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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (iii)

Another for Judith Reader in the Wilderness‘s meme.

This week, the remainder of my SF hardbacks. Click pictures to enlarge them.

More Ian McDonald, China Miéville, Christopher Priest, Keith Roberts, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, a book of Art Deco posters which fits in nowhere else.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (iii)

On another shelf entirely, standing next to the above. This contains books by my not so secret SF vice, Harry Turtledove, plus one Gene Wolfe, among others. Above, on its side, is a book containing illustrated Bernie Taupin lyrics for early Elton John songs:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (iv)

Gráinne by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1985, 175 p.

Gráinne cover

A man lies in a hospital bed being asked questions. In answer he begins to tell his life story. It is a curiously detached process: he thinks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as Bevan. (In this Roberts may be utilising aspects of his own young life to flesh out his story – or carrying out a double bluff to make us think so. He used the name Alastair Bevan as an early pseudonym.) The man doesn’t name some of the characters from his early life, merely gives them titles; The Mother, The Headmaster. His early discomfort on dealing with women is well conveyed. Things change when he meets the enigmatic Gráinne, however, though to begin with he only worships her from afar. She is named for the mythical Irish princess.

Roberts’s prose is oblique, meaning is not immediately transparent, it has to be teased out by the reader. By the end, though, the process does become less opaque. The intercutting between “Bevan”’s reminiscences and his interlocutors is an important part of this. It highlights and comments on his tale, allows Roberts to ask the questions the reader might – and answer them. He tells his story in five “sessions” named Anuloma, Abhassara, Brahmacariya, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. These titles are not from Irish mythology but relate to Hindu customs and tales.

The Gráinne ‘Bevan’ remembers has aspects of a goddess, or an everywoman, and she has the gift of prophecy. “Right down through history religion had backed the state. She said the end result of money sticks” – some man had invented these centuries ago and things had gone downhill from then on – “was three World Wars. Two down and one to go. She said she wanted something to survive, But not a God. Or it would all start again.”

Some time after their relationship ends she lands a job as a TV presenter on Channel Five (a fifth UK TV channel was fictitious in 1985) and becomes famous. As part of a project she is working on she asks the advertising firm Bevan works for to devise a campaign for her, knowing he will have the idea she wants. The ramifications of her programme cause the authorities some problems and this is the ultimate reason for Bevan’s questioning. It is only at this point that aspects of SF creep in to the novel. In common with most of Roberts’s œuvre the whole, however, has an unsettling effect, always teetering on the borderline of the fantastic, as if Gráinne might have been a figment of ‘Bevan’’s imagination.

For Roberts completists this is a must though those unfamiliar with his work might be best to start with earlier novels.

Pedant’s corner:- I note “mike” as the abbreviation for microphone. Hurrah!
Otherwise; woffle (waffle,) Guy Fawkes’ night (I believe it’s just Guy Fawkes night; if it had an apostrophe it would have to be Guy Fawkes’s night,) staunched (stanched,) “an old tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) “his Dad had given for his twenty-first” (had given him?) Fitzsimmons’ (Fitzsimmons’s,) Éirann (more usually Éireann,) verandah (I prefer veranda.) “He left the door stood open” (standing open,) “a line of men in saffron robes plod east” (a line plods.)

Irish Encounters by Keith Roberts

A short travel. Kerosina Books, 1988, 80 p.

Irish Encounters cover

This is an account, initially written for his friends, of a trip Roberts took to Ireland but which he later used as background for his BSFA Award winning novel Gráinne.

It was Roberts’s first time flying and he was nervous but was equally astonished at the quickness of the flight. His trip came before the Celtic Tiger days and Roberts contrasts Ireland – mostly favourably – with the England he had travelled from but does note encounters with beggars. The politeness and hospitality he met with were initially strange to him and he describes navigating Dublin’s streets in a hired car as a daunting task. On only one occasion did he encounter a lack of consideration, when a man in a pub questioned him about the North.

His comparison of real Irish pubs to those in England is very favourable, “smarter and cleaner, and the service leaves us standing.” The addendum, “Try asking for tea in your local English boozer; then count the number of times you bounce before you land in the street,” is perhaps no longer so true. Even so he says about English attitudes to Ireland, “bigotry is time saving; you can form opinions without troubling to get the facts.” It was the ancient monuments he was mainly there to visit though (Tara of the Kings etc.)

One of the things that struck me most about this account was that almost without exception every female (women and girls) Roberts mentions is described as either pretty or beautiful; he even goes so far as to apologise in his head and in print to the author of Molly Malone for assuming he had described Dublin’s girls as “so pretty” merely for the rhyme. Roberts also has a fascination for describing their eyes.

At his trip’s end he had a curious sensation that, “I was led, conducted, given as much at any one time as I could handle. Shown carefully what someone, or some thing, wished me to see,” and conceived “a debt to Eirann, and its tutelary deity”, a debt which became Gráinne.

I rarely read travel books and did so here only for completeness – though there is still some of Roberts’s œuvre I have yet to catch up with. But good writing is good writing wherever you meet it and Roberts was a good writer. Better than good.

Pedant’s corner:- nictating (nictitating,) a stationers (a stationer’s,) tricolors (tricolours,) facia (fascia,) a missing comma before a speech quote, a group of tourists are (a group is,) murmer (murmur.)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Top 50 Gollancz Book Titles

Over at Orion Publishing Group their Gollancz imprint is celebrating 50 years of publishing SF. They’re having a vote to see which of their chosen titles is the best. There are two categories, one for SF, one for Fantasy.

I thought I’d do this as an Ian Sales type meme.

The ones in bold I have read.

Gollancz top 25 SF titles:-

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dune by Frank Herbert

Fairyland by Paul McAuley
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (I have now read this.)
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Flood by Stephen Baxter
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes *
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
Pavane by Keith Roberts
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
The Separation by Christopher Priest
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (I have now read this.)

* as a short story.

As you can see I’ve read all but five of these.

Gollancz top 25 Fantasy titles:-

Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Book of the New Sun (Vol 1&2) (Vol 3&4) by Gene Wolfe
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

Conan Volume One by Robert E. Howard
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Elric by Michael Moorcock
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Little, Big by John Crowley
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson
Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan

Only seven from the Fantasy list, though.

For what it’s worth I voted for Keith Roberts’s Pavane and Little, Big by John Crowley.

A List Of Science Fiction Masterworks

Over at Ian Sales’s blog he has mentioned a meme that seems to come from the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

There seems to be a few more books on Ian’s list than on the Reading Project’s site, in all nearly a hundred. Some appear twice because there are two lists, one in Roman numerals and the other in Arabic.

I suppose the reason that not many of these are recent publications is that it takes time for a book to be appreciated as a masterwork.

The ones in bold I have read. For those starred (*) I have read the short story from which the novel was developed. Those with double stars I believe I read many moons ago but do not now have a copy. The italicised one is in the TBR pile (and has been for donkey’s ages.)

SF Masterworks Index:-

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe

9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick
14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells

25 – Flowers for Algernon* – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick
33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick
37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke

50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants** – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden* – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick

64 – Tau Zero** – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard

67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest
75 – Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
76 – The Island of Dr Moreau, HG Wells
77 – Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
78 – The Time Machine, HG Wells
79 – Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
80 – Helliconia, Brian Aldiss
81 – Food of the Gods, HG Wells

82 – The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
83 – The Female Man*, Joanna Russ (Edited to add; I have now read this.)
84 – Arslan, MJ Engh

Kaeti On Tour by Keith Roberts

Sirius, 1992, 320 p

Kaeti On Tour

The same conceit as in Kaeti And Company (see my review here) runs through this collection. In each of the nine stories in the book we have the same repertory company of names for the actors but they “play” different characters in the different tales. An addition to the ensemble seems to be Tennoch, a Glaswegian woman, who pops up in “The Green Place” and subsequently. Some of the stories are fine, if inconsequential, but they are all let down by this extremely irritating framing device. There is, too, within every story a quite prodigious use of the words “leastways” or “least” to start either a sentence or a subordinate clause, which does not just happen in Kaeti’s “voice”; others join in with this annoying practice. Thankfully, this time the linking pages between the stories do not feature any dialogue between “the author” and Kaeti but instead feature only the actors.

The two most successful stories, to my mind, were Kaeti And The Village – set in somewhere like Oradour-Sur-Glane – and Londinium, in Roman London just as Boudicca’s hordes are about to sack the city. Both would have benefited from being lifted out of the context of this book.

In some of the other tales the characters too often drifted without explanation between different realities and/or times, lending the whole an insubstantial air. Had the characters been separately defined this might have been less of a drawback.

Roberts was a fine writer. It’s a pity his obsession with his creation “Kaeti” blinded him to the faults inherent in this repertory company concept.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Vintage, 2005

The Plot Against America cover

This is Roth’s Altered History, set in a 1940s America where Charles Lindbergh became President – apparently mainly as a result of taking to the air on the campaign trail in the Spirit of St Louis – then forged an understanding with Hitler and so kept the US out of World War 2. Given Roth’s lineage the book unsurprisingly deals with the implications of this outcome for America’s Jews, who are increasingly made to feel alien in their own land. As a result, the Roth trademarks from the other books of his that I have read (Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life As A Man,) viz masturbation, obsessive sexuality and male angst, are muted, if not absent.

The story is rendered more rooted than it might have been otherwise by the fact that our narrator is named Philip Roth. We are hence invited to believe that the family depicted is the author’s own from his youth, reimagined in the changed circumstances. This allows Roth the author, through the medium of Mr Roth the character, to express more forcibly the anger that any citizen must feel in being deprived arbitrarily of the benefits of citizenship.

Coming from a mainstream literary perspective Roth’s handling of this material is distinctive. A Science Fiction author would likely have approached the scenario from a completely different direction. And Roth does that rather annoying mainstream thing of giving us a potted biography of every character who happens to pop up whether we need this information or not. In this case it may be of everyone whom the actual young Roth met in the 1940s. There are also longueurs in the narrative which would be absent in a more plot driven Altered History.

At times, too, so much background is loaded into it that the novel reads more like a history book. Roth presumably believes that his setting is too far removed from the present day to be accessible without it. This approach culminates in the penultimate chapter where the book ceases to be a novel at all and instead descends into a – nevertheless thoroughly readable, Roth’s prose easily encompasses exposition – recitation of events and a farrago of ever wilder conspiracy theories all told by Philip at one remove, rather than experienced by him at first hand. The unlikely heroine of the piece (and this is not really a spoiler as there’s nothing there to spoil) turns out to be Mrs Lindbergh. That the impact of these events is brought home to Philip in the final chapter, through the medium of his fellow-travelling Aunt and some former neighbours, in no way remedies the egregiousness of this colossal info dump. Quite simply this is not the way to write a piece of fiction; high- or lowbrow.

It has to be said that not much in the way of jeopardy ever befalls the Roth family, most of it lies in Mr Roth’s mind. Yes, Mr Roth has to change his job to a poorer one; but there are no outrageous restrictions on civil liberties, no concentration camps – only the intermittent attentions of an inquisitive FBI man and a later series of riots spilling over into pogroms which don’t affect the Roth family directly.

Ultimately the book is really a long discourse on what it means to be American (that is, I feel obliged to say, being a citizen of the US rather than born in the continent in which that country lies) and the inclusiveness that entails. Here is where more of the doubts creep in. Whatever Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic views may have been – and Roth goes some way to exculpate his Lindbergh from them – a fascist takeover in the US would surely have had other, more obvious, targets for dehumanisation. In the end, perhaps because he is unwilling to believe the worst of his fellow countrymen or else as a sop to their sensibilities Roth rather lets the US off the hook. This, I note, is in stark contrast to what the English SF writer Keith Roberts did for the UK in his excellent short story of a Nazi-dominated Britain, Weihnachtsabend.

Is The Plot Against America a commentary on the recent Bush administration? On how easy it is for freedoms to be subverted; how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance? If so, it is rather too diffuse to be effective.

I was so, so disappointed in this book. Its central idea has the potential to be huge but in his tight focus on the family Roth the author renders it far too small. Mainstream literature sometimes prides itself on illustrating the universal by anatomising the particular. In this context choosing as the narrative voice a boy between the ages of 7 and 9 is too limiting. The themes simply cannot be dealt with adequately from the young Philip’s perspective.

Before reading this I would have contended that Altered History in and of itself is always a subset of Science Fiction. The Plot Against America, however, is not SF, since Roth, within his plot, falls too short, even implicitly – never mind explicitly – of contrasting his scenario with what actually happened, and the book is the poorer for it.

But after the novel finishes we are provided with postscripts on the actual lives of historical characters mentioned in the text. Part of the joy of reading Altered History is in recognising figures such as these in their new context; one of the drawbacks is you might miss a few in the passing. Roth’s end notes can only be there to bolster his fiction; to say, “Look at the research I did – or the prodigious memory I have.” Had the novel been written halfway adequately these notes would be superfluous.

Kaeti And Company by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1986

Keith Roberts wrote some of the best British (for which read English, because that’s all there was) SF of the era in which he was active in the field. Indeed, his was some of the best SF of his time full stop. His well regarded (and I recommend them without reserve) novels included Pavane, Kiteworld and the tour de force that was Molly Zero – a whole novel written in the second person. A historical novel, The Boat Of Fate, which was set in Roman Britain was also well received and well worth reading. Several of his longer works were built from shorter pieces, though. Roberts always had a deft touch and his concentration on character helped to set him apart from the majority of SF practitioners. He did seem to have a thing about betrayal, however, especially of a man by a woman. Sadly he died in 2000.

Kaeti and Company contains ten stories some of which have elements of fantasy, others being more realistic in tone. On its own (save for one and that only at its end) each story paints a credible and detailed picture of the lives it portrays. Roberts certainly knew how to create atmosphere. But there is something about this collection which sits awkwardly.

The framing device for the book as a whole, where before each story Roberts apparently addresses Kaeti directly as if casting her as an actress in the “part she will take but wherein her name (along with those of some other characters) is retained from story to story – thereby providing a rationale for the book’s title – is clever but ultimately unsatisfactory. Others of these “actors” include Kerry, who nearly always wears yellow, Rodney, Bill and Pete. But precisely why is this necessary? Why not just people the stories with the characters and name them in the usual way? We are clearly not meant to find the similarly named characters the same from story to story despite their nomenclature, Kaeti varies in age for example and variously inhabits the present and the past, and yet Bill and Pete always “play” Kaeti’s mum and dad where they appear. It is, I feel, an unnecessary complication.

Again, the best tale might have been Kaeti And The Hangman, an interesting study of a condemned woman in an alternative reality, or possible future reminiscent of that in Molly Zero – except it turns out in its last paragraph to have been describing the shooting of a film script. I felt cheated by this revelation. It does beat, “I woke up and it was a dream,” but not by much; and the framing device, which presumably encouraged this choice, most certainly does not rescue it. This leaves the Clocktower Girl and Kaeti And The Zep as the most satisfying stories.

The last piece, The Dream Machine, about a movie, of which Kaeti is the star, being filmed in the narrator’s street (we are invited to believe this narrator is Roberts himself, but I resist the temptation) makes an explicit point about multiple realities existing within the same milieu but this seems to be elaborating for the sake of it.

Given the second sentence in this review you can imagine my disappointment, here; amplified all the more as I recall the Kaeti stories being lauded when they first appeared. I still have Roberts’s other Kaeti collection, Kaeti On Tour, to be read. I hope the “actress” fixation does not appear there, but I fear it will.

(I couldn’t find an embeddable picture of the Kerosina cover so the above is the Wildside Press one from 2000.)

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