has the least “Big Idea” to it).


This is (as Asimov points out in his introduction) often regarded as Asimov’s best story – he finds this a bit irritating because he wrote it in 1941 and feels that surely with practice he should’ve improved. The story is set on a planet which orbits one of a cluster of six stars. Every couple of thousand years there’s an eclipse when there’s only one sun in view and the people who have evolved there see darkness & the stars for the first time. Civilisation collapses, the people return to barbarism & the cycle begins again. Technically these are aliens, but it’s more an exploration of what people & society would be like if this was the case than any attempt at creating aliens. It is the best story in this collection, in my opinion. Partly because of the idea itself and the way Asimov plausibly extrapolates what effect never seeing darkness would have on society. And partly because of the little touches that show just how hard it can be to overcome cultural & biological conditioning with your intellect, like the various characters trying to insist that they themselves aren’t affected by darkness. And how even when you think you’re thinking outside the box you can still be blinded by your assumptions – like the scientists who are going to photograph these “stars” they’ve theorised the existence of talking about how there might even be as many as a dozen of them because they have no comprehension of the scale of the universe.

“Green Patches”

Second best story of the collection, for me. They’re actually ordered in publication order, but for me it was almost in order of quality as well. This is a Bradbury-esque tale of a human spaceship that has gone to an another planet and an alien lifeform has stowed away on the return trip with intent to convert Earth life to the gaia-esque existence that the alien life has. The captain of the previous spaceship to investigate this planet had blown up his ship when he realised that the alien lifeforms were converting his crew. Best bits are the segments from the perspective of the alien, which is satisfyingly not-human. It’s disguised as a piece of wire & is having to hold itself back from rescuing these “life fragments” as it thinks of earthlife – it is trying to wait till it reaches Earth.


A future where we have interstellar travel, and have met five alien species. All share several characteristics that humans don’t, and in fact humans are more like diseased aliens (in some specific ways). This is one of those “awful truth” stories – by the end of the story we find out why humans are different & it’s not because we’re wonderful πŸ˜‰ The protagonist is Rose Smollett, a biologist in her mid-30s, and also central to the story is her husband. She’s only been married a bit under a year, and is still (mostly happily) surprised her husband should’ve wanted to marry her. This personal plot intertwines with the interstellar politics, and by the end of the story we & Rose know the “awful truth” about her marriage, too. Very very 1950s social mores, in a way that dates the story so much that is has to be “alternate history” rather than “set in the future”. But still reasonably good.

“Breeds There a Man … ?”

This is a “what if” story where the universe is not quite the way it seems – makes me think of some of the 1930s stories in Before the Golden Age where the planets are eggs or other such flights of fantasy. This isn’t as extremely fantastical but it’s still in that sort of category. The main character is an atomic physicist but we never get his perspective, instead it’s all told via the various police & mental health professionals he encounters when he has a breakdown. He’s figured out what the world really is, and is driven to suicidal thoughts because of it. I liked it better than “Hostess” – although the “awful truth” here is equally as implausible I thought it was a cooler idea to base a story round.


For me this was the weakest of the stories in the anthology. Several men are on a spaceship when it’s captured by an alien race with whom humanity are at war. They aren’t comrades, but are flung together by circumstance so there is much tension and eventually one of the least likely of the men to do something heroic manages to carry out a daring plan & they rescue themselves. As I said in my intro paragraph to this post wasn’t really a “Big Idea” to this one so all there was to carry it was the characters, but sadly I found them shallow & the story boring.