The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (2016) 218 p.

Mark Haddon had this to say about short fiction in the Guardian while promoting this anthology:

“…the Chekhov/Joyce/ Mansfield/Carver idiom, an idiom that has become a kind of ruling orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic over the last 30 years: modest, melancholic stories, not arcs with beginnings, middles and ends, so much as moments and turning points, stories often about things not happening and people being absent, not really stories at all according to the everyday meaning of the word… if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.”

It’s not a coincidence that the two pieces I liked least in The Pier Falls are precisely that sort of story: Breathe and The Weir, both stories which are mostly about interpersonal relationship drama. Nearly all the other are excellent, however, and live up to Haddon’s observation that a story, as the word is typically used, should fundamentally be about something unusual and interesting. The titular story The Pier Falls is probably the standout, a slow-motion observation of a mass death catastrophe as a pier collapses into the sea, which you can read free online. I also greatly enjoyed The Woodpecker and the Wolf, about an expedition of astronauts stranded on Mars, and Wodwo, an excellent modern-day reworking of Gawain and the Green Knight. Highly recommended, even if you don’t typically read short stories.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore (1952) 194 p.

One of the earlier entries in the alternate history genre, in this case laying out the popular scenario: what if the South had won the Civil War? Bring the Jubilee is very similar to its contemporary in alternate history fiction, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in that it largely ignores an interesting premise in favour of characters waffling on about uninteresting crap. In The Man in the High Castle that’s jewelry counterfeiting and the I Ching; in Bring the Jubilee it’s philosophy and the main characters’ tedious romantic drama.

Further points are docked from Bring the Jubilee for suggesting that a single moment in a single battle in a single war could somehow, regardless of the war’s outcome, transform the Union into a moribund, impoverished rump state and transform the Confederacy into a dazzling powerhouse of industry and technological innovation. The North won not because of the righteousness of their cause, but because they had more men, more money and more industrial capacity, while the South was an agricultural economy utterly reliant on the export of a single product harvested by a literal slave caste. Those circumstances arose across hundreds of years of history and immutable facts of geography; and while history does sometimes turn on a dime, an alternate history which presents such a wildly divergent scenario based on such a small change feels more like fantasy and is rather less interesting.

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian (1991) 338 p.

The Nutmeg of Consolation. It’s the name of a ship, in turn named after a florid royal title Jack took a shine to in the Malay archipelago, but it’s still probably the silliest title in the series thus far. It begins as The Thirteen-Gun Salute left off: with the hundred-odd survivors of the Diane stranded on an island in the South China Sea (which both I and the Patrick O’Brian Mapping Project agree feels a bit more like the Java Sea), trying to put together a makeshift schooner from the shattered wreck of their beached vessel. They soon find themselves attacked by local pirates, in what is probably the only land battle I can remember O’Brian describing. Maybe because of that – or because a land battle can be grasped more easily by a landlubber even if said landlubber is a civilian whose sum total of combat experience is with a PlayStation controller – I found this to be one of the more gripping battles the series has served up, since I long since gave up any hope of understanding what goes on during the naval engagements. Part of it is the unique and exotic nature of it, with English sailors and marines stranded far from home on a tropical island; part of it is the chess-like nature, with Jack confident that because they can launch the schooner before the pirates can arrive with reinforcements in the next few days, it’s safe to let them retreat; until everything changes:

‘Yet even so, sir,’ said Welby, ‘I do not believe this is the end. Their general has lost a power of men and he has nothing to show for it. They have no water – see how they dig! – and they won’t find any there. So they cannot wait. The general cannot wait. As soon as they have rested a little he will launch the whole lot at us, straight at us: he is a death or glory cove, I am sure. See how he harangues them, jumping up and down. Oh my God they have fired the schooner.’

As the black smoke billowed up and away on the shifting breeze the whole camp burst out in a yell of desperate anger, frustration, plain grief.

I knew this book would eventually bring Jack and Stephen to New Holland (previously only visited off-screen) and looked forward to O’Brian casting his eye on my own country; though of course in the early 19th century it was a particularly bleak and brutal hellhole. Early after their arrival in Sydney, Stephen witnesses a man flogged so severely that his shoes squelch with his own blood as he walks away, at which point I was certain O’Brian had read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, a book which is an excellent and probably authoritative work on the colonial transportation system, but which also left me with enough descriptions of flogging to last a lifetime. The blood welling from the shoes was a detail which stuck in my head and clearly also in O’Brian’s; I knew immediately that he must have read it, which he confirms in the foreword, describing Hughes’ book as a “splendid great work… I fell upon with a delight that it would be uncandid to conceal.” (Though he also, oddly, calls it an “account of all aspects of the country’s history,” and many people often think of it a general history of colonial Australia; it’s actually very specifically a history of the convict transportation system, and as such focuses almost exclusively on New South Wales and Tasmania, where that system was most concentrated.)

Stephen finds this miserable, toxic malaise personified in the colony’s governing class, who are the worst kinds of petty English gentlemen, characterised by a bigotry against the Irish which eventually pushes Stephen past breaking point at an official dinner. The convict era of Botany Bay is still in many ways isolated in my mind from the rest of world history, having learned about it in simplistic terms in primary school; it was easy to forget that this was still the early 19th century, a time when a man could demand an insult be met with ritualised combat:

Stephen looked at him attentively. The man was in a choking rage but he was perfectly steady on his feet; he was not drunk. ‘Will you answer for that, sir?’ he asked. ‘There’s my answer,’ said the big man, with a blow that knocked Stephen’s wig from his head.

Stephen leapt back, whipped out his sword and cried ‘Draw, man, draw, or I shall stick you like a hog.’

Lowe unsheathed his sabre: little good did it do him. In two hissing passes his right thigh was ploughed up. At the third Stephen’s sword was through his shoulder. And at the issue of a confused struggle at close quarters he was flat on his back, Stephen’s foot on his chest, Stephen’s sword-point at his throat and the cold voice saying above him ‘Ask my pardon or you are a dead man. Ask my pardon, I say, or you are a dead man, a dead man.’

‘I ask your pardon,’ said Lowe, and his eyes filled with blood.

This comes as the unexpected culmination of a chapter, and at first ushers in a sense of dread that Stephen will face serious repercussions in a colony where the Nutmeg’s arrival was already looked on unfavourably; amusingly, it does nothing of the sort, as New Holland is the sort of unicivilised place where such things happen all the time:

Stephen rose, bowed and smiled, yet with a certain reserve: he did not know whether she had been told about his encounter with Lowe before she wrote to him. Her amiable smile and her apology for being late reassured him, and a moment’s reflection told him that she (again like Diana) had spent many years in India, where white officers, overfed, too hot, too absolute, fought so often that a mere wound was scarcely noticed.

So Jack continues to butt heads with the authoritarian local officials and Stephen indulges in his naturalist’s pursuits (he’s very lucky to see a platypus in the wild; I never have, and not for lack of trying) and attempts to aid his former manservant Padeen, who was transported to Botany Bay after crimes committed in the pursuit of opium. I’ve grown more and more accustomed to O’Brian’s subtle writing style as the series has progressed, but he’s still a master at shrouding some of his characters’ thoughts and motivations in mystery. Stephen is faced with a terrible conflict of interest towards the conclusion of the novel, and drops several hints that he may leave the ship entirely and possibly never even return home to England. A freak accident prevents this from happening, but I’m still at sea as to what, precisely, his plan was. Perhaps that might become more clear in the next book, as Stephen in particular often re-examines past episodes of his life in his journals, but no matter if it doesn’t; I admire this kind of intriguing, ambiguous writing.

Next up in this circumnavigatory arc is Clarissa Oakes, for some reason titled The Truelove in the US.

The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian (1989) 319 p.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are very much, at this point, episodic entries in one great long saga, and The Thirteen Gun Salute is perhaps the best demonstration of this so far. The previous entry, The Letter of Marque, ended with Aubrey and Maturin about to be dispatched to Latin America to foment rebellions in the various Spanish colonies; this novel indeed begins on that note, with themselves and their loyal followers (including the beloved Tom Pullings) departing on the Surprise, no longer with her HMS prefix now that she’s a privateer owned by Maturin. Within a hundred pages, however, at their Lisbon rendezvous, O’Brian upends that planned structure and instead has Aubrey and Maturin reassigned to the Diane and tasked with escorting a diplomat to the fictional Malaysian island of Pulo Prabang.

This is all done perfectly well, but serves as an example of the series’ unique structure. There is even a whole short story arc here, in which the Surprise, still on her original mission and only just south of Ireland, closes in on a smuggler, and in one of the nearer moments of the chase Stephen recognises a former comrade from the failed 1798 revolution who has now gone all-in with the French, as opposed to Stephen, who – like Orwell – disapproves of the British Empire while still acknowledging it, and indeed serving it, as the lesser evil compared to the contemporary tyranny emerging from the Continent. A very brilliant chapter revolves around Maturin’s personal torment as he questions what he will do in the event that the Surprise captures the Irish ship – knowing that his former comrade’s arrest would strike a blow to the French, but also despising informers – and even goes so far as to contemplate sabotaging the Surprise so that he won’t have to make such a decision. This sequence easily could have fit at the end of The Letter of Marque, but works just as well at the beginning of The Thirteen Gun Salute. It is an episode within an episode, as so many moments in these book are.

The same can be said of the book’s ending. The central bulk of The Thirteen Gun Salute is devoted to the mission in Malaysia, and it’s as good as always, particularly a peaceful diversion in which Maturin hikes up an extinct volcano to a Buddhist temple in the caldera and spends a week among the monks and the orangutans; there’s also an appropriate (if surprisingly abrupt and typically, O’Brianly, cryptic) conclusion brought upon two long-developed antagonists. But in the final thirty pages O’Brian unexpectedly drops our heroes into a classically unexpected life-or-death at sea scenario: the natural kind, that is, rather than an enemy action, in a scene which reminded me of the brilliant sequence in Desolation Island in which the Leopard strikes an iceberg and begins to sink in sub-Antarctic waters a thousand miles from anywhere. All hands on deck, every member of the crew working away at their emergency tasks, and their captain’s brain ticking away through every hour of a days-long slow-motion catastrophe to make critical evaluations and decisions. Like the opening hundred pages, it could’ve waited until the next book; but it works just as well here, and – unless I’m mistaken – actually serves as the first proper cliffhanger O’Brian has yet written. Considering this is the thirteenth book in a series which plainly became his life’s work some time ago, you have to admire that.

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (1999) 259 p.

This is the first Discworld book I ever read, when I think I was about 12 years old; it came out in 1999, but I wouldn’t have read it straight away, and I turned 12 in late 2000. In fact I have a distinct memory of borrowing it from Karrinyup library, after umming and ahhing over it in the Big W books section (that being the limit of a provincial child’s browsing universe) and deciding I didn’t want to spend any of my limited purchasing power on a series of books which I’d seen all over the place but had always been leery of. I think it was the covers that put me off: Josh Kirby’s ridiculously muscular heroes and outrageously buxom wenches. I was too young to realise that the covers were themselves parodies of the fantasy genre; which is funny because Pratchett’s books had drifted away from generic fantasy parody some ten years and twenty books earlier.

But I was certainly still young enough to assume that a book cover portrays an event in a book, and so I thought The Fifth Elephant would be about some inexplicable cataclysmic impact, particularly since the book begins (as they all do) by explaining how the Disc is carried through space atop four elephants who in turn stand atop a gargantuan turtle. (Possibly at this point the animated series was also playing on the ABC after school, further influencing my idea that this was somehow important). But of course – as any Pratchett reader will tell you – these fundamentals of the Discworld are something Pratchett dreamt up for the first book in the mid-’80s, and they’re utterly irrelevant now, just as the legend of the Fifth Elephant, which supposedly crashed onto the Disc and left behind remnants of fat and bone matter, is utterly irrelevant to the plot of The Fifth Elephant; it’s merely an excuse for Pratchett to make a very silly pun about a contemporaneous film. (A very quirky, unique and excellent film, if you’ve never seen it. SBS Viceland dedicates at least one day a year to showing it all day long, and their program manager explained on Twitter that “I’ll stop doing it when it stops rating so well.”)

So anyway, that was a surprise for young me, reading this laminated hardback library book on holiday, as I recall, in an old caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s acreage down in Capel in what was probably the winter of 2000. (It rained incessantly, which was good for reading.) This book had nothing at all to do with an elephant crashing down from the sky. It was about a copper, a detective, a chief of police in a fantasy city, being sent away from his homeland to a strange and foreign country in which he’s expected to be a diplomat but instead finds himself embroiled in a criminal plot.

I must surely have read The Fifth Elephant again at least once since 2000; I remember it too well. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and the (recently, unwillingly ennobled) Duke of Ankh, is sent with his wife Lady Sybil to the mysterious country of Uberwald, a sort of wintry wilderness Germany/Russia hybrid, to attend the crowning of the new Low King of the dwarfs. (The High King was a historical office in Ireland, elected by the various smaller kingdoms to rule over them; it makes sense that the subterranean dwarfs would term their own ruler the Low King.) Uberwald has been a lawless place for generations, with the dwarfs and the vampires and the werewolves doing as they please while the human population mostly just tries to get by; but the dwarfs are ascending in power and status and threaten to upset this balanced trifecta. From the very beginning of The Fifth Elephant, the notion of modernisation and cultural change is present:

“I suppose you could say he’s elected,” said Carrot. “But really a lot of senior dwarfs arrange it among themselves. After listening to other dwarfs, of course. Taking soundings, it”s called. Traditionally he’s from one of the big families. But… er…”
“Things are a little different this year. Tempers are a bit… stretched.”
Ah, thought Vimes. “Wrong dwarf won?” he said.
“Some dwarfs would say so. But it”s more that the whole process has been called into question,” said Carrot. “By the dwarfs in the biggest dwarf city outside Uberwald.”
“Don”t tell me, that must be that place Hubwards of…”
“It’s Ankh-Morpork, sir.”
“What? We’re not a dwarf city!”
“Fifty thousand dwarfs now, sir.”

I was reminded of A.A. Gill’s essay about the cornucopia of America, and how Americans naturally celebrate the immigrant story as one of success and optimistic new beginnings; but viewed from the other side, from those left behind in 19th century Europe, it’s one of destitution and loss. The new Low King says this bluntly to Vimes:

“When people say ‘We must move with the times,’ they really mean ‘You must do it my way.’ And there are some who would say that Ankh-Morpork is… a kind of vampire. It bites, and what it bites it turns into copies of itself. It sucks, too. It seems all our best go to Ankh-Morpork, where they live in squalor. You leave us dry.”

Incidentally, this is another point that went over my head when I was a kid – the Low King has been selected as a compromise between more powerful dwarf factions, and comes from a small clan near Llamedos, Pratchett’s stand-in for Wales. His speech is peppered with Welsh phrases like “see” and “look you,” a way of emphasising that king he may be, but he hails from humble origins; at twelve I would have had only a slight notion of what constituted Britain, let alone its vast array of accents and what they signify in a deeply class-based society. Anyway, the Low King isn’t wrong, exactly, in his characterisation of Ankh-Morpork; but from his foreign vantage point, what he fails to understand is that the dwarfs – and the trolls, and the myriad other species that have come to call the big city home – have irrevocably changed Ankh-Morpork as well.

There was also an ache across his back where an axe had been turned aside by his armour. He felt a twitch of national pride at that thought. Ankh-Morpork armour had stood up to the blow! Admittedly it was probably made in Ankh-Morpork by dwarfs from Uberwald, using steel smelted from Uberwald iron, but it damn well was Ankh-Morpork armour, just the same.

It’s an ironic moment, but Vimes (and Pratchett) really means it: it is Ankh-Morpork armour. It’s a physical manifestation of Lord Vetinari’s neat turn of phrase about multiculturalism in Feet of Clay: “Alloys are stronger.”

It was this kind of seriousness, this kind of gravitas, that most impressed me as a kid, a 12-year-old expecting some kind of apocalyptic adventure about a fiery elephant crashing into the earth and instead got something wholly unexpected. A funny book, yes, but funny in ways which speak to a deeper truth, a deeper seriousness; Pratchett being one of those people who uses humour to make a deadly serious observation. What stayed in my mind over the years was the central set-piece, one of the finest Pratchett ever wrote, in which Vimes escapes from a pitch-black subterranean dwarf prison using the last few matches in his pocket….

“Want to see a trick?” said Vimes.
“Watch this,” said Vimes, and brought his hands around and shut his eyes just before the match flared.

…and then has to run through the forest pursued by werewolves in their long-standing, morally revolting “game”:

The werewolves slowed as they reached the building. Their leader glanced at a lieutenant and nodded. It loped off in the direction of the boathouse. The others followed Wolf inside. The last became human for a moment to pull the doors shut and drop the bar across.
Wolf stopped near the centre of the barn. Hay had been scattered over the floor in great fluffy piles.
He scraped gently with a paw, and wisps fell away from a rope that was stretched taut.
Wolf took a deep breath. The other werewolves, sensing what was going to happen, looked away. There was a moment of struggling shapelessness, and then he was rising slowly on two feet, blinking in the dawn of humanity.
That’s interesting, thought Vimes, up on the gallery. For a second or two after changing, they’re not entirely up on current events…
“Oh, your grace,” said Wolf, looking around. “A trap? How very… civilized.”
He caught sight of Vimes, who was standing on the higher floor, by the window
“What was it supposed to do, your grace?
Vimes reached down to the oil lamp. “It was supposed to be a decoy,” he said.

All of which remains coupled with Pratchett’s excellent sense of humour. The Fifth Elephant has one of the series’ very best B-plots, a purely comedic exercise exploring the inevitable consequences of Vimes being sent away and then Carrot also unexpectedly departing, leaving the utterly incapable Sergeant Colon in charge; he soon goes mad with power and ends up barricaded in the Watch House while Nobby’s hastily organised watchmans’ union pickets outside. After observing the City Watch be built up by Vimes and Carrot over the course of five books from a handful of losers into an efficient, modern police force, it’s extremely funny to watch it disintegrate under Colon’s leadership in a mere week. Both Colon and Nobby are well aware of this, and have a repeated refrain of dread running through their heads during this crisis, which runs along the lines of: “Mister Vimes is going to go spare. He’s going to go absolutely mental.”

It’s solid gold stuff, from beginning to end. I’ve greatly enjoyed re-reading the Discworld series even when it doesn’t quite live up to my memories – but sometimes it does. Looking over Goodreads, the last Discworld book I gave five stars to was Men at Arms. Both of them are brilliant books all the way through, enhanced even further by frisson-inducing climaxes in which Vimes faces down a villain, torn between his instinct as a wronged man, a human being thirsty for revenge, for red-blooded justice… and for what he needs and demands and expects of himself to extract as a copper, as an officer of the law. A man who must demand of himself a more robust standard than the general public – of which he is also of course a member. The best of the City Watch books are the best things Pratchett ever wrote, combining all of his thoughtful themes with a truly admirable cast of characters, plot-driven mysteries which culminate in genuinely exciting moments, and never letting up on his trademark sense of humour even in the most desperate moments. I can see why 12-year-old me was so delighted to discover this book, and promptly devoured the rest of Pratchett’s works over the next few years. The Fifth Elephant is an absolute classic.

Rereading Discworld index

I read 66 books this year, second only to 2014’s high water mark of 70, when I was willfully unemployed for the first six months and had a two-hours-per-day London tube commute in the second half. I might have assumed that as a Melburnian undergoing one of the world’s longest lockdowns – personally greatly extended, as I have a vulnerable partner, into a period of self-isolation that lasted from about March to November – to have increased my reading even more than that. But I suppose I don’t actually do a lot of reading at home; I do it on the tram, or on my lunch break out of the office, or on the beach. At home I generally only read before bed, and the unique stresses of 2020 meant I also upped my evening drinking and wasn’t typically in the mood for half an hour of literature before sleep.

So 66 will have to do, and it’s a shame that from that I could only winnow eight books I thought worth writing about. Maybe next year we’ll get back to the magic number of 10. And on a similar note, looking ahead to 2021, even though I don’t much review books anymore I may shift Grub Street to another site – if the formatting of this post looks completely haywire to you it’s because WordPress has become increasingly unusable in recent years, particularly with the forced rollout of its “block” editor, and even though I’ve been blogging here for 13 years I’m ready to walk away from it with the same attitude of somebody leaving a toxic marriage. (Minor insult: I note in the preview window that even though the platform no longer has any way to introduce a simple line break, in either the HTML or visual editor, they will absolutely change “WordPress” with a lower-case P into ~*~WordPress~*~. Get your fucking priorities in order.)

8. Kindred

“I’d rather see the others.”
“What others?”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“They do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, a successful writer in the 1970s is teleported back in time to an antebellum slave plantation in Virginia. What would be an exciting time travel adventure in the hands of Octavia E. Butler’s contemporaries is transformed by the fact that, like her author, Butler’s protagonist is a black woman. It’s not a particularly radical notion today to re-examine history through the eyes of the oppressed, but I imagine it was fairly fresh ground in the 1970s science fiction scene, and Kindred held a place in the American school curriculum for decades for good reason. It’s a compelling, easily readable novel with a raft of well-sketched characters – particularly Rufus, the plantation’s heir, whose half-hearted gestures of occasional compassion are nowhere near enough to overcome the selfishness bred into him by power and privilege.

7. Blind Lake

Out in the darkness the fire had already been reduced to smouldering embers in the wet snow. A couple of people had died here, and they had died, it seemed to Chris, in order to communicate a message to Blind Lake in the bluntest possible way. You may not pass. Your community has become a cage.

At a federal research facility near Blind Lake, Minnesota, scientists use highly advanced computer technology to study intelligent life on another planet: observing the daily movements of a creature they dub “the Subject,” a chitinous alien who leads a repetitive life in a vast city. On the same day that Blind Lake undergoes a sudden lockdown and quarantine of both people and data, sealing several thousand scientists and their families inside the campus with no explanation forthcoming, the Subject departs his city and ventures into the wilderness. These dual mysteries, and the question of whether they might be related – or the assumption that they must – are the driving heart of a sci-fi mystery thriller that kept me engrossed all the way to the end.

6. The Reverse of the Medal

With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian’s phenomenal (and phenomenally long) historical fiction series about Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the physician/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin was already one I’d started to ration. Last year I read only three of them almost back-to-back while travelling in Europe, and this year I read just two. I’ve decided they’re the kinds of books one ideally reads on holiday: not because they’re what you might think of as an easy “beach read,” but because you want to read them near the ocean, feeling the sun and smelling the brine, in a location outside of your ordinary routine, with the thought of what it might be like to experience a new land not as a white-collar drone on a one-week vacation but rather a young midshipman at the beginning of his career on the adventure of a lifetime. And reading them in my one-bedroom apartment through the long, gruelling and mostly wintry Melbourne lockdown just didn’t feel right.

I have little to say about the two that I did read other than that they serve as a continuation of a long story which is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Neither are among the greatest entries in the series, though The Reverse of the Medal does culminate in what is very possibly the series’ greatest individual scene.

5. The ’40s, The ‘50s, and The ‘60s

When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.

Three books, and this is cheating a little because I finished The ‘40s in 2019, but these three collections from the New Yorker were fantastic slow-consumption reads that I worked my way through over the course of about 12 or 16 months. Selected and edited by the current staff to showcase some of the best writing the magazine produced in the decades each volume represents, they contain pieces as varied as long-form journalism about the D-Day landings or a Southern lynching or the now-quaint youth gangs of 1950s Brooklyn, profiles of figures ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Albert Einstein to Marlon Brando, reviews of contemporary films, books and architecture, short fiction, poetry and more. It was a wonderful way to grasp the feeling of those thirty years (representing a classic age in New York City’s history) as well as seeing how those decades were different from how pop culture has trained us to think of them. An excellent concept executed brilliantly, and it’s a real shame the New Yorker apparently decided to stop with these volumes rather than carry on with the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and – why not? – the ’00s and ’10s. We are, after all, adrift on the currents of history – currents which have become alamringly white and churning – and what’s written right now may very well come to be seen as an artefact of the past before too long.

4. Dark Matter

“Are you happy with your life?”

This is the kind of book you want to go into blind, which makes it virtually impossible to talk about. Suffice to say that on a typical evening in Chicago our humble family man protagonist is abducted off the street by a mysterious masked figure and launched into one of the most page-turning, pot-boiling, compulsively readable sci-fi airport thrillers I’ve ever read. I was enjoying it well enough already when a seeming moment of triumph instead threw the main character into even deeper shit, beginning a very clever third act, as the inevitable consequences of the well-established rules of this world finally, shockingly, manifested themselves. Maybe sharper-minded readers might spot that twist ahead of time, but I didn’t, and found it to be a hugely compelling ending to an already excellent thriller.

3. Crisis Zone

“This is really fucked up and excessively gratuitous. But also weirdly beautiful.”

This is being released in book form in 2021, but I’ve already read it, because almost every day this year – from when the coronavirus exploded in March all the way to the end of December – Simon Hanselmann published about ten panels per day on his Instagram of Crisis Zone, an off-the-cuff Meg, Mogg and Owl serial story in which they cope with the pandemic lockdowns, the BLM protests and Seattle anarchists’ autonomous zone, the West Coast wildfires, unexpected Netflix stardom, their own insanely spiralling hijinks and, ultimately, a family unit which eventually arrives at something like functioning dysfunction. I’ve long been a fan of Hanselmann’s work, with some of his volumes taking out the number one place on this list in years past, but Crisis Zone not only continued to combine Hanselmann’s winning mixture of gross-out comedy with a carefully restrained tendency towards occasional gravitas – Owl gets at least one moment of fist-punching heroism in this – but delivered it in a truly perfect medium for 2020. In a year when so many of us spent countless hours doomscrolling increasingly bleak news on our phones while lying in bed or sitting on the couch, it was always a pleasure to open Instagram and read another entry in an ongoing serial of chaos and catastrophe that seamlessly blended real world events into Hanselmann’s unique universe of quotidian sharehouse squalor (both physical and moral). God bless this house of degenerates as we blast into an uncertain 2021.

2. Piranesi

“You haven’t seen anyone else in the labyrinth, have you?”

Fourteen years after the incomparable Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke gifts us the very different but equally brilliant Piranesi. In a vast and beautiful labyrinth of rooms filled with ornate staircases and marvellous statues, lower floors claimed by the ocean and higher floors lost in the clouds, the titular Piranesi makes a pitiful living eating seaweed and drinking rainwater – yet he is happy, entirely at peace with himself, extolling to the reader the self-evident glories of the House and the World (to him, they are the same). It’s soon apparent to the reader that Piranesi is an amnesiac who does not understand how he came to be in this strange place or the cruelties which were inflicted upon him, and the gradual revelation that comes to him and to us throughout the book is one of the best uses of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Piranesi is another fantasy masterpiece by Susannah Clarke, and it’s society’s loss that her chronic illness prevents her from being more prolific.

1. The Stand
the stand 2 (3)
By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the year 2020, could it be anything else? I re-read Stephen King’s magnum opus for the first time in years because of the pandemic, of course, but it’s taking out the top place because I was surprised by how genuinely good it still is. The Stand is a gripping odyssey from the very first moment, as a soldier wakes his wife and baby in the middle of the night to flee a top secret base where the US government brews up biological weapons. Neither that soldier nor his family will survive very long, but their actions spread repercussions across the whole world, and The Stand takes us inside the heads of very ordinary people and their ordinary problems right before they all just have one big problem, together.

I ordered a copy of this just as the pandemic became truly global – and, obviously, because of the pandemic – in March, when there was a palpable sensation of the ticking clock, of day-by-day changes, of the sense that every individual human being on the planet was about to be impacted by something in a way that hadn’t happened since World War II, and (in Australia, at any rate) an urgent sense that things had to be done soon to protect us. The Stand’s first act deeply embodies that feeling, with King never losing sight of how bizarre it is that one summer morning you can be leaving a one-night-stand’s apartment in beautiful sunshine in a normal life, and two weeks later you’re in the same city but in a very, very different world; it’s a book which is very fundamentally about how the rock beneath your feet can be suddenly yanked away. Perhaps this is true of all post-apocalyptic novels, but The Stand excels at it. From Frannie burying her father to Nick watching the streetlights go out in a rural town to Larry wandering through a desolate Manhattan, the first act of The Stand is a masterpiece in illustrating the wrenching shock that comes to individuals at the end of the world.

The Stand certainly has its flaws – chief among them a wheel-spinning middle act and the story really being two very different kinds of stories – but it’s still a big, bold, weird, imaginative brick of a novel (1439 pages in the uncut edition) that’s a 10/10 tour de force and indisputably the best book I read all year. It’s the quintessential Stephen King book, a classic of mid-20th century popular fiction, and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

My full, long review

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020) 561 p.

There was a time when David Mitchell could write about paint drying and I would’ve bought the book. But I was disinterested to begin with in the premise of Utopia Avenue: the story of a fictional British band in the heady musical world of the 1960s. Clearly a passion project for Mitchell, who’s always weaved a thread of music through his writing, but not a topic I’m particularly interested in compared to, say, body-hopping immortals, 18th century trading outposts in a closed-off Japan, or even a year of childhood in provincial Britain.

Utopia Avenue won me over in the end, containing as it does enough other interesting stuff: deaths, romantic affairs, troubled familial relationships, a brief stretch in an Italian prison, and the obligatory cameos from the David Mitchell Extended Cinematic Universe. One of the band members is Jasper de Zoet, a descendant of the titular Dutch clerk in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and from the age of sixteen he finds himself troubled by auditory hallucinations which, as it turns out, are not hallucinations at all but rather a very real and very dangerous attempt by a spirit to take over his body. It’s rather telling that the most interesting part of this story thread comes in Jasper’s early troubles and attempts to figure out what’s going on, rather than the inevitable deus ex machina arrival of Dr Marinus. Mitchell has at this point made the interconnected nature of his novels a signature move, but I’m not the first of his loyal readers to express a wish that he would leave all this behind and write something as strikingly fresh again as Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas.

It’s possibly because Mitchell’s quirks have started to wear on my patience that I’m noticing his other flaws. Dialogue has never been his strong suit: every character speaks like David Mitchell writes, and I lost count of the number of times a character had a brief encounter with a stranger (usually a Spot The Famous Figure moment – Utopia Avenue is replete with obligatory but ultimately pointless 1960s celebrity Easter eggs) who would dispense some clever witticism about the nature of life. The other regular encounter is one of the main characters giving a cool retort to a Sorkinesque straw man. It’s frustrating to see an author who is otherwise capable of writing characters who display depth and growth continually whipping out these shallow caricatures.

Still, despite all its flaws, I enjoyed Utopia Avenue – slow to start, but it picks up more steam by the second half. A weak novel by a great novelist is still a good book.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (2014) 181 p.

One of the most popular non-fiction hits of recent years in Australia, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu re-examines 19th century explorers’ journals and other sources to argue that pre-contact Aboriginal Australians were more technologically advanced than the primitive hunter-gatherer society assumed by most modern-day Australians. The most publicised aspect of this argument is that Aboriginals harvested grains, but Pascoe touches on many other areas, some more contentious than others – fisheries, aquaculture, towns, animal husbandry – across the course of this relatively slim book.

As a pop science book rather than an academic text, Dark Emu wears its heart on its sleeve, and I have neither the ability nor the inclination to do further research to confirm or reject Pascoe’s claims. I do have the ability, as with any other complex subject like climate change, to weigh up the respectability and the motives of the people who have done the fact checking – or who claim they have. Dark Emu is no more or less inherently political than any other historiography, but it’s certainly become a political touchstone in Australia in the last few years. If you want to dramatically oversimplify the two sides, imagine an inner-city Greens-voting twenty-something on one side (disclaimer: I am two of those things, but sadly no longer the third), accepting every claim in Dark Emu as gospel and buying a copy for every member of their family; on the other, imagine a red-faced, balding, baby boomer subscriber to The Australian boiling over with rage about a book he hasn’t read.

I think it’s reasonable to say that white settlers conducted a genocide on this continent. I think it’s reasonable to believe that a wealth of knowledge and history was lost when a society with no written language had their oral records wiped out by invaders who decimated, dispossessed and scattered their people. I think it’s reasonable to argue pre-contact Aboriginal society would have been complex and diverse, that rather than a continent of identical hunter-gatherers there were certainly fishers and whalers and farmers; I also think it’s fair to note, as Russell Marks does, that Pascoe often implies that the exception was the rule. I think that Pascoe, who is not a professional historian, makes some odd choices which cast some of his more seemingly reasonable claims into doubt, such as his citation of the thoroughly discredited pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies to suggest that Aboriginals might have visited Beijing in the 1400s. I think Pascoe is a decent and well-meaning man whose core thesis is broadly plausible, particularly his assertion that white Australia deliberately ignored or minimised evidence of more complex Aboriginal civilisation, even as his enthusiasm for his subject sometimes leads him down the garden path of outright speculation.

But I think, most of all, that Dark Emu’s most compelling evidence in favour of its central argument is found not within the pages of the book itself, but rather in the thousands of column inches dedicated to Having A Normal One about it in Australia’s conservative press. In the past few years Dark Emu has become the latest battleground in this country’s long-running history wars (themselves just a theatre of our broader culture wars), with apoplectic responses from the usual quarters: people like columnist Andrew Bolt, who decided to muck-rake Pascoe’s Indigenous ancestry despite having been convicted of racial discrimination for doing the same thing to others in the past; or Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien, who was so incensed by Dark Emu he published a rebuttal book, and, hilariously, currently has for a top Google hit a Quadrant piece in which he whinges at length about getting into an edit war on Dark Emu‘s Wikipedia article. Beyond these illustrious contributors to Australia’s public discourse you can see the layperson’s response on Goodreads: a whole raft of one-star reviews, “questions” and comments by users who, with a glance at their avatar-less profiles, were apparently so triggered by Dark Emu they felt compelled to go to the bother of registering to the site solely to attack it.

All of this simply underscores Pascoe’s central point: the legitimacy of contemporary white Australia was built on a dark legacy, and many white Australians feel instinctively in their bones that any threat to the doctrine of terra nullius (struck down in law but not in spirit) must be aggressively challenged. “Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” an Indigenous leader told a journalist for The Saturday Paper, who cross-checked many of Pascoe’s claims against the original sources at the National Library and found them to be accurate.

I find the likes of Bolt and O’Brien very sad. I feel sorry for them. This is not because, as they would no doubt retort, that I’m some kind of self-hating, latte-sipping, inner-city white Australian. I love my country a great deal – all things considered, looking at the broad sweep of human history and the world today, Australia is one of the freest, fairest, safest and most prosperous places a person could hope to be born. But I can believe those things and love my country while still acknowledging that it was built on dispossession and has a long and enduring history of racism; that the freedom, safety and prosperity I enjoy is not extended at remotely the same length to Indigenous Australians. Knowing those things makes me want to change Australia’s future, not deny its history. Some of Pascoe’s assertions may be sketchy or exaggerated, but the over-reaction to a fairly innocuous pop science book from some demographics in Australia tells you everything you need to know about Dark Emu’s broader truth.

A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1973/2007) 590 p.

As near as I can tell Brian Aldiss published and revised a number of these collections, this being the most recent edition, put out in 2007. Apart from half a dozen more contemporary pieces injected into the mix, it’s mostly the same collection of early sci-fi stories from the 1950s and ‘60s that I remember reading as a battered old paperback when I was a young teenager – possibly, I think, the first short stories I’d ever read.

Many of these don’t hold up, coming as they do from the golly-gee-whiz era of science fiction. (And some of the modern insertions, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughtful Notes on Sexual Dimorphism, stand out against them like a sore thumb.) But highlights include:

Lot by Ward Moore, about a father packing his family into the car and onto a jam-packed highway to try to escape what’s implied to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles; I must have remembered the tone and urgency of this story, since it’s subconsciously reflected in my own short story West Gate, but as a teenager I missed Moore’s subtle use of the father as an unreliable narrator, a bitter and hen-pecked man who secretly resents his family and fantasises that the collapse of society is going to finally usher in his time to shine;

The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn, a satirical story about Earth finding itself a battlefield between two opposing alien militaries, constantly taken and retaken and declared “liberated” each time while billions die and entire continents are vapourised;

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison, about a human missionary arriving on a planet populated by peaceful and very literal-minded aliens;

The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley, in which a man approaches a trader who has developed a drug that allows one to see their heart’s truest desire;

Night Watch by James Inglis, following the journey of a space probe launched off into the galaxy;

Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an 80-page novella capping off the anthology, which is one of the most thoughtful and literary time travel stories I’ve ever read, about a secret society which attempts to alter history to preserve the British Empire and the complications which arise from that. Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big is one of the few books I’ve ever given up on shortly after starting it, finding it not to be to my taste, but on the strength of this novella alone I’ll definitely be taking another look at Crowley’s work.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead (2011) 219 p.

I’m not really interested in reading zombie fiction, having had my fill of the genre in years gone by, but how many zombie stories are out there written by a Pulitzer winner? (A two-time Pulitzer winner, in fact, one of only four novelists to ever achieve that and the first to do it in such quick succession since Faulkner).

Zone One takes place in Manhattan after the worst of the zombie “apocalypse” has passed; the protagonist, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is a member of a military clean-up crew tasked with mopping up the last few zombie stragglers as the reconstruction government in Buffalo slowly reclaims the island. Stragglers are the 1% of zombies who are completely non-hostile, found standing silently in places that meant something to them in life. The novel takes place over the course of a weekend, mostly inside Mark Spitz’s head, presenting a non-linear narrative laden with flashbacks.

There’s little in this short novel resembling a plot. What Zone One does instead is present all the myriad scenarios and tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre – scavenging, the ad hoc formation of disparate groups of survivors, the initial collapse, the psychology of survival, suicide, memories of the old world – in the accomplished, professional prose of a literary heavyweight. There are too many segments I’d like to post; here’s one, part of a description of the initial marine operation to retake Manhattan:

Some of the marines died. Some of them didn’t hear the warnings until too late for all the gunfire. Some of them lost their bearings in the macabre spectacle, drifting off into reveries of overidealized chapters of their former lives, and were overcome. Some of them were bit, losing baseballs of meat from their arms and legs. Some of them disappeared under hordes, maybe a glove sticking out, waving, and it was unclear if the hand was under the direction of the fallen soldier or if it was being jostled by the feasting. Funeral rites were abbreviated. They incinerated the bodies of their comrades with the rest of the dead.

They nozzled diesel into the bulldozers and dump trucks. The air filled with buzzing flies the way it had once been filled with the hydraulic whine of buses, the keening of emergency vehicles, strange chants into cell phones, high heels on sidewalk, the vast phantasmagorical orchestra of a living city. They loaded the dead. The rains washed the blood after a time. The New York City sewer system in its bleak centuries had suffered worse.

Most of the novel reads like this: Cormac McCarthy meets Godspeed You Black Emperor. It’s not a novel for everyone – even people who happily read both literary fiction and genre fiction, like me, might be put off by its snaking narrative and confusing flashbacks. I wouldn’t say I loved Zone One – it’s not the kind of novel you love – but I certainly appreciated it and admired it.

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May 2021