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.
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.)
“If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman’s knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.”
So last month I breezed through all the books in Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series. And now I want to tell you all about them because they’re smart and fun.
The Good… They’re limited in setting, POV, and scope. This is definitely a pet peeve of mine, but I much prefer stories set against a local area than one that sprawls. These books don’t sprawl. They’re smart in their presentation of their world and philosophy. I can’t say enough about how great it is to read a speculative fiction novel that digs deep into a place and way of life and not send its characters careening across the landscape like tourists or anthropologists for hundreds of pages. And this is even though the Steerswomen do approach their work like anthropologists would, studying their society and the world they live in – but it’s presented as part and parcel of a developed milieu.
These are very much books about people in places and not about broad political movements or the internecine strife between nations or kingdoms. Those things are present as are elements of the sword & sorcery genre, only their brought down to the level of neighborhood politics and local actions. Their perspective is not the Epic but the Realist. Rowan the Steerswoman is on a journey of discovery and we learn as she explores different places and communities. Even the map in the front of the book is an artifact of her journey towards a greater understanding of her world, as each book opens with a different map encompassing her explorations up until that book.
The Bad… It’s a series and it’s not done yet. The first book was written in 1989 and the fourth in 2004. The author has said there are likely two more books to go. So coming into the series now, you need to know ahead of time that while each book is self-contained and short, the main story-line is yet to be fulfilled. All those plots and adventures and slow reveals of wider world details have yet to pay off. That’s a drag. But to let that stop you would be to miss out on some very good and very smart adventure fiction.
The Ugly… There’s a reveal. It’s not well hidden. Look at the covers to the first two books, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret, you don’t even need the author to tell you she’s writing science-fiction not fantasy. (But if so, it’s the science fiction of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia and not so much Non-Stop.) The fact that there is a reveal isn’t such a bad thing, but don’t get hung up on it. Really, it’s not a secret. It’s on the covers after all. The rest of it is all good, so check’em out!
This was a great month for books. I read a ton of fun stuff. Here are some highlights:
The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss: I’ve been slogging through this for months, reading a chapter here and there and then putting it aside for weeks on end, but you shouldn’t take my slow progress as a judgment. It’s a thick history book and I can’t be blamed for wanting some occasional zap/pow/boom along the way. The weirdness of the time comes through, but I’m sure it could be even more deeply explored (if you know of a book that does, I’d love to hear of it). But yeah, this is one of those people’s histories so draws on a lot of first hand accounts from various outsider sources such as kitchen servants, pamphleteers, and soldier-preachers.
Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy Hughes: Weird pulp crime novel that reminded me of Nightmare Alley while managing to be even pulpier. Sailor is a Chicago gangster who works as the personal secretary to a corrupt senator. When a deal goes bad and the senator cuts ties with Sailor, Sailor tracks him to New Mexico where they play cat and mouse in the midst of a fiesta. Meanwhile McIntyre, a Chicago cop, is trying to get the goods on the senator and hopes he can convince Sailor to do something good with his life for once. I will probably do a “One Book Four Covers” for this book, but I absolutely loved it.
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente: An AI/human hybrid teaching itself how to love by listening to stories? Maybe. I was along for the gorgeous prose and imagery. The story unfolds at its own pace, so you need to give this time as it puzzles itself apart and reveals its workings to you. I’d say the journey is worth it.
Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie: This is a bad book for bad people and as good as they say. It’s the grim dark genre pushed to absurd lengths and a long form riff on Elric and his like. Imagine Elric by way of GWAR by way of the WWF if Jodorowsky were in charge of the script. If you can imagine it and can stomach copious amount of violence, more violence, and genital violence, then get your hands on this book. It’s something.
The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein: This is the fourth book in Kirstein’s Steerswoman series, and the most recent. I plowed through all four this month and will do a longer post on the series some time this month. Safe to say I adored them and they did so much right that most speculative fiction gets wrong in regards to pace and plotting. This book has Rowan the Steerswoman still on the trail of the wizard Slado and the mystery of “routine bioform clearance”, but has her staying in a small town as she tries to uncover more of Slado’s history. The thing I loved was how the entire book stayed focus on one locale and situation, and didn’t do the standard spec-fiction thing of sending people running all over the world to discover plot tokens. The downside is that there are still two more books to go in the series.
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas: An enjoyable book that satirizes fandom or at least the areas of it I’m partially familiar with. The Summer Tentacular is an annual HP Lovecraft convention that draws a host of weirdos to Providence, RI. Only this year a notoriously disliked author has been murdered in the hotel and his room mate decides to play detective and tries to find out why no one cares that a murder has happened among their members. A fun read that at its worst becomes a Lovecraft sitcom or riff on Bimbos of the Death Sun, but at its best is funny, sad, and a little bit terrifying.
And there we go…
I made slow progress on a few books but didn’t finish them, put down others, read some short fiction, and so here we are.
I went on a binge of old school space opera. “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith is some seriously gross, bizarre stuff about a man convicted to live on a horrifying prison planet. It’s a crazy ride and well worth reading if you like weird, SF, or weird SF. The picture above is the Virgil Finlay illustration for it. Smith has some notoriety for being an early CIA agent and writing a manual on Psychological Warfare. An interesting guy and his stories are always interesting.
Second short fiction binge: James H. Schmitz. Have I blathered about the Witches of Karres? That’s a fun space opera and Schmitz by and large delivers fun space opera. Agent of Vega offers more of the same. Intergalactic secret agents foil various threats from hostile alien invasions to crimelords that are nothing more than the puppets of telepathic alien parasites. Stuff like that. I’m have a fun time working my way through Agent of Vega and Other Stories. One thing I really like is Schmitz’s a much more compassionate and a lot less hard-edged than his peers without coming across as being naive or sentimental.
Third short fiction binge: Elmore Leonard’s When the Women Come Out To Dance. Mostly crime short stories with some more literary and a few westerns pitched in. This book made me understand why people love Leonard’s stuff. His range from short and clipped to long and dense is amazing. I plan on getting a copy of his collection of Western stories, cause the ones in here were pretty great.
On to a novel:
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton: A 70s SF novel about a world where most illnesses have been cured and people mostly only die from old age. This has led to a sort of despair in the society that’s being countered by reality TV shows centered on the rare young and middle-aged individuals who suffer from terminal diseases. Katherine Mortenhoe is one such individual, and the novel centers on her coming to terms with her mortality while a media empire tries to maximize her suffering to their profit. And I would probably go on about that and mention how much I love NYRB’s stuff… except over the weekend NYRB doxxed an author who has gone to great lengths to maintain their anonymity and even said they’d likely quit writing if their identity was revealed. So I don’t know what to think except fuck NYRB.