A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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9 Comments

Filed under Crime, De Angelis, Augusto, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, SF

9 responses to “A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

  1. Interesting selection of SF there; I read both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword a while ago but never quite got around to Ancillary Mercy largely because I felt I’d have to read the other two again first and didn’t have the time for it. I loved Justice, it’s a cracking read and very interesting, especially the way it deals with gender and artificial intelligence. Ancillary Sword was also pretty good, after you get past the repeating of the basic premise which seems to be an inevitable part of sci-fi series. Glad you’ve given me permission to skip Small Angry Planet. I’d been thinking of reading it, now I won’t.

  2. Shigekuni - Book Blog

    Interesting. I have the last book on my night table because of the hugo nom for one of the sequels. I am trying to read my way through the hugo novel/novella list, but there’s some real duds there. I am unhappy to find that the Chambers is apparently among them. 😦

    Also, I love the work and criticism of Adam Roberts!

  3. Even though SF is not my bag, I enjoyed reading your summaries of these, especially the Leckie which seems to have gone down well with several readers. I have a de Angelis mystery on my kindle but keep forgetting about it when it comes to choosing something new to read. (It always seems so much easier to reach for the bookshelves instead!) The Murdered Banker, I think. Maybe I’ll try it as a wind-down read the next time I feel in need of something light.

  4. My problem with Ancillary Justice was that the set-up just doesn’t work. I mean the ship basically knows everything that’s going on just by monitoring the biological state of people. So it can do all that but it can’t tell if someone is male or female? That makes no sense to me so I didn’t bother with the sequels.

  5. Bookbii, you definitely have my permission! I meant to link to this review of the Chambers by Resolute Reader which I liked – he uses words like “disappointed” and much worse “inoffensive”.

    Shigekuni, the Shadow Clarke is much more interesting and was fairly damning of the Chambers. I tried it anyway on the basis it would be fun, but it wasn’t my fun. You may get on with it better of course. The Hugo I don’t bother with.

    Jacqui, I’ve read Banker (it was my first of those) and it’s reasonably fun in a sort of undemanding way. All right in a sort of a limited way. For an off-night.
    To be fair, it was good enough that I read two more, but only just. The Leckie is good but probably not really your thing.

    Alastair, on the ship my impression was that she knew the crew’s gender but didn’t care. Once no longer connected to the ship she no longer had that ability of course and had to rely on sensory cues. Anyway, you may be right but if so mercifully it didn’t occur to me and I therefore enjoyed it much more.

  6. The De Angelis series is definitely the weaker side of Vertigo. BTW I’ve read a couple of Pelcanos, and that will be the extent of it. Again, a hugely popular author for some but the books aren’t to my tastes either.

  7. Yes, my chief criticism of this Pelecanos would be that I couldn’t really recall enough to actually say anything about it. Still, obviously I don’t begrudge him his many fans. Sometimes a writer just doesn’t click with you.

  8. Nothing I’d like to read but it’s still interesting to read about SF. I’m always amazed at the number of sub-genres included in SF.

  9. So many sub-genres! It gives SF fans something to argue about down the pub…

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