2021 in books: Science-fiction special (January-March)

Books

Well, here we are, three months into 2021 already. How’s this year looking for you, compared to it’s predecessor? Already it seems that there are reasons to be hopefully optimistic.

Last year, I made brief notes on every book I read (excluding the academic texts I had to consult as part of my psychotherapy work) and published mini reviews in four different blogs; one every quarter. You can find the most recent one by clicking here. I enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and thinking about it a little more, so I have decided to do it all again this year.

Here are the titles I have read from the start of the year, up until the end of March. It was only in March itself that I realized that every title in this article could be considered science fiction. This was not intentional, not least as I had recently written about the genre of Mundane science-fiction – a category that would not include many of the novels I speak about here…

The second sleep by Robert Harris (2019, Arrow)

Set in the future, in a society which has reverted to a more middle-ages style of living, thanks to an unnamed disaster which has apparently happened around the time of our own present. Harris paints an England without electricity, and where the church has once again become a force of power, and science is labelled as heresy. We follow a young priest sent to bury an older priest in a remote parish in Exmoor, only to discover the deceased parson’s collection of ‘pre-Armageddon’ artifacts, which set him down a path which makes him question what he has been taught. This book provides mystery, thought experiment, sexual tension and archaeology – all in a little over 400 pages!

I’ve read a few of Harris’s novels, and found them all to be similarly fast-paced. Easy read they may be, but not for lack of detail. I heartily recommend this book, and if you find you enjoy it, perhaps try Fatherland (similar to this novel, in that it is an alternate version of 20th century history, with one major difference!) Conclave (set during a papal election) and Pompeii (the days leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, followed by the aftermath). Like The second sleep, these novels take place over a short period of time, usually about a week, which helps keep the plot moving quickly. Sometimes we need a nice, quick & easy read in our lives, and Harris is a great author for that.

On the steel breeze and Poseidon’s wake by Alastair Reynolds (2013 & 2015, Gollancz)

I read the first part of this sci-fi trilogy, Blue remembered Earth, towards the end of last year (read about it here). I decided to read both sequels back to back, to avoid forgetting too much of the detail, and in order to stay fully immersed in the world Reynolds has created in this story. That said, both of these books do enough of a job reintroducing you to recurring characters that they almost work as standalone novels, not least because the protagonists change with each novel, as time shifts forward a century or so with each installment.

Time-hops like this can be tricky to pull off, but Reynolds manages it here, without having to resort to Isaac Asimov’s method of using something akin to a chain of short stories in his excellent Foundation novels (the original first three, anyway). The story flows well, with enough science fantasy to be interesting, but not too much that it bogs the book down – plot is still very much the main driver of these books, especially as the final novel looked like it might wrap up some of the mysteries set out in the previous installments. However, there were a few minor errors in the paperback versions I was reading; really simple things which could have easily been avoided with more thorough proof-reading. Other than that, very enjoyable.

The Themis Files trilogy (Sleeping Giants; Waking Gods and Only Human) by Sylvain Neuvel (2016, 2017 & 2019, Del Ray)

Sleeping giants must have been on my bookshelf for a while, perhaps purchased as part of a 3-for-2 offer at one of the more well-known bookstores. At 376 pages, it seemed a nice short book to enjoy after finishing the Poseidon’s Wake trilogy by Alastair Reynolds (see above). But as I started I realized – dammit! – it’s another trilogy! What happened to the good old standalone sci-fi book? Still, since each book is just over 300 pages or so, at least it didn’t take long to get through the entire trilogy…

These are a series of epistolary novels, meaning that the story is told in a series of documents, usually collections of letters, through which the wider plot is gleaned along with the insight of the characters. In the case of this trilogy, the short chapters include log entries and articles. However, they mostly take the form of transcribed interviews between the characters of the story, often with an anonymous, CIA-style interviewer. This can be a useful device for driving the plot forward, as well as maintaining suspense. However, at times I felt that the exposition was forced. At times, the characters seemed to be saying things which would have been unnecessary. It would have been more interesting to leave certain pieces of information out, to be revealed more subtly in later chapters. But here lies the biggest problem in composing a novel this way. How can one attempt to follow the golden writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ when a epistolary novel places so much emphasis on the tell, with very little show?

Despite this, the story was interesting and the entire trilogy was a very quick read. I found that I had settled into Neuvel’s style and enjoyed the story he spun over three short books. If you’ve never read a novel composed this way, I would recommend you give these books a go. They also serve as a way of stepping into science-fiction for those who haven’t really tried out the genre before.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, This edition 2020, Penguin Classics Science Fiction)

The life story of Zamyatin is as interesting as this story, recognized as the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Escaping prison in his native Russia (for being anti-Tsar), Zamyatin finished his engineering studies, worked in England then returned back to his homeland in time for the 1918 October Revolution. However, he had a strong belief in allowing artists to have creative freedom. We is set in OneState, where the only ‘true’ happiness can come from a kind of subjugation in this futuristic communist state, where the inhabitants have numbers instead of names (such as the narrator and protagonist, D-503). Although he might not have been the first to write dystopian fiction (H.G. Wells and Jack London can both lay claim to getting there first), We served as an inspiration (direct or otherwise) for many future writers.

The first manuscript was smuggled out of Soviet Russia, and a translation by E.P. Dutton was published in New York in 1924. The republished edition I read was based on the more recent translation by Clarence Brown in 1993. It captures the dry, characteristically Russian humour that appears throughout the novel, as well as the slightly otherworldly sequences that help to confuse the readers – D-503 doesn’t know for sure if certain sections in his ‘notes’ (the novel) actually took place, or are merely dreams brought on by his ‘mental illness’ (referred to as ‘imagination’ and ‘developing a soul’). It is an interesting book, and slightly wacky in places. The only thing that didn’t sit comfortably with me was his regular reference to his friend’s ‘African lips’, hinting at non-Russian features which, while not immediately offensive, feel very much like a product of Zamyatin’s age that hasn’t stood the test of time very well. But read as a social criticism on one-party states and human nature, it continues to resonate.

The penultimate truth by Philip K. Dick (1964, Gollancz)

Less well-known than some of his other works, I found The Penultimate Truth surprisingly difficult to get into. At only 191 pages, it shouldn’t have been a slog, and the characters inhabit the story well. The story itself is an interesting one – most of humanity is living underground, believing World War Three continues to rage over them. In truth, the war only lasted two years and a small elite work to maintain the illusion to the masses in their ‘ant tanks’ while living in palacial villas on the surface. This much is on the back cover’s synopsis, so no real spoilers here. However, I spent most of the first half of he book with the feeling that it might have been better to withhold the ‘truth’ of the surface, adding a greater mystery element. A simple rearranging of the chapter order might have achieved this. Perhaps Dick was more concerned with the other themes which emerge towards the end of the story, and I’m sure this book has many fans. However, it took a while for me to get into this novel, which I considered abandoning.

Final thoughts

I mentioned at the start of this article that I had not intended for every book to be a work of science-fiction, and as enjoyable as it has been escaping to other fantastical lands, I feel the need to dive into a non-fiction book soon! I also noticed shifs in my initial expectations with some of these titles. I did not think I would enjoy the Themis Files series as much as I did, and I ended up a little disappointed with The Penultimate Truth. Similarly, We was a lot more trippy than I expected it to be, but that was no bad thing in and of itself.

These are, of course, my own opinions. As always, do let me know if you have read any of these titles, what your thoughts were, or even if you have any recommendations for me. I always love discovering new books and authors!

Mundane Science Fiction – taking the fantasy out of the future

Books

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts are firmly in the Music or Music Therapy camps. However, I do occasionally venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books (you can see the latest of my quarterly book reviews here).

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full Mundane Manifesto blog, (which can be found here), a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The Beatles, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘removing the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

A year of books (October-December)

Books

Can you believe it? 2020 is over, and what a year!

No gigs since March, continuing to carry out my music therapy work in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, while the world is turned on it’s head… But there have been books. Previous installments of this series can be found here:

Even in my time not working, stuck at home, I feel like I’ve had less time to read (children take up your entire day if work doesn’t). So unlike some of my bibliophile friends, I’d sy I’ve read less in 2020, compared to previous years. Despite this, I’ve certainly enjoyed taking stock of every title I’ve read (with the exception of music therapy and psychotherapy books – I might provide some recommendations from those fields in a specialist interest article in the future). I well might continue this habit in 2021.

But for now, here are the non work-related titles I managed to read in the final quarter of 2020…

What we talk about when we talk about books: the history and future of reading by Leah Price (2019, Basic)

An interesting rebuttal to the common cries of “print is dead”, highlighting the ever-changing use of the book as an object and as an idea. The book is full of interesting information. For example, did you know that self-help books from local libraries are prescribed by the NHS in Wales to help treat depression? Price turns this tidbit into an entire chapter, although whether or not this needed an entire chapter is up for debate. The chapters feel like a compilation of essays which feel like they’ve been extended to make this ‘book worthy’. And for a book about the history and future of reading, padding out the chapters with repeated information feels like the author is doing her subject an injustice. This short book could have been even shorter, but less repetitive, and no less interesting as a result.

Finally, the middle ‘interleaf’ chapter uses the interesting device of running the text across both pages before starting a new line. This takes a little getting used to, not least because the text doesn’t always line up correctly between the left and right pages. Interesting, but perhaps only for skimming through.

Bue remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (2012, Gollancz)

I’ve read a few science fiction novels by Reynolds, such as the brilliant standalone book House of Sun’s. His experience before becoming a full-time author – namely his PhD in astrophysics and his work with the European Space Agency – mean that he can add an element of realism to what is obviously a fictional piece of work. Indeed, he has been quoted as saying he prefers to stick to writing about only the future technologies he believes to be possible (so light speed travel rarely makes an appearance in his work). This first novel in Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy sticks largely to that sensibility, while still encompassing some brilliantly fantastical elements such as off-world settlements and trans-human experimentation.

Set around a century or so into the future, the two main characters are brother and sister, heirs to a large family dynasty in Africa, now one of the world’s main centres of economic power. The death of their grandmother leads them on a trail away from Earth, to colonies on the Moon, as well as Mars and its two moons. Utopia, mystery and afrofuturism are combined in an intelligently written and well paced novel. I’ll be adding the next two novels in the series to my ever-expanding ‘to read’ pile…

The mirror and the light by Hilary Mantel (2020, Fourth Estate)

I’ve been waiting a while to read this, not least because the release of this novel, the final of Mantel’s ‘Cromwell Trilogy’, was pushed back more than once. But then, if the first two instalments of your historical fiction trilogy (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) both win the Booker Prize for fiction, you want to make sure the last book is the best it can be. I can confirm that this novel is as good as it’s two predecessors.

The first book looked at Thomas Cromwell’s rise to become the senior advisor of Henry VIII, the second continued his survival at the top while accruing further positions of high office. This final novel deals with the last four years of Cromwell’s life, starting at the exact moment Bring Up The Bodies ended – the beheading of Anne Boleyn. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that Henry VIII turns on Cromwell – history suggests that he seems to do so on almost everyone around him, given enough time. Yet even though you might know (or could certainly guess) the ending, the journey there is so wonderfully written that you won’t mind. Mantel employs a [articular style of first person that can be a little difficult to get used to, but it’s worth persevering as it soon becomes normal, and fits the story (told from Cromwell’s perspective) perfectly.

The Mirror And The Light is a rich novel, full of detail, intrigue and a huge cast of characters. It marks a wonderful end to a fantastic trilogy of books. It remains to be seen if Mantel can get the ‘Booker hat-trick’ with this novel, but prizes aside, this book should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction, literary fiction, or indeed just good old-fashioned fiction.

Dave Brubeck: a life in time by Philip Clark (2020, Headline)

This newly-released biography of the famous jazz performer and composer was a Christmas present, and as a result, I haven’t finished it yet! However, although I’m only a third of the way in, I’m finding it an absorbing read so far. I believe fans of the jazz genre would be similarly interested in this book, which shows how much more there is to Brubeck beyond his most famous piece, Take Five. Sometimes dismissed in the past by jazz lovers who prefer who improvisation of bebop legends Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and so on, Clark’s tome will help with the current restoration of reputation Brubeck (or rather his life and body of work) is currently experiencing. Brubeck was an devotee to music as an art form, and a lifelong anti-racist. Given the circumstances we find currently ourselves in, a renewed respect for Brubeck couldn’t come at a better time. I’m looking forward to quickly finishing this book in the first few days of 2021.

So there you have it. That’s around twenty books I’ve read in 2020 (that aren’t related to music therapy). Having counted them up, it definitely feels like less than a typical year – but then, 2020 has been a far from typical year!

As always, I’d love to hear what all of you are currently reading, as well as your thoughts on any of the titles I’have mentioned in these summaries.

Happy new year and happy reading!