Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (1989) 368 p.
Discworld #7 (stand-alone)

I still remember when I first read this one: on a family holiday to Rottnest, borrowed from the tiny library there because I hadn’t brought anything to read, part of some larger volume of three Discworld books. I’d been reading the City Watch books backwards from The Fifth Elephant and this was the first non-Watch Discworld book I’d read, so I was dubious about it. It was a relief to find that Pratchett’s a wonderful writer regardless of which band of characters he’s following.

Pyramids takes us to the nation of Djelibeybi, meaning “child of the Djel,” one of Pratchett’s most loveably terrible puns. Clearly modelled after Ancient Egypt, it’s a river valley hundreds of miles long and a few miles wide which acts as a buffer state between the enemy kingdoms of Tsort and Ephebe. The main character is Teppic, heir to the throne, who was sent away to Ankh-Morpork as a boy to receive an education from the Assassin’s Guild. The opening of the book details the night of Teppic’s final practical exam before graduating as a fully-fledged assassin, intercut with flashbacks to his earlier youth and arrival in Ankh-Morpork. It’s a great piece of writing, which reminded me of Esk’s tutelage under Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites – never mind the jokes, Pratchett’s on great form here purely for fantasy and adventure, as Teppic stalks the rooftops of Ankh-Morpork avoiding traps and deadfalls set by his examiner. (I’ve heard that Pratchett apparently wrote this sequence completely on the fly, and it was one of his favourite bits of his own writing.)

The story proper begins when the old pharaoh dies and Teppic becomes the new king, his footsteps suddenly sprouting grass in the cobbles of Ankh-Morpork. Returning to his ancestral home and taking his place on the throne, Teppic soon finds himself a stranger in his own land: a cosmopolitan young man from modern, thriving Ankh-Morpork thrust into the leadership of a kingdom in which nothing has changed for seven thousand years. Most of this plays out in his interactions with Dios, high priest of Djelibeybi and one of Pratchett’s best early characters. The only other noteworthy villains Pratchett had written up till now were the Duke and Duchess in Wyrd Sisters, who were really just Macbeth stand-ins, and both of whom were insane. Dios, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and an excellent villain: a man slavishly devoted to ritual and symbolism, whose steadfast refusal to accept change in the kingdom stems as much from his own failings and weaknesses as from his genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing. Reading this book again as an adult I was struck by how similar he is to Sourdust and Barquentine in the Gormenghast series; a master of ritual who perhaps wields more power than the monarch himself, and who treats Teppic as nothing more than a placeholder.

Other parts of Pyramids fell a little flat for me; the banter between the pyramid-builder Ptaclusp and his two sons, an accountant and an engineer, is meant to reflect the tiresome cost overruns and planning tedium of the modern building industry, like the drama in an episode of Grand Designs. It works quite well as an introductory gag but these characters go on to take up far too much of the novel. There’s a diversion to Ephebe, the Discworld’s stand-in for Ancient Greece, with a lot of jokes about philosophy which I thought were a bit stretched. And Teppic himself, while a likeable protagonist, is not a particularly well-rounded character; too often he feels like Pratchett’s voice, an author surrogate making wry comments about the fanaticism of the Djelibeybians. There’s nothing to distinguish his dialogue from that of, say, Rincewind or Mort or even any of Pratchett’s many minor characters and nameless extras who exist to make a witticism and then exit stage left. (And indeed we will never see Teppic or Djelibeybi again.)

Pyramids is a decent novel, certainly one of the better ones in the early series, but a bit of a come-down after Wyrd Sisters. Next on the chart, fortunately, we have Pratchett’s own recommended starting point and the beginning of the best character and the best story arc in the entire series: Sam Vimes, the City Watch, and Guards! Guards!

Rereading Discworld Index

Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1967) 598 p.

I would estimate that maybe 40-60% of this renowned and admired anthology of science fiction stories consists of introductions, forewords, afterwords. Every story has an introduction by Ellison, and I started skipping these after the first one, because they are – bar none – interminable chummy ramblings that reminded me of nothing so much as Grampa Simpson talking about tying an onion to his belt. In more than once case, the introduction is actually longer than the story. Not since Michael Moorcock have I encountered a writer so obsessed with the collective memoirs of his own clique. Why do SFF writers end up like this? The conventions – it must be all those goddamn conventions.

The stories aren’t much better. They almost all have that stain of early/mid-century Old White Man scifi writer on them: lecturing, condescending, sexist, not nearly as groundbreaking as they think they are, and something else I can’t put my finger on. A lack of finesse; a boyish immaturity. Nowadays the best science fiction is written by people like Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood and Chris Beckett, people who cut their teeth in the literary world, but this is a collection of writers who learned the craft by writing for magazines with rocket ships on the cover. Some of them (Niven and Sturgeon in particular) verge into being laughable, even as they clearly think they’re writing serious Big Idea fiction.

The only story in here which I thought was worth reading was Philip K. Dick’s extremely disturbing “Faith of Our Fathers” – which is saying something, since I’m not normally a fan of Dick’s. Most of the rest of it is dated and puerile rubbish which I had to force myself through. The only story in it which I skipped entirely was Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage,” because I’ve already wasted too much of my reading life on that talentless hack.

Ground-breaking in its time, maybe, but the world of science fiction has long since moved on to brighter and better days. Dangerous Visions can be safely consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) 324 p.

When I was a younger writer I had a habit of treating forced captivity – that is to say, imprisonment, restraint, incarceration – as a mere event in a grander story. That stemmed from boy’s adventure stuff; Tintin working free of his ropes, Solid Snake at his leisure to utilise countless ways to escape a jail cell, etc. Obviously this was childish but it’s interesting to note why I saw it that way: imprisonment was a challenge, a puzzle, and above all a temporary setback – the idea that the protagonist would escape was never remotely in question.

Viewed from a more mature age, captivity is one of the most horrific things that can happen to a human being. To be completely at somebody else’s mercy, somebody who could hurt or kill or rape you, to be robbed of your freedom, and to know that there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel – that they have complete control over you and you are never going to escape.

I mention this because while I’ve long since grown out of the notion of treating captivity in fiction as a sort of MacGuyver-esque puzzle to be solved, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best examples I’ve read of the the hollow, gut-wrenching feeling of being trapped in unjust confinement. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I read Oryx & Crake back in university – it’s Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, even more so than her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin. Narrated by the titular handmaid who goes only by the name of “Offred,” it posits a future dystopia in which the US government has been overthrown and the nation renamed Gilead, ruled by a patriarchal theocracy in which women are subservient to men in all things. Offred, once a successful university student, a partner, a mother, a feminist, has now been reduced by society to a “womb with legs.” She has been assigned as a “handmaid” to a high-ranking Commander, as families attempt to overcome mass infertility by using younger, healthier women as breeding stock. Offred is prohibited from reading or writing, and the tale is narrated to us inside her own head, teasing out elements of her past while she introduces us to this terrible new world.

Part (but not all) of what you get out of this book will depend on how plausible you find Gilead to be. I have to say that Atwood, in my opinion, made the mistake of digging a little too deep beneath the surface of her fictional world. Offred is only in her early thirties and it apparently hasn’t been more than a few years since “Congress was machine-gunned” and women’s financial assets were reassigned to their partners. Canada, England and Japan (at the very least) are explicitly shown to remain free and functioning democracies, with a secret “Underground Femaleroad” smuggling fleeing women across the northern border to safety – so we know this revolution was limited to the US rather than part of a general global slouch towards limiting freedoms that we might see in, oh, say, most of the modern Western world today. (Indeed, it’s hard not to read a little Canadian smugness in Atwood’s voice, particularly in the metafictional epilogue.) To be fair, part of the point of the novel is how quickly things can change; Offred makes repeated reference to the new normal, to the point where she sometimes feels strange when noticing mundane objects that are still the same as they always were. But I would have preferred the origins and the back story of Gilead to have remained shrouded in a little more secrecy. The Handmaid’s Tale feels far more like an extremist example of extrapolated trends than an actual, realised vision of a dystopian future. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I’m pretty sure Oryx & Crake is the more believable (and better) novel.

Atwood has an interesting article in the Guardian in which she lays out the thinking behind the genesis of this dystopian future:

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth.

This overlooks the fact that late 20th century America was not a remotely similar society to early 20th century Russia or mid-20th century China. Yeah, yeah, I know, Orwell set 1984 in England to prove that dictatorships can happen anywhere and to any society, etc. But America going from a free and liberal society with a puritanical streak to a North Korean-style totalitarian state in, apparently, the space of less than five or ten years? Not buying it. Maybe there’s a book that can convince me all human societies are a whisper away from organised barbarism, but The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it.

Which is not to say that it’s not a good novel. It is. I’ve spent most of this review banging on about the plausibility of its world, but it’s meant to be taken in equal measure as a metaphor or a parable as much as a cautionary tale. Atwood is a deeply personal writer, and The Handmaid’s Tale is concerned less with Gilead as a place and more with Gilead as a concept, and the brutal effect it has on Offred’s internal thoughts, feelings and desires. It’s the small things that make the novel so affecting: Offred’s frustration with the day-to-day tedium of her slavery, since she has nothing to read, nothing to occupy her time – an aspect of captivity that had, surprisingly, never occurred to me. Or her anguished imagination of the three possible fates of her partner Luke, from whom she was separated during their long-ago escape attempt: successfully over the border, dead, or in captivity. Offred draws these scenes out in painful detail, imagining Luke as a mouldering skeleton in a forest with bullet holes through his skull, or shaved and shackled in a cell somewhere, or living free in Canada without her. “One of these must be true,” she says, but it’s the ignorance of his fate that’s so heartbreaking. Schroedinger’s loved one.

Novels which set out an elaborate imagined world, especially dystopian novels, often fall back on simply presenting the world as it is, with an absence of any driving plot or developing story. The Handmaid’s Tale actually does the latter, but it wouldn’t have needed to – Atwood’s skill as a writer is in the smaller moments, the slices of life, and the ways we perceive the world. It’s not her best book, but I can understand why it’s her most famous; I can see why it struck a chord with so many readers.

the wayfarer

What with the Christmas period and my recent ticking-clock househunt that saw my sanity reduced to a whimpering dormouse, I haven’t been paying much attention to my writing. But here we go, two new stories published to kick off the new year!

At Kasma SF I have The Survivors of the Wayfarer, set on a desolate in a far future Earth, and illustrated very beautifully by Jose Baetas. (It’s legitimately weird and humbling to see somebody draw or paint a scene that I only brought into being from my imagination.)

And over at old stalwart Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, edition 53 has the seventh instalment of my Black Swan serial, Restitution – in which the consequences of the sixth story spill over. Enjoy!

Truth by Peter Temple (2009) 361 p.

truth

Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that it’s okay for your personal life to be hopelessly, irredeemably fucked – divorced, alcoholic, sleeping in a flophouse – as long as you’re also a homicide detective. This is a theme that runs through so much great detective fiction, from The Wire to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, stretching all the way back to the great cop shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s – shows I couldn’t actually name but which have been satirised and parodied ever since. Sure, it’s a cliche, and I’m sure most homicide detectives probably actually have happy family lives – but it’s a cliche that I like. Maybe we’d all feel a bit better about our own shitty lives if instead of slogging off to our boring admin jobs we actually had something hugely important to devote our office hours to. A homicide detective is one of the noblest lines of work there is.

Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani is the head of homicide for Victoria Police. His life, in accordance with the aforementioned narrative tradition, is fucked. His wife has left him, his teenage daughter is running wild with drug addicts and street thugs, his career is on thin ice because of a botched police operation in Temple’s earlier novel The Broken Shore (in which he was a minor character) and his father, who lives on a farm on Melbourne’s outskirts, is stubbornly refusing to leave in the face of an advancing bushfire. Over the course of a few days in a sweltering Australian summer, Villani’s personal life collides with two high profile murders: a prostitute in a penthouse apartment and a grisly, torturous revenge killing of a trio of infamous gang members.

As in The Broken Shore, the first thing you notice is how unique Temple’s writing style is. It’s either punchy short sentences or long flow-on sentences with commas. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Temple perfectly captures Australian dialogue, particularly amongst Australian men – truncated, laconic, nobody ever expending more words than they need to. It takes a while to get into it, but it’s also beautifully poetic at times:

The truck stop on the Hume. Swooshing highway, a hot night, airless. As you opened the car door, it would hit you: petrol, diesel, heated rubber, exhaust gases, chip-fryer oil, the smell of burnt meat.

He stood in the scorching day, the trucks howling by, buffeted by their winds, they flew his tie like a narrow battle standard.

The cold day was drawing to its end. They walked into the wind, the leaves flowing at them like broken water, yellow and brown and blood, parting at their ankles.

Temple was writing Truth during the devastating Black Saturday bushfires which killed 163 people, and this is mirrored in the book, as Melbourne is covered in a pall of smoke from bushfires advancing on the city’s outskirts. It has an excellent sense of place to begin with, but this gives it a sense of time as well, of being squarely placed in an event; the city-dwellers constantly reminded of the fierce danger of the rural world beyond their ken.

The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to silver flowing liquids and buckled steel.

This is the crime novel that won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, and rightly so. Not just for Temple’s rich language and sense of place, but for the subtle ways he examines Australian masculinity. In the office, in the boxing ring, in family life, on the streets: everything in Villani’s world comes down to men, and how they express their domination over others, both women and men. Broken, brooding men who hide their emotional core may be a tired old theme, especially in Australian fiction, but I nonetheless found it deeply engaging – especially at the novel’s climax, when Villani returns to his father’s farm during the raging height of the bushfire.

Truth still has its flaws. There are far too many peripheral characters who are referred to by surname only, which became pretty bad, for me, when Villani solved one of the murders and went to confront the killer. The killer’s identity is kept hidden from the reader even as Villani begins speaking to him, but when the big reveal came… I only vaguely recognised the name and couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be, which robbed the moment of its gravity just a tad. And I have to repeat my complaint from The Broken Shore: Temple is a hugely skilled writer who doesn’t seem to realise that his novels do not need to feature larger-than-life villains or culminate in gunfights. Yes, police are often involved in life or death situations, and yes, one of these moments midway through Truth was masterfully done and one of the most tense and unputdownable set-pieces I’ve read in a while. But they stack up as the book goes on, and it stands out as unrealistic, especially when Temple had managed to make everything else in his fictional Melbourne – the people, the places, the dialogue – so pitch perfect.

Although I do have to disagree with one element. Temple portrays Melbourne as a hard and violent city full of junkies, muggers, rapists and killers; Villani remembers a time “when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across at night.” It’s hard to say whether this is:

a) A police officer’s view – a jaded man who’s only ever seen the worst of the world
b) An old man’s view – Temple is in his sixties, and there’s a touch of “back in my day” about it
c) A sort of alternate universe or grim future in which Melbourne has denigrated to a city on par with Detroit or Johannesburg
d) All three

Rest assured, foreign readers, that Melbourne really is a city of bearded baristas, overpriced laneway bars and quirky hipster nonsense markets, which regularly tops various charts as the world’s most liveable city. I feel safer here walking the streets at night than I have in any city outside Korea or Japan, including other cities in Australia. This all ties in with my continual bemusement that, despite being a sunny and happy country with one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, Australian fiction is almost uniformly bleak and miserable.

Anyway – those are small flaws, on the whole. I liked Truth a lot. I liked Temple’s writing style, I liked his sense of time and place, and the climax was one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time. The Miles Franklin was richly deserved.

This time last year I was sitting in my room in Whitechapel, knowing it doesn’t snow in London very often but still stubbornly expecting it to. Now I’m back in Melbourne again, and it feels as though I’ve never left. I associate books with certain times and feelings and places in my life, whether the book itself left any lasting impression on me or not. It feels like just yesterday I was reading Asimov’s Foundation (a terrible book) in Kings Domain across from my office during the blisteringly hot Christmas season four years ago; on the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was sheltering from the rain and reading Susannah Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu (not bad at all) in the warmth of the Draper’s Arms in Ealing, but it was really just 365 days ago. Funny old world.

Anyway, these are the ten best books I read in 2015.

10. Goodbye To All That
goodbye to all that
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was newspaper language.

World War I was the epitome of pointless wars. It was a snowballing squabble over alliances and military power which, before anybody could stop it, turned into a brutal industrialised killing machine which robbed the world of half a generation of young men. (That is always worth repeating, because it has become a cliche: World War I, for no gain whatsoever, literally exterminated millions of would-be leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists.) Neither side was in the right or the wrong. It is absolutely incredible how many people, even today, refuse to acknowledge this; how many people still demand to shove this war alongside its younger brother into the box marked “fighting for freedom.”

Few of those people, I suspect, have actually read much about it. As far as WWI memoirs go it’s hard to top that of Robert Graves, who later became a renowned poet and historical novelist. The curious thing is how dispassionately he relates most of it; as though he knows all too well that the war is far bigger than any of them, that nothing he or his fellow officers ever did or said could affect things one speck. All he could do was observe and report. The result, despite its detached tone, is one of the most detailed and grisly war memoirs of all time.

9. Slade House
slade house
Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.

Time was David Mitchell could publish a book and it would inevitably be my number one for the year, but I’m sure one of the world’s most feted contemporary writers won’t be losing sleep at his gradual slide down my annual list at a blog where I’m still too cheap to shell out for a dedicated domain name. Slade House is probably his worst book, but that’s a bit like saying the Wire’s fifth season was its worst: even when Mitchell’s not on form, he’s still great. Slade House is a B-side to last year’s The Bone Clocks: a short and creepy haunted house mystery, with an eerie mansion appearing in the trackless suburban wasteland of Greater London every nine years to claim an unsuspecting victim. Whatever its flaws, Mitchell retains his ability to make you care about characters – even unsavoury ones – within a few dozen pages. In the case of Slade House, that generally has heartbreaking results.

8. Mother of Eden
mother of eden
Men still fear women’s power. No-one ever forgets their mother’s power to give them nourishment or withhold it. And men specially don’t forget it, because they never grow into women themselves, and never lose a child’s craving for the comfort of women’s bodies.

I thought Dark Eden was an excellent sci-fi novel, the really creative kind that we tend not to see a lot of these days; yet I had no interest in reading the sequel, because I thought Chris Beckett had already said everything that needed to be said about an inbred tribe of humans descended from a pair of astronauts stranded on a distant planet of eternal night. I was wrong. Mother of Eden jumps many generations into the future of this strange world, when the descendants of the schism between David and John have spread far across the surface of the planet, creating new societies locked in a sort of extraterrestrial religious Cold War against each other. With a larger and more complex world to juggle, Mother of Eden doesn’t quite hit the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s still fascinating to see Beckett expand one of the most unique and imaginative worlds in contemporary science fiction. I’m disappointed that according to what I’ve read, the third novel in the series won’t take a similar leap into Eden’s future, but I look forward to it nonetheless. (I’m still holding out for a Lord of the Flies or Apocalypto style ending.)

7. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
first fifteen lives harry august
Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.

Harry August is born, he lives, he dies – and he is born again, back where he started in 1919 in the women’s bathroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed train station, with all his memories and experience but with the slate of history wiped clean. His life is an Escher staircase, an ouroboros; and so, armed with a foreknowledge of what the 20th century will hold, he sets out to discover his purpose in this world.

It’s always refreshing to find a sci-fi or fantasy author who can write – not Pulitzer-level stuff, but somebody who can actually craft their sentences well and make a plot work properly, people like George R.R. Martin or Glen Duncan or (see above) Chris Beckett. Claire North is one of these authors, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an absolute corker of a novel: fun, fast, and the perfect kind of engaging sci-fi mystery to read on a long flight, which I was lucky enough to do so. It engages in the obligatory questions about the meaning of life which one would expect from a story about immortals, but, more importantly, gives us plenty of fun with the mechanics and possibilities of ever-lasting life, knowledge of the future and a permanent reset button.

6. Under The Skin
under the skin
She and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?

On the face of it – if I were to describe it to you right now, assuming you know nothing about it – Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a completely batshit novel with a crazy premise and a moralistic purpose. And yet somehow it manages to become so much more than that. It begins with the weirdly attractive yet oddly creepy woman named Isserley driving around Scotland picking up hitchhikers for what we soon gather are nefarious purposes. Is she a sex addict? A serial killer? The truth, as we discover, is far more horrifying than that.

Under The Skin is fundamentally an allegorical work, for an aspect of our society which makes me uncomfortable even if I enjoy it too much to actually give it up. But it’s the mark of great science fiction that it makes you consider and re-evaluate something you take for granted as part of everyday life. It’s also a compelling, readable story – and a fantastic accomplishment for a first novel.

5. Railhead
railhead
Just before a train went through a K-gate there was a moment of quiet, so short that only railheads caught it, as the wheels moved from the normal K-bahn track to the strange, ancient, frictionless rails which ran through the gate itself. That was what it felt like to Zen when he recognized the girl: a heartbeat’s silence, and then he was in a new world.

Philip Reeve returns explosively to form with Railhead, his first novel for teenage readers in some time – and the first, in my opinion, that comes close to matching the Mortal Engines series for that trifecta of story, spectacle and emotional heft. A richly-layered, deeply imagined sci-fi universe in which travel between planets takes place on sentient teleporting trains, a pantheon of inhuman AIs dwelling in the “data sea,” a rag-tag street thief recruited for a daring heist – what’s not to like?

I can stack the compliments up all day. But most importantly, Reeve still manages an ineffable sense of epic adventure; cliffhanger moments; turns of phrase and character decisions and powerful climaxes. All the reasons we read this kind of fiction, all the reasons we go to the movies, all the reasons we tell stories around campfires. I can’t quite articulate it, but whatever it is, Reeve has it in his bones.

4. Death Comes for the Archbishop
death comes for the archbishop
In New Mexico he always awoke a young man. Not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “Today, today”’ like a child’s.

This is one of the TIME 100, and in that article Richard Lacayo compares the book to a tapestry. I keep coming back to that description because it’s so perfectly apt. Father Latour’s life is nothing more than a series of scenes, encounters and experiences, none of them any more important than the others; nor can his own life be viewed in isolation, because it’s inextricably part of a richer and broader web, comprising all the people who have been part of his lived experience, and he a part of theirs. Willa Cather’s prose is unsympathetic, unempathic; in that sense she reminded me of a more serious and poetic Larry McMurtry. There are certainly beautiful turns of phrase here, marvellous descriptions and passages, and yet I found that a few weeks after reading this book, most of them had filtered out of my head. What remained was what felt like the solid reality of this man’s rich and beautiful life.

3. Aurora
aurora
Wherever you go, there you are.

Science fiction, in its purest form, has the purpose of making us think about what’s possible. Science fiction is about the exploration of concepts and ideas. Science fiction is about challenging orthodoxies and upending conventional viewpoints.

Yet science fiction itself, with its associate fandoms, geekery and nerdhood, has developed orthodoxies of its own. One of these is the near-universal opinion that it is humanity’s manifest destiny to colonise the galaxy. It’s an opinion I share, and I have to say that it’s an extremely powerful book which makes you legitimately and respectfully question your own beliefs – or at least question the reasons you hold them, and the outrigger opinions you’ve come to associate with them. Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a deeply moral, political and environmental writer, and in Aurora – although I might dispute some of his facts and conclusions – he makes every sci-fi nerd take a good, long look at why they believe what they believe. This isn’t just a cause-du-jour 2015 novel about climate change and Malthusian catastrophes and environmental stewardship; it’s a novel about what we’re trying to run from, why we’re so keen to leave, and what we think we’re going to find.

That alone would have been enough to give it a spot high on this list. But it’s also a novel with one of the best narrator characters I’ve read in a very long time, and a near-conclusion passage which is one of the most affecting pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I hesitate to say this after the sheer amount of time and paper that went into Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, but I think Aurora might be his best novel. It’s certainly one of the best science fiction novels of the past 30 years.

2. The Remains of the Day
The remains of the day
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”

Stevens must have a first name, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps even he has forgotten it. He lives a life of pure dedication to his position as butler of Darlington Hall: a man living his life not only in servitude to others, but in servitude to the very idea of servitude; to his own obsession with the profession of butlering. He lets other pleasures and opportunities slide on past because of his single-minded dedication to what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing.

Kazuo Ishiguro lays metaphor upon metaphor in a deceptively simple book which has an iceberg of deeper meaning beneath it, and an emotional sucker punch to match that of his more recent (and perhaps more famous) Never Let Me Go. In theme, those two novels reflect each other perfectly. Never Let Me Go is about the cages society builds for us; The Remains of the Day is about the cages we build for ourselves. It’s a sad and beautiful novel which everybody should read.

1. Gormenghast
gormenghast1
He is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

From a book which I think everybody should read to a book which is, to put it lightly, not everybody’s cup of tea. How to explain Gormenghast to the uninitiated? How to describe its pleasures, its tedium, its weight, its importance?

I can’t. It simply has to be read. It’s not even one book at all, although I’m counting it as one – it’s two excellent novels, one semi-finished third novel written by an author who was losing his mind, and then a collection of scribbled notes, extrapolated intentions and inevitable musings on the reader’s part about where Mervyn Peake intended to take his epic saga. This all combines to create a single work of art, a single place, a single experience with a single title: GORMENGHAST.

This is a collection of writing so vivid and intense that it almost feels real. It’s a Gothic labyrinth as complex and fascinating as the huge, rambling, decaying castle of Gormenghast itself. The main character is not the lordling Titus Groan who flinches from his hereditary responsibilities, nor the cunning and ruthless Steerpike who plots to climb the ladder and rule the castle; it’s not even the setting of Gormenghast itself, that legendary semi-derelict universe of stone and masonry, in the sense that so many great works have settings indispensable to the tone of the story. No, the main character is Peake’s prose: Gothic in tone, baroque in style, florid and detailed and endlessly compelling. Writing the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Writing like a man composing a symphony; or painting a canvas – one of those great, detailed, fifteen-foot high paintings that hang in the National Gallery. Writing so bizarre and yet so accomplished that it makes the castle city of Gormenghast feel like a real place full of real people, and yet at the same time like an impossible daydream; a memory of a place we once were, which we can no longer reach.

People who’ve read Gormenghast are nodding their heads and agreeing; people who haven’t read Gormenghast have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. All I can say is that you really must read these books. They’re like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.

Slade House by David Mitchell (2015) 233p.

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I moved back to Melbourne recently and I’m subletting in a big old townhouse in East Melbourne, near Punt Road, right across from Yarra Park. It hasn’t been renovated since the ‘60s or ‘70s and has an air of decayed grandeur about it; faded wallpaper, mouldy ceilings, an overgrown back garden. All the other housemates have gone away for the Christmas break, so I return each evening at dusk to a large and empty house. I was sitting in my bedroom the other day when I swear I heard the floorboards creaking in the hallway outside. All of which makes it a perfect atmosphere for reading Slade House, David Mitchell’s haunted-house-slash-paranormal-fantasy novel about a creepy old mansion somewhere in the urban wastelands of Greater London, which only seems to appear once every nine years on the last Saturday in October.

Slade House breaks the publishing pattern for Mitchell. His books typically take several years to come out, they’re always longer than this, and although they link themes and ideas they’ve also broken fresh ground, from the semi-autobiography of Black Swan Green to the historical fiction of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Slade House, on the other hand, very firmly takes place within the universe of The Bone Clocks. It’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, but a secondary story thread running within it.

I have to say that Mitchell’s developed an alarming habit of becoming over-expository. I mentioned in my review of The Bone Clocks that one of that novel’s most pivotal chapters was far too gushing with its explanations about exactly what had been going on in the background all the time, replete with dozens of made-up fantasy terms like horologists, suasion, orison and (ugh) psychovoltage. I’m obviously not a genre snob and I never had an issue with Mitchell creating that world, but I did have to take issue with how clumsily he conveyed it to the reader – with all the hallmarks of a literary author writing genre, as though concerned that people wouldn’t quite twig what was going on unless it was thoroughly spelt out to them. I’m afraid to say that in Slade House he doubles down on this, up to and including repeated scenes of evil gloating by the cartoonish villains to their hapless victims.

It still mostly works. As a horror story it’s quite effective – unless that’s just because I read it in this big, empty old house. One aspect that actually works better than The Bone Clocks is how the story is now told from the perspective of the Anchorites’ victims, people whom we come to know quite well, and sympathise with even if we don’t particularly like them. As the pattern of the nine-year ritual becomes clear we can greet each new arrival with a sense of dread, the literary version of watching a clueless character in a horror film walk right into the jaws of death. Having read The Bone Clocks, on the other hand, also makes the final chapter something of a letdown, as the closest thing Mitchell has to a superhero shows up. As soon as they introduce themselves by name we know that the game’s up for the predatory lord and lady of Slade House.

This sort of thing is far less interesting to me than any number of ideas for novels which are no doubt rattling around inside Mitchell’s head. It seems to sit uneasily with a number of reviewers, too, even those who didn’t banish him to genre town after reading The Bone Clocks. At the Guardian, Liz Jensen seems to think Mitchell is satirising himself; in the New York Times, Dwight Garner says Mitchell’s interlinked world is starting to feel “less like Yoknapatawpha and more like Marvel;” and Scarlett Thomas says that “Slade House is what happens when authors start writing their own fan fiction.” Ouch!

I wouldn’t be as harsh as that. I still enjoy most anything David Mitchell puts to paper, and I liked the time-spanning adventures of the Horologists and the Anchorites in The Bone Clocks, even if I thought it was sometimes clumsily overwrought. Personally I’d compare Slade House to a B-side: it’s not a main attraction, just a collection of extra stuff an artist threw together which they thought the fans might appreciate. I’d have no problem with Mitchell writing stuff like this again, especially since it took him less than a year. I just hope he continues to mine the other rich seams of his imagination with longer, thicker and properly independent novels, instead of essentially writing an ongoing serial about The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Marinus.

Railhead by Philip Reeve (2015) 299 p.

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After several years of writing books aimed at younger children, Philip Reeve returns to a teenage audience with Railhead: a wonderfully imaginative space opera taking place across an empire of hundreds of worlds linked together by the K-bahn, a network of teleportation gates and railways, with sentient locomotives ferrying people, goods and data across the vast gulfs of space. Zen Starling, a two-bit thief from an industrial city called Cleave, finds himself sucked into an adventure as he’s unexpectedly pursued by both government officials and an enigmatic, powerful fugitive named Raven.

Reeve is the author of the classic Mortal Engines series, which remain my favourite YA novels of all time, and I was quite looking forward to this one. I’m happy to say it doesn’t disappoint – this his best novel in years, and recaptures many of the elements I thought made Mortal Engines so successful.

One of those is pacing. I recall one reviewer calling Mortal Engines “an epic in miniature,” which I felt was apt, given how much globetrotting and adventure Reeve managed to fit into only a few hundred pages. The same is true of Railhead, which is just under 300 pages and yet squeezes in what another author might take several books to cover. And I’d forgotten how much I love Reeve’s vivid, evocative writing, which I think stems from his former life as an illustrator. So many scenes stick out in the mind: the industrial waterfall canyon city of Cleave, the abandoned hotel on a moon beneath the rings of a gas giant, the salty green sea surging through the shattered windows of a derailed train. It lends itself to a wonderfully cinematic kind of story, in the sense of both the visuals and the narrative frame. Reeve has good cliffhanger chapter breaks, a good sense of adventurous tension, and a great ability to write epic, climactic conclusions.

What I appreciated more than anything else was that it felt like Reeve was writing a story that to entertain himself, the kind of thing he (and I) would have liked to read as a kid, rather than something carefully calculated to slot into the modern YA publishing market. I find that far too many series these days are deliberately aimed at teenagers’ sense of self-importance and tortured misunderstanding. You’re not like the others… you’re DIVERGENT. You might just be a clumsy Washington teen… but you’re SPECIAL. Even the Hunger Games, which tries so hard to position itself as being subversive (and to be fair I’ve only seen one film, not read the books) still struck me as stroking youthful egos (which many people never grow out of); encouraging the fantasy of being the most important, glamorous person in the room. All the perfunctory reluctant-hero-figurehead crap would, I think, have swept right over the heads of most teenagers in the audience.

Which is why it’s refreshing to read Reeve, an author whose characters are not special or chosen or different or heroic: they’re just people, jerked around by events greater than themselves, trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Any saving of the world which might happen along the way is incidental. Reeve understands this fundamental truth, in contravention of so many of our narrative myths: the fate of the world is decided by people far bigger and more powerful than we can ever hope to be, and it’s all we can do to take care of ourselves. Maybe some would find this depressing. I disagree. I actually find it a much more valuable message to be imparting to young adults: we’re not special, nobody is The Chosen One, we’re all equally important in a messed up world and we need to try to be good people and look out for each other.

It’s also just good, rollicking fun – the kind of novel which wouldn’t have been categorised as YA at all thirty years ago, but instead would have simply been science fiction.

Further notes – I like Reeve’s commitment to broadening the scope of what young people read about in terms of relationships (a gay romance in Scrivener’s Moon, and an unconventional one I won’t spoil in Railhead) and race (most of the Network Empire seems to have come from India, and most of the major characters are dark-skinned). I like his wild imagination – I loved the Guardians, the AIs created in a distant past which have now become as gods, aloof and withdrawn from the affairs of mankind. I like the subtle, simple way he writes characters, with everybody containing shades of grey, with people who appear to be villains sometimes turning out to be sympathetic, and people who appear to be good sometimes turning out to be villains. And, as always, I’m a sucker for stories in the genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle,” which Railhead slots into very neatly.

And like Mortal Engines, it ends perfectly, and beautifully, on an uplifting note. It could easily lead to sequels, but certainly doesn’t have to.

I enjoyed Railhead a hell of a lot – not just as a YA novel I’d recommend to teenagers, but one which I’d recommend to everybody. I’ve always thought Reeve has been one of the most overlooked writers in the genre, particularly outside the UK. I’m glad to see him back to writing for an older audience again, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn (1994) 136 p.

When we last met Patrick Melrose, in Bad News, he was 22 years old and in the grip of a heroin addiction, on his way back to England after an intense couple of days in New York City. Some Hope reintroduces us to him in his early 30s, when he’s kicked the drugs and is training to become a lawyer, but must still navigate the monstrous world of the British upper crust. Most of the novel (or novella, really) takes place over the course of a house party one evening in Gloucestershire.

St Aubyn maintains his acidic contempt for the wealthy and the privileged; there’s an amusingly unflattering portrayal of Princess Margaret (the Queen’s sister), who believes that England “belonged, if not legally, then in some much more profound sense, to her own family.” I also quite liked one character’s observation that diplomats had long since been rendered obsolete by the telephone.

I can’t truly chalk it up as a flaw, but I found this instalment difficult going in terms of keeping track of the characters beyond Patrick himself. I recall Anne and Bridget and Nicholas, if only vaguely, but there was a whole host of further snobs who may have been present in the dinner party in Never Mind or may not have been. Of course this is partly my fault for reading the books with so much space in between them, but then I doubt it was any easier for readers picking them up as they came out. This is the first time I’ve read a Patrick Melrose novel in one of the collected editions, which turn them from five slim novellas into a single novel of considerable (but not outrageous) heft. I suspect they might be the kind of books better read as one volume than as disparate experiences, even if lurching in and out of Patrick’s life gives the whole affair an inevitably disjointed tone.

The other thing I found less compelling about this book was the rather pivotal fact of Patrick’s sobriety. I suppose this goes arm in arm with the fact that a youth of 22 is more interesting to read about than a man of 32 – as Patrick puts it at one stage, he got a nasty shock when he realised he was too old to die young. Of course, complaining about the recovery phase in a semi-autobiographical novel by a recovered heroin addict feels churlish. Probably it says more about me than it does about Patrick Melrose, or Edward St Aubyn.

Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry (1995) 447 p.

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I read Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western Lonesome Dove last year while I was travelling across America, and loved it more than enough to read the rest of the series. It has a bit of a convoluted history, though: McMurtry first wrote a sequel, Streets of Laredo, then went back and wrote about the adventures of a young Gus and Call in this prequel, Dead Man’s Walk, and then his fourth and final novel – Comanche Moon – is the third in chronological terms, squeezed in between Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon. I always prefer to do things chronologically, so Dead Man’s Walk it is, which takes us way back to the early 1840s when Gus and Call had freshly joined the Texas Rangers.

Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that the brief-lived Republic of Texas, between its independence from Mexico and its assimilation into the United States, only existed for one year. It actually lasted for ten, from 1836 to 1846, which is quite a long time if you think about it. Dead Man’s Walk seems to take place in the early 1840s, and is loosely based on the republic’s historical ill-fated expedition to annex New Mexico, with Gus and Call joining an expedition – half trading party, half conquering army – which aims to seek out the riches of Sante Fe.

In Lonesome Dove the two of them seem to look back on their time in the Rangers with great fondness, but the immediate impression of the organisation in Dead Man’s Walk is one of a complete shambles: underequipped, underarmed, inexperienced, and led by “reformed” outlaws, pirates and murderers. Call in particular soon develops an angry contempt for his superiors as he witnesses greed, needless deaths, betrayal and on-the-spot executions for insubordination. For all that his novels have the style and the cover art of something your Dad might read, McMurtry has never idealised or romanticised the West: he just writes about all its brutality and suffering in his plain, unruffled prose.

The way McMurtry seems to float above all that conflict and pointless death, recording it with mostly the same level of emotion as witnessing a landslide or a sunset or something else completely beyond the ken of man, is quite interesting for a modern reader given how heavily Native Americans are involved in this volume. (I know it’s from 1995, but that was twenty years ago now, and in any case McMurtry is of an earlier pedigree.) In Lonesome Dove the Native Americans were mostly licked and beaten; a few rag-tag tribes struggling to survive in Montana, still somewhat dangerous but mostly passing away into history. In Dead Man’s Walk, thirty-five years earlier, West Texas is still very much Comanche country – a deadly wasteland with warriors who can out-hunt, out-pace and out-kill parties of better-armed Texas Rangers. The Comanche are mostly presented as violent, murdering, ineffable foes, and all the while the left-wing Guardian reader inside me squirms, knowing full well that the larger story of Native Americans is one of violent displacement and dispossession. But McMurtry never comes across as a right-wing flag-waving Texan who considers the white man’s conquest important or desirable; like so many things in his writing, it simply… is. (Besides which, the Texans generally aren’t portrayed sympathetically either.) This is Gus and Call’s story, and Gus and Call were Texas Rangers, terrified of the lethal Comanches who stalked them across a harsh and foreign landscape. That’s the story being told here.

I enjoyed Dead Man’s Walk a lot. It’s not a patch on Lonesome Dove, which has far greater themes about time and age and nostalgia and friendship; this one feels an awful lot more like McMurtry pumping out another book for fans of one of the great buddy acts in Western literature. I suspect Comanche Moon may be more of the same, though the final volume, Streets of Laredo, should take us back into that bittersweet old age. (And anybody who’s read Lonesome Dove or seen the miniseries will know full well why a sequel to that story would be bittersweet.) But “more of the same” isn’t something I can begrudge McMurtry for writing – I enjoyed it, and I’ll read more of it.

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