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Best Reading of 2020

I don’t usually do this till after Christmas even though others seem to do it well before. However, my reading for the rest of the year is planned out and I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list. 14 this year; 9 written by men, 5 by women, 1 non-fiction, 3 in translation, 7 Scottish, no SF or Fantasy.

Listed in order of reading. The links are to my reviews.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
The Apple (Crimson Petal Stories) by Michel Faber
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (xi)

A meme as started by Judith and now collated by Katrina.

Since these are SF paperbacks mostly published several decades ago they are on the shelves housed in my garage. The photos are zooms in on the ones of the whole bookcases and so are a bit fuzzy.

On view are books by the excellent Michael Bishop, several by my friend Eric Brown, three by Algis Budrys, five (or seven since one is an omnibus of a trilogy) by C J Cherryh, but most of the books shown here were written by John Brunner. I remember fondly Stand on Zanzibar, The Dramaturges of Yan, Telepathist and The Squares of the City, in which the characters are in effect avatars of chess pieces whose moves were taken from a real game.

SF Books by John Brunner

Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (in which he more or less predicted computer viruses but due to the storage medium of computers at the time he called them tapeworms,) The Sheep Look Up and The Jagged Orbit are shelved in another bookcase in the garage for arcane reasons.

Science Fiction Books

His Timescoop is on my hardback shelves.

Starsilk by Sydney J van Scyoc

Penguin, 1986, 251 p.

 Starsilk  cover

Reyna is a barohna’s daughter all set to make the trip into the hills to face the challenge which will make her into a barohna herself or die in the attempt. Her parents are Khira and Iahn from Bluesong who have fallen out over this tradition, with Iahn returning to the plains where Khira met him. On the day of the annual dance (when it seems the inhabitants of Brakrath choose mates) Reyna meets a hunter, Juaren, one of the last of his kind. That evening though it is her mother who picks out Juaren to dance and take to her bed. Some weeks later Khira tells Reyna she will not be the next barohna, her unborn sister will, and forbids her to take go on her challenge. The Arnimi, off-planet humans reliant on instruments to a very un-Brakrathi extent and who have been studying the people of Brakrath for many years, have discovered which part of the brain allows a palace daughter to become a barohna and Reyna has not inherited it. That her father is himself an off-planet Rauthimage is almost certainly a factor in this and Khira has therefore been forced to mate with a Brakrathi to fulfil her purpose of providing a daughter to replace her as barohna.

The communication from Birnam Rauth (of whom Iahn is a clone) via the bluesilk from the previous book in the sequence provides a new purpose for Reyna’s life though, as the Arnimi propose she travels to the likely planet where he is held captive to find and, if possible, rescue him. Her companions will be Verra, an Arnimi, and Juaren, whose dynastic purpose having been fulfilled is something of a spare at the palace.

Reyna’s tale is interspersed with details of the lives of some sithi, indigenous bear-like creatures of Birnam Rauth’s prison planet; in especial, Tsuuka, mother of several sithi one of whom, Dariim, is so enthralled by a red starsilk that he disobeys her strictures about penetrating deep into the nearby forest and falls into danger. There creatures called spinners produce the starsilks which sing to the sithi and also protect the eldest tree within which Rauth is trapped.

Through the third person text, Reyna keeps asking herself questions, as does Tsuuka. As a means of information provision (I hesitate to call it dumping) and illustration of Reyna’s lack of knowledge of the sithi’s planet, this is fine but there was perhaps too much of it.

As if to prove that Science Fiction is rarely about the future the Arnimi recording medium of choice in this book is tape. In Starsilk’s year of publication, 1984, of course, this would have seemed unremarkable and to have invented another a seemingly unnecessary extrapolation. How much has changed in the past 36 years.

The journey to find out where and how starsilks were produced and Birnam Rauth sequestered is where the trilogy has been headed all along. Though it takes us off Brakrath with its unusual culture and doesn’t really illuminate those of the Arnimi and the inimical Benderzic, it is not a disappointment. This is good, solid SF – even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the genre.

Pedant’s corner:- “picking up his work without word” (without a word,) “to show them that none of those supositions were true” (that none … was true,) “it had flirted away” (flitted makes more sense,) “a deep sound accompanying its ascent” (this was of a ship – or shuttle – coming down from orbit; descent, then,) “‘Danior described the night sky in just enough detail that our ship’s system was able to calculate the location of the forested atea he described’” (a knowledge of its night sky would be enough to locate a planet’s position, but not a specific area on its surface,) “‘to see if its drinkable’” (it’s,) “more briskly then before” (than before,) abosrbed (absorbed,) “‘maybe its nocturnal’” (it’s,) Komas’ (Komas’s,) thougts (thoughts.) “She saw what she hadn’t dare believe” (dared.)

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski

Tor, 2000, 382 p.

 Brain Plague  cover

Since the events of The Children Star – the third in Slonczewski’s tales of The Fold – the people of Valedon have come to terms with the microzoöids found on the planet Prokaryon spreading through their population. With some hosts the tiny creatures are under control (usually by means of restricting access to the arsenic necessary for their survival but also via rewards of the chemical azetidine,) in others their proliferation runs rampant resulting in a disease (the Brain Plague of the title,) whose victims become zombie-like. A rogue human element known as slavers promotes fear in the population by abducting citizens to their concealed planet.

The book’s protagonist is Chrys (Chrysoberyl,) an artist who can see infrared. Initially she is struggling to pay her rent and keep painting and when she is introduced to her colony of microbes, which reveal themselves and communicate with their host by flashing colours in the host’s eyes, some of her former friends and associates withdraw from her. Since the hosts have power of life and death over them the microscopic creatures refer to their hosts as gods. They also have only a limited understanding of their hosts’ lifestyles.

Chrys’s colony, known as Eleutheria and to whose leaders she gives names corresponding to the colours with which they “speak” to her, inspires her work and her paintings become collectable. Her microbes are also mathematicians and allow her to gain a contract to refurbish a failing piece of architecture known as the Comb, whose ever expanding structure has become unstable. The colony members’ lifespans are short and they have their internal politics for Chrys to contend with.

There is plenty of Valedon politicking to occupy Chrys outside all this and some intrigue involving the slavers whose secret planet she is the first to be abducted to and return to tell the tale.

Brain Plague is 392 pages of fairly small font size print and continues Slonczewski’s trait of incorporating biological and chemical ideas into her SF. It is rewarding enough reading and deals with a common SF concern (alien invasion of the body) with an unusual slant.

Pedant’s corner:- shrunk (shrank,) “the stress must have wreaked its program” (wrecked, I think, [and I spell it ‘programme’,]) “the shear newness” (sheer,) “laying low” (lying low,) a missing quote mark at the end pof a piece of direct speech. “The sphere cut in, it’s the plane of section…” (The sphere cut in, it’s plane of section.) “She shined her light inside” (shone.) “‘Such an distinctive cut’” (Such a distinctive cut,’) “Chrys grasp his back” (grasped.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ix)

Again, for this week’s contribution to Judith‘s meme now hosted by Katrina, it’s a crop of a previous photo (hence the blurriness.)

This is the shelf which contains books by my third favourite SF writer (after Ursula Le Guin and Roebert Silverberg,) Roger Zelazny.

ZelaznySF Books

So here you will find Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Isle of the Dead – starring the unforgettable Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders – and Doorways in the Sand. (The Dream Master, expanded from He Who Shapes, and This Immortal, ditto from …. And Call Me Conrad, must be just out of shot.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (viii)

This week contribution to Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times started by Judith and taken up by Katrina.

This shelf is full of SF books by Robert Silverberg.

He is my second favourite SF writer. (Ursula le Guin is my favourite but due to the way my books are shelved hers are not to the fore.)

The photo is a crop of the one I featured on 16/8/20. As a result it’s a bit blurry.

Science Fiction Books, Robert Silverberg

There’s stuff here from Silverberg’s glory days; Thorns, Nightwings, The Man in the Maze – the one that persuaded me to persevere with SF when I was on the point of stopping reading in the genre – Tower of Glass, A Time of Changes – “My Name is Kinnall Darrival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Obscene! Obscene!” – Dying Inside. Then there’s the much later Kingdoms of the Wall (see my take on its first paragraph here.)

Looking at the photo I see the books aren’t quite shelved im my usual order system, probably due to them getting mixed up a bit in the house move – six and a half years ago now. Time flies.

A Socialist Utopia?

The keener eyed among you will have seen from my side bar that I have just finished reading Chinese SF author Cixin Liu’s collection entitled Hold up the Sky.

In it there were two separate references to characters requiring medical procedures that were too expensive for them to afford.

I also heard on the TV news recently that those receiving a test dose of a vaccine newly produced in China against the Covid-19 causing coronavirus also needed to pay the equivalent of £45 pounds for the privilege.

China is reviled in certain quarters as being a Communist country.

I must say that on the evidence above China must be far from being even a socialist utopia, the minimum requirement for which I would have considered to be medical treatment free at the point of use.

Another Review Book

Hold Up the Sky By Cixin Liu

Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu is a collection of the Hugo Award winning author’s short stories. It’s my latest review book for Interzone and arrived this afternoon. It’s not usual for my mail to be so late in the day but I was pleased it came all the same.

Spy Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme, originating with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, has now been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Spy Fiction Books

Back in the days of the Cold War spy fiction was a big thing. The two main purveyors of the form – in the UK anyway – were my (sur)namesake Len Deighton (although he pronounces the “Deigh” part to rhyme with “day” rather than “die”) and John le Carré. I also have a le Carré omnibus of his early works shelved elsewhere.

These, too, are housed in the garage, below the last of my SF paperbacks (see last week’s post.)

I have read all the books by Deighton here. His book Fighter is not on these shelves because it’s a history of the Battle of Britain but then Blitzkrieg is also a history book and it is here. Winter is not a spy novel but reflects Deighton’s knowledge of Germany (specifically Berlin) in the first half of the twentieth century. Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a novel featuring members of the US Air Force which took part in the campaign in World War 2 in the lead up to the invasion of Normandy. SS-GB is an altered history set in a Britain where a German invasion of the UK in 1940 succeeded.

I’ve not read all the le Carrés. Spy fiction lost a lot of its resonance when the Cold War ended whereupon he moved on to other things. I always meant to get round to his later stuff but life (and other books) got in the way.

House of Books, St Petersburg

Or the Singer Building. It’s the corner building with the cupola and sphere. Also known as Dom Knigi. Note Victory Day banners.

House of Books, Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg

The bookshop lies just by the Griboyedov Canal on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and the Griboyedov Channel Embankment road.

St Petersburg, House of Books, Nevsky Prospekt

We went in. It has loads of lovely books. The good lady was most taken by the illustrated children’s ones. She bought a copy of Гуси лебеди (Gusi-lebedi or Geese-swans) and (in English) Pushkin’s Fairy Tales and also The Monarchs of Russia. The shop had a large stock of SF. Unfortunately it was all in Russian!

The light fittings on the Griboyedov Channel Embankment road are something else:-

Lampposts, House of Books, off Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg

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