I need to remember to add a Currently Reading in here, but I read these back to back over the last few days, finishing FIRE ENGINE last night. I’ve been eking out the Martin Beck books. Planning to write about these two a bit in the newsletter on Sunday. Recommended.
WARREN ELLIS LTD Articles.
In the fraction of a second that followed, and as the aircar suddenly changed its orientation on several axes, turning the untethered Blaine Turnin into a surprised and fleshy pinball careening around the surfaces of the aircar’s passenger cabin, Ghreni Nohamapetan, acting Duke of End, formulated several simultaneous thoughts that did not so much proceed through his brain as appear, fully formed and overlapping, as if Ghreni’s higher cognitive functions decided to release all the ballast at once and let Ghreni sort it out later, if there was a later, which, given that Blaine Turnin’s neck had just turned a disturbing shade of floppy, seemed increasingly unlikely. Perhaps it might be easier to describe these thoughts in percentage form, in terms of their presence in Ghreni’s theater of attention.
To begin, there was Shit fuck fuck shit fuck shit fuck the fucking fuck shit fucking shit fuck hell, which was taking up roughly 89 percent of Ghreni’s attention, and, as his aircar was beginning to both spin and lose altitude, understandably so.
Anyone else get the strong sense of Douglas Adams off that? This is from the opening chapter of John Scalzi’s THE LAST EMPEROX, final part of his Interdependency space-opera trilogy. Unusually for the last part of a thing, it’s looser and more scabrously amusing, more whimsical, than its first two acts.
Sneaky fucker that he is.
“Here it is: I want your support. I want your house’s support.”
“I’m not my house. You’ll have to talk to my mother about that.”
“I did. One of my representatives did, anyway.”
“Yeah? How did that go?”
“She said that we could all fuck ourselves with a rented dick. The same rented dick.”
“That’s my mom,” Kiva said.
For much of its length, it’s more operetta than opera, almost as if he’d lost his nerve and defanged the book. But that’s a trick, and I was delighted by the way he sets out the rug and then yanks it out at the top of the last act.
I read it in three nights — Scalzi is always a high-velocity read — and was greatly entertained. And we could all use some of that right now, yes? Nice job.
Finished reading William Gibson’s AGENCY I’d been saving it. I mean, it took Bill six years to write it, it’ll be a while before there’s another, so I didn’t want to use it up on its week of release.
And god damn. It reads like the wind. The sheer pace of the thing is astonishing. If nothing else, it’s a unique masterclass in writing highly accelerated fiction that is still rich in texture and character. There’s even a fun little pulpy side to it that you used to get from techno-thriller series, seeing old characters and things pop up and reconnect, but with prose that is several orders of magnitude better sculpted.
The bit is very simple. Someone with the bullshit buzzword rep of being an “app whisperer” is given what turns out to be the UI front end of an actual AI, which is of course impossible, and which you very quickly start to suspect is made out of a dead person. These aren’t spoilers, Gibson gets you there in five minutes. By a quarter of the way in, a plan has been formulated to get her out of the bind that bonding with the AI has dropped her in. And, for the rest of the book, you get to see it assemble, in its vast and amusing complexity — an AI essentially using humans as software agents and tracked parcels in transit. It’s an amazing and delightful construction.
You will need to read THE PERIPHERAL first. That’s non-negotiable. AGENCY is very much a straight sequel, and I think most people would be left too far out at sea if they started here. Luckily for you, it’s an excellent book, so if you haven’t read it, treat yourself, and then get AGENCY.
(Stealing Deb Chachra’s photo for this post, hi Deb!)
I’ve been reading A NEW DAY YESTERDAY: UK PROGRESSIVE ROCK AND THE 1970S, by Mike Barnes, which isn’t a bad book, although some of the more striking stories and quotes so far seem largely sourced from other biographies rather than the extensive interviews he undertook. The problem is, you read the expansive descriptions of some of the musics he discusses, and then you go to YouTube to give them a listen, and…
…well, I always enjoy reading about innovative artistic movements, and there was a lot of invention happening there in a unique period in popular music and its industry and space, but…
…I just don’t like prog rock.
If you do, you will love this book. And it’s pretty readable so far, and Barnes’ personal perceptions of these works are really quite inspiring. They relate to what I’m actually hearing not at all, but I’d like to hear things that sound like what Barnes describes.
And it is teaching me things. Frankly, I could have done with a lot less Pink Floyd and a lot more about Ron Geesin, a sort of one man electronic sound lab from darkest Ayrshire, who I hadn’t been aware of previous to reading this book. So thanks for that, Mike Barnes!
I’m finishing Lavie Tidhar’s BY FORCE ALONE, which is like a New Weird Britain take on Arthurian mythos with additional crime-family drama. It is knowing about the legend of Arthur, and knowing about the uses that legend, and the Matter of Britain in general, are put to. It pokes at other adaptations – the opening section can be read as a miserable low-key take on EXCALIBUR, the middle section as a read on that recent King Arthur movie that was set in the somewhat ahistorical Londinium. In this sequence, the political gag of the sword Excalibur Lavie invents is greatly amusing. He even nods to THE SWORD IN THE STONE Disney film. There’s some great wordplay: for example, as the Unseelie Court of fairy legend becomes the Unseemly Court.
I once talked about a take on the Arthur story I read in some local small-press book from Cornwall about 35 years ago, which presents Merlin as the head priest of St Michael’s Mount, who convenes negotiations as what was once referred to as “a political wizard.” There’s some of that, too. It’s an immense remix of the myth, done with an extremely ruthless eye. Lavie is an extremely clever writer, and, for all the book’s genuine wit and humour, it is very very cold and it very much knows what business it is about. It is not to be fucked with.
I’d been saving the final book in Iain Banks’ CULTURE sequence, THE HYDROGEN SONATA, for a while. Iain Banks died almost seven years ago, now — god, I remember buying his first book, THE WASP FACTORY, off a spinner rack in Rayleigh High Street in 1984 and just being knocked flat by its mad audacity – and there aren’t going to be any more Culture books. So I’ve saved it for as long as I can.
It’s probably the best book in the sequence since EXCESSION.
In the far future, civilisations can do something called Subliming – abandoning the real universe and escaping up to a higher dimension beyond spacetime. A civ called the Gzilt is about to do this. They are contacted by the remnant of a civilisation who previously Sublimed, who had taken the Gzilt somewhat under their wing in the years before they left. The remnant has a message for them. The Gzilt ship that the remnant approached takes the message — and then does something dramatic, unexpected and extremely final. This is the mystery: what was the message, and why did the Gzilt ship react in this way?
As in all the Culture books, the mystery naturally comes to involve The Culture, a vast Fully Automated Luxury Communism spaceborne civilisatiion that was Banks’ explicit reaction again the American right wing of space opera that had dominated most of the subgenre’s history.
Ships in the Culture, being god-level artificial intelligences, are characters in their own right, and some of them are big — when GSV The Empiricist shows up, it’s a few hundred kilometres on a side and contains several million people — and big personalities.
You will know Culture readers by their love for Culture ship names. Elon Musk borrowed a couple for his SpaceX drone boats. In HYDROGEN SONATA, you’ll meet MSV Passing By And Thought I’d Drop In, MSV You Call This Clean?, and the VFP Outstanding Contribution To The Historical Process among others.
Banks had the soul of a literary writer despite all protestations, and it’s a literary writer’s ending, but I think it’s one of the strongest endings to a Culture novel. And now I want to reread EXCESSION. Don’t start with this one? But save it. It’s worth it. And if you’ve already read any of the others? Don’t wait as long as I did to read this one.
I’m across several books right now. As most of you know, I read on Kindle, which allows me to easily highlight and save text, like this bit from THE ORIGIN OF EMPIRE by David Potter:
Roman coinage, minted in Rome, was simply not user friendly. It consisted of heavy bronze bars, weighing slightly less than five pounds, which seem to have been used for large-scale transactions; silver and bronze coins copied from coins circulating in southern Italy; and bronze discs, weighing nearly a pound.
I mean, god knows when I’d ever need that nugget of trivia. But I’m pleased by the notion of someone heaving five bronze discs up onto a countertop just to get a coffee. Also, on the root of the word proletariat:
proletarii – that is, people whose duty to the state was to ‘bear children’ as they did not have enough property to be classified as assidui, ‘the settled’ or ‘the landowning’, who made up the membership of the other centuries.
Which I think I once knew and then forgot? Therefore worth saving as a note.
The new William Gibson, AGENCY, landed on my Kindle automagically a few days ago, and it may be that I pause the several books I have on the go and just descend into that, because it’s Bill and because I always learn new things about writing from reading Bill. It was my great delight to bump into him again in the green room at NYCC, and I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile.
…but probably I should save it and go straight into Lavie Tidhar’s new one, BY FORCE ALONE, which is not out yet but Lavie sent me the manuscript and shit this does actually look really good damnit
Britannia, AD 535.
The Romans have gone. While their libraries smoulder, roads decay and cities crumble, men with swords pick over civilisation’s carcass, slaughtering and being slaughtered in turn.
This is the story of just such a man. Like the others, he had a sword. He slew until slain. Unlike the others, we remember him. We remember King Arthur.
This is the story of a land neither green nor pleasant. An eldritch isle of deep forest and dark fell haunted by swaithes, boggarts and tod-lowries, Robin-Goodfellows and Jenny Greenteeths, and predators of rarer appetite yet.
This is the story of a legend forged from a pack of self-serving, turd-gilding, weasel-worded lies told to justify foul deeds and ill-gotten gains.
First book of 2020. A weird, cruel thing, as warped and sharp and wriggly as barbed wire. The language fascinates:
It was at that moment that his watch slurred, its arms resting on lazy elbows, its tick slowing to a tock.
I love that. And this:
The dramatic change in temperature had not helped. He was shrivelling away to nothing, so that on some nights when his mongrel bladder barked awake and he had to pad along the shivering corridor to the unheated water closet, he could barely find himself, and stood fumbling and pinching in his pyjamas while the thin pipes giggled with ice and the refrigerator in the kitchen shook so deeply that it made all the crockery shudder in nudging, unlit chuckles.
“Giggled with ice.” Catling writes like a painter – he’s also an artist, a sculptor and a poet. And he has a fine eye for the eccentric, revealing stroke:
Her companion Monsieur Edmund was older, an ink-wash of a lounge toad starched with Dracularian elegance; the ancient white hair dubbed into negative, a blue-black ink trickle of it pinned under the arm of his heavy spectacles, their tint even darker.
This is the story of Aalbert Scellinc, the earwig of the title, introduced in almost Samsaesque terms, an unpleasant and unanchored man of supernatural hearing and mnemenic difficulties. He is being employed, in his latter years, to attend to a young girl with ice teeth and a glass tube in her mouth for transportation of her saliva into ice trays for the production of more teeth. This is the start of the book. It does not become more normal or less disturbing.
It’s an extremely cruel novel, thin like a blade, and I find its concluding movements extraordinarily haunting. An uncomfortable and exquisitely wrought novel to begin the year.
stillicide, n 1. A continual dropping of water. 2. Law – A right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land. From Latin stillicidium, from stilla drop + -cidium, from cadere to fall.
STILLICIDE, Cynan Jones:
David came up what the sea had left of the steps. The tidal defence panels to either side were bleached grey, had the compact, matted look he imagined the pelt of a seal must have. That they were moulded from re-formed blades of decommissioned wind turbines seemed right.
Fancy some Lyric Grim? Cynan Jones has got you covered. Look at that. Flood defenses made out of old wind turbines. It takes you a second to do the extra processing about this future condition, and then you get that shudder of “oh shit. That’s grim.“
Although, you know, it’s not like you haven’t been prepared:
The boy’s hand opened and closed as if he reached for a glass of water but it was just the nerves dying through his body.
STILLICIDE is about water, Britain, and desperate attempts to engineer a way out of a future we caused out of a series of dumb short-term decisions. In its structure, it may appeal to people who liked mine & Jason’s TREES graphic novels. It’s certainly a book I felt a degree of kinship with, despite the fact that Jones’ command of the language is several dozen levels higher than mine. There are also structural notes of John Brunner’s big eco books, STAND ON ZANZIBAR and THE SHEEP LOOK UP. But STILLICIDE is very much its own thing, very much of its place: a collection of pen-portraits of the end times, all tangling together like weed in a rockpool. It’s a wonderful, sobering thing that still manages to shine with new light.
I suspect this is where I go out and buy all the rest of Cynan Jones’ books.
I’ve been reading NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPH by Robert Bresson.
Bresson was an austere and eccentric French filmmaker with very specific developed views on what film should or should not be. As just one example, he exclusively referred to his actors as “models,” as he believed acting was a hold-over from theatre that had no place in film. His NOTES are essentially a long list of epigrams, aphorisms and fragments. Here are some:
The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows.
An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours.
The truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theatre, not the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting. (What the cinematographer captures with his or her own resources cannot be what the theatre, the novel, painting capture with theirs).
Nothing more inelegant and ineffective than an art conceived in another art’s form.
Expression through compression. To put into an image what a writer would spin out over ten pages.
Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.
His “flattened” images and his interest in silence and immobility seem to me to have an unusual amount to say to the comics form.