Back in October 2016 I was on twitter whining about the fact that I couldn’t find anything to read in my particular corner of genre interest (a contemporary, well-written space-opera novel but short) and this started an exchange between myself, Paul Jessup, and Joe McDermott swapping book recommendations, the upside of which was Joe sending me an advance copy of his latest book, The Fortress at the End of Time. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s stuff since I read his book Last Dragon, so gladly agreed to writing a review of the book after reading it.
(The downside of that conversation was its eventual, though not unexpected, wrangling over how good or bad a book Moby Dick is…)
The short answer then is I liked it. A lot. The Fortress at the End of Time is very much my particular corner of genre interest as it reads a bit like a mash-up of Walter M. Miller JR’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes. While it’s not much of a space-opera it does deal with a galactic civilization. I’d call it more military SF, if milSF were truer to the modern day experience of the military – a lot of boredom and drudgery with a sideline of diplomacy in a place far away from home – than, say, any iteration of Space Hulk. (Another book in a similar vein might be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.)
Here’s what Fortress is about: Ronaldo Aldo is a young military officer sent to a far away military outpost located in orbit above a desert world, the Citadel. Actually it’s not Aldo himself, but his clone that’s sent as intergalactic travel is conducted via ansible, which is a bit like a Star Trek transporter. About a century before the novel’s events a war took place between humanity and another intergalactic species with the other species disappearing beyond an empty expanse of space. The outpost where Aldo is sent serves as a forward listening base in case the aliens return, but in reality it’s a horrible posting full of drudgery, boredom, and a high suicide rate.
Between the corruption of his fellow officers, the institutionalized sexual harassment, and the feud between the military outpost and the civilian monastery on the planet’s surface, Aldo quickly finds himself at a loss in dealing with those around him. Part of his problem is that he’s more than a bit of a sanctimonious prig who alienates those around him even when he’s doing the right thing. The other problem might be a bit more meta, in that the book is a first person confession by Aldo regarding a crime it takes over two hundred pages for him to come straight out and confess. As another reviewer on Goodreads said, “sometimes you wish you could punch Aldo in the nose” and that’s the truth. Even when Aldo commits his justifiable from the reader’s perspective defiant act of rebellion, he can’t escape that priggishness that makes you dislike him.
Now, like I said this book is very much in my little area of interest. Whether other folks enjoy 1st person Miller/Buzzati* mash-ups that have a good bit of crunch to them, but no answers (and you can’t riff on The Tartar Steppes and simply provide answers…) I can’t really say. When I finished the book, I had to wonder who else would go for something like this besides other weirdos like me, and we’re not much of a stable niche market. That Tor/Macmillan would put this out makes me immensely glad and continues my impression that the Tor.com novella series is a fascinating experiment, and The Fortress at the End of Time fits well in that list.
* Wasn’t Buzzati a Fascist? Yes. Yes, he was. If you feel weird reading him, you can always read Gramsci alongside him.
Ever notice how you never see what people read in the month of December because they’re always posting Year’s Best lists and stuff like that? Yeah, me too. So there will be none of that here. Instead you just have the same old end of the month review. Enjoy!
The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski: Read this! If you at all like dark, weird, and old fiction it’s well worth your while to track this down. Grabinski’s sort of considered Poland’s Poe, and his work certainly has the old horror vibe, but he wrote in the earlier part of the 20th century and Grabinski’s obsession are all his own. Demon-haunted trains, dueling your own doppelganger, coal smoke elementals, undead gravediggers, sex with ghosts – if any of that sounds cool, read this book. You’ll not be disappointed.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: I blathered about this book two posts ago.
The Fortress at the End of Time: I’ll likely blather more about this book later this week. I liked it quite a bit. It’s military SF, as long as you realize for a lot of people being in the military means being extremely bored extremely far from home.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz: A fun, fascinating book about mass extinction that makes you feel hopeful that humanity might manage to adapt to most apocalyptic scenarios and manage to bounce back against a hostile universe. Newitz’s approach is to look across species boundaries to see what strategies have worked for animals along with looking at those used by human populations to survive. To this she also adds the “remember” part and tries to capture ways fiction, and in particular, science-fiction can point a way forward. A neat book.
Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee: I did not read this version. I wish I had, because who doesn’t love 70s cleavage… I mean, the e-book was full of horrible typos. Anyway this is the second book in a series I haven’t read any other book in and despite that I quite liked it. It’s SF of the gender-swapping far future society that’s all David Bowie//Studio 54 scenesters all the time variety and it embraces that notion absolutely and completely, but the real story happens when the narrator gets exiled from that society and takes up gardening outside in the desert. Somethings you could only get away with in the days of cheap paperback novels. But I really should read more Tanith Lee, because this was fun.
And that’s all.
This year I was toying with the idea of writing about the books I don’t finish and talking about those, but really I haven’t found anything in a book I didn’t like that wasn’t covered in this post here.
I guess one reason I’d add to the list of why I might stop reading a book is a personal one regarding subject matter: I find losers and dirt-bags of most varieties far more interesting to read about than good students no matter how corrupt the system those students struggle against. It’s a shame, but that’s the truth. And it’s also number one on that list.
Reckoning is an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. The first issue is out now and includes my people-riding-flying-bicycles-while-living-underground-and-fighting-smelly-worms story “Who Loves the Sun”… because nothing says environmental justice like fighting smelly worms.
It’s the end of the year and everyone is posting their best-of-the-year list and I thought I would do mine a little bit different. These aren’t so much my favorite reads but books that for one reason or another have stuck with me and I’m still thinking about days/weeks/months after I read them. And as always these aren’t books published this year, but read this year.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: A pulp novel written in the early 1940s about a European refugee on the run in wartime USA. Julie Guilles the daughter of American expatriates in France flees to the USA where she’s not a legal citizen and hopes to keep a low profile fearing both the FBI and the Gestapo. Things don’t go as planned and when a former associate gets murdered on her door step, Julie takes off across country because she can’t trust anyone and has learned of the existence of a human trafficker in New Mexico that may know the whereabouts of her cousin. It’s pretty simple hard-boiled stuff, but it’s the wartime details that stuck with me because they were fresh and a bit startling. Like right now when we talk about WW2 it’s over and done, it can be reduced to a narrative, and it’s talked about in certain ways. This book was written while the end was yet to be determined, and Julie’s as afraid of ending up in a US concentration camp as a German one. There’s likely an education to be had in reading hard-boiled pulp written during and set in WW2.
Bleak Warrior by Alistair Rennie: Hey did you know I like to write fiction and sometimes it even gets published? Did you also know that Bleak Warrior has a guy in it with a dick-shaped club who ejaculates semen cold enough to kill the people he rapes by frostbite and another guy that eats pickled intestines like they’re spaghetti? What do these things have to do with each other? Well, let’s just say that sometimes when I’m working on a thing and tying myself up in knots to make it all make sense knowing there’s a book like Bleak Warrior out there fills me with hope, kind of the same way reading The Blackbirder gets me over the hump when it comes to thinking about “plot”. Both books are pulpy and trashy, but smart about it, and what they riff on is other prose not just some TV show, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Rennie’s internalized Michael Moorcock here, twisted all the dials to 11, and then smashed the control board just to see what would happen. Bleak Warrior’s a weird awful book, and while that doesn’t mean more ice-dick, it’s liberating in its embrace of all that it is.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: I described this to friends as a post-apocalyptic version of The Wire. Set sometime in the latter half of the 21st century after various calamities have brought much of the world to its knees and thrown technology back nearly two centuries, City of Bohane deals with the gang war between factions attempting to control the titular Irish city. It’s a jargon-rich slangy violent book (which is why it’s on this list) that took a while for me to get into but when I did I found myself caught up in all the squalid dealing, back-stabbing, and betrayals set amid the occasional weirdness and flourishes. And all at half the length of a Song of Fire & Ice novel...
Definitely not for everyone, maybe even less so than Bleak Warrior, but if you think it might be up your alley, hell friend, you’re already doomed.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: I hold with the notion that society is a sea of often unexamined ideas and we’re all swimming in it largely unaware of the historical context of a lot of the mental landscape around us. Painter picks apart more than a few of those ideas in this book. Whether it’s addressing the institution of white slavery and the abuses rendered upon the Irish, or the weird fascination much of Europe had with Nordic purity and skull shape, or the way German nationalism is based on a chapter from Tacitus’s Histories, or really dozens of other things, Painter dives right in and writes about them all in an engaging and accessible style. This is a history of ideas and concepts that are largely accepted without question, and by shining a light on them and showing their seams and connections shows how much they’re a creation and not some universal truth.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: This book is a mess, but a fascinating mess. Imagine a mash-up between JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Patricia Highsmith and you might get an idea of the mood of this book. Alice Stockton is a recently divorced writer who’s moved to the south of England to start her life over, only to have a nuclear reactor in France meltdown and start dropping radioactive fall out all over her region. While officials say everything is fine, Alice’s latest manuscript has been confiscated by the government and her one friend in town has been murdered by persons unknown. As she adjusts to her friend’s death, the woman’s son appears and starts taking an interest in Alice’s life.
The overall mood of this book is paranoid and sitting right on the edge of something awful, that ends up being not quite the apocalypse you thought you’d get. Yet… yet… even if it doesn’t all fit together and make sense, there’s a lot of bits of this that get under your skin, or at least my skin, as it’s a snapshot of the emergent surveillance state and maybe a commentary on 80s excess.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I’ve only read one other contemporary Korean novel, Kim Young-Ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and based on that book and this one I’m starting to suspect Milan Kundera was something of a huge deal in contemporary Korean Lit. HUGE. With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I didn’t much like it on initial read, especially the early two-thirds of the book as I could only feel contempt for all the characters, but the last third remedied that and now after a few months I’m thinking back on the earlier two-thirds and seeing them in possibly a better light. The plot of The Vegetarian is a young Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian and by doing so she throws her whole world into turmoil. The first two-thirds of the book are narrated largely from the POV of her husband and brother-in-law, and they’re both awful people, but awful in different ways (that I’ll call Right Wing/Left Wing South Korean male styles). The last third is narrated from the woman’s sister, and that’s where the heart of the book was for me and its most damning elements. Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane.
But, the more fascinating thing was how I heard this book talked about, because no one in Korea talked about the message of the book or what it might be saying. All the commentary was on how beautiful the writing was. It was one of the weirdest silencing techniques I’d ever witnessed, like praising a N.K. Jemisin novel for the quality of its prose while centering all discussion on “prose quality” and adamantly ignoring any discussion of race suggested by her books. And this wasn’t simply that I couldn’t follow discussions on this book. My wife said the same: all public commentary on the book praised the quality of the writing and ignored anything it might have been saying. Weird.
And there you go.
Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler: This was the first book I read by Butler years ago. I remember finding this exact edition at the library and reading it over the course of one summer afternoon. This is a weird book. A sort of cyberpunk Hills Have Eyes except the cannibals are the good guys. At some point five years in the future, the USA is a hellscape of misery and violence – and somewhere in the desert something from another world is breeding, reshaping humanity in an isolated settlement. A lone doctor and his two daughters get captured by the settlement’s altered inhabitants and violence ensues. This is part of Butler’s Patternmaster series but can easily be read as a stand alone novel.
Fifty Shades of Louisa May by L.M. Anonymous: This is a porn novel purporting to be a recently discovered manuscript by Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other such books you probably should have read but didn’t. It’s funny, silly, and treats its subjects with appropriate irreverence whether it’s Emerson’s morphine habit, Thoreau’s BO, or Herman Melville playing Peeping Tom to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson: Wilson’s A Sorcerer of the Wilddeeps was likely my favorite fantasy novel in recent years and A Taste of Honey is a decent follow-up. Again we have a love story between two gifted men, only here that love story is in the foreground as the story centers the struggle of one of the men to choose a life that fulfills himself or that satisfies his family’s expectations for him. And it does that while still kind of being a Sword & Sorcery story.
How to Cook A Wolf by MFK Fisher: I first heard of this book from the Apocalypse World RPG’s suggested reading list. It’s a cookbook written during World War Two, a time of shortages and rationing, and as such it’s a fascinating peek into that era. Fisher’s intention is to provide a means to confront hunger, the wolf of the title, head on without losing one’s dignity or enjoyment for food. Lots of soup and stew recipes and tips on how to stretch a meal, and lots of weird asides like how hard it is to get fish now that a) the coast is mined, and b) the population that fished, Japanese-Americans, have been interred. Worth tracking down. (Fisher updated the book nine years later and these bits are in parenthesis and at times this is distracting like you’re invited over to watch her argue with herself.)
One of the results of the English Civil War was the rise of cookbooks as a distinct genre. It makes sense if you think about it. You had former servants out of work, one-time nobles stuck in exile and/or broke, and a public nostalgic and eager to see how those nobles lived. As this was an era where “physick” and alchemy weren’t too far apart from each other you’d have a lot of cross over between the two: a recipe for bacon and eggs a few pages away from a recipe for a healing draught. Here’s a few interesting characters that worked early on in writing cookbooks.
Lady Ann Fanshawe: Memoirist. Possible first English language recorder of a recipe for ice cream. Lady Fanshawe wrote her memoir for private circulation as a guide to her son on how to live a proper life and do honor to her late husband and the son’s father. But she also kept a book of receipts and recipes. Amid the food recipes, Lady Fanshawe’s book had recipes for cooking up common remedies to various ailments and tidbits of herblore. It was likely common practice at the time for a noblewoman to pass down such a book full of common wisdom, recipes, and remedies to a daughter upon the occasion of her marriage.
Sir Kenelm Digby*: English Catholic noble, privateer, amateur scientist, and alchemist, Sir Kenelm Digby had a bit of it all going for him. He seemed like a bit of kook too, but that’s okay. He was the guy who suggested we all eat bacon and eggs for breakfast with the “juyce of an Orange”, and suggesting that when cooking venison it should be so well cooked that it can be carved from the bone with a spoon. Sir Digby spent years roaming Europe traveling from court to court and his book reflects that. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened was published after his death and has over a hundred recipes for mead.
Hannah Wolley: Her mother and sisters were skilled at “physick and chiurgy”, and she learned the trade from them. Her husband was a school teacher, and she herself was a teacher. Her books weren’t simply about cooking, but household management. And like Lady Fanshawe’s book, Wolley’s featured remedies for ailments amid all the recipes. Yet unlike the other two she wasn’t of the nobility, but common (if upper class) birth. Hannah’s likely the first person to make a living writing cookbooks in the English language.
A couple of other things: This article on cookbooks as literature is kind of neat. Especially as it delves into the cookbooks of Dumas who wrote like the Anthony Bourdain of his time.
Also since I’m talking cookbooks I have to mention this youtube series on 18th century cooking that I’m completely hooked on from J. Townsend and Son. I recommend the switchel!
* Not to be confused with Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.
What am I playing?
I ran a game for a bit until two TPKs got me a reputation in town as a killer DM. This made me sad, but my buddy took over the gaming duties. Now, I’m playing in his game and being the yahoo running amok. For laughs I’m a playing a goody two shoes who makes everyone’s life miserable.
I like 5e, but it takes forever to make a character and all the crunch gets to me.
(I’m also playing a f**kton of board games but that’s a subject for another post.)
What am I running?
The Stars Without Number game stalled out, then I killed a few parties with 5e, and ran a Numenera one-shot that never really became more than that because two of the players left town (although I wouldn’t have minded if it had become a longer running game).
Apocalypse World has been fun, but it certainly takes more reading the table, than D&D ever did. Also, D&D has very clear role demarcations whereas Apocalypse World doesn’t, so if you have a player who wants to do everything and control every other player, they will try to. Generally, this same person outside of the game is a bit of a bore.
What do I wish I was running?
Beyond the Wall.
The more 5e I play, the more I fall in love with this retroclone. Yeah, the YA protag thing could be a bit annoying – but as a system this might be my favorite iteration of D&D.
Who does it suck to game with?
Two kinds of people:
The never played D&D before but loves Wil Wheaton nerd who sees D&D as a signifier of their nerd status. It’s not just a game, it’s a pop culture reference! If there are no Cheetos and Mountain Dew on the table they feel slighted.
Chess players. Chess players are the worst.