Recent Reading

I bought a Tolino ereader a month or so back and it has proved a success. Actually, it turned out to be an unnecessary purchase: my Android ereader, which had frozen, responded to a flash drive reset and having its developer options turned on and is now in rugged good health. I’ve set it up for Amanda for when we go away.

My father’s old laptop, with Windows 7 installed to replace the Windows 10 OS that was far too demanding for it, now serves as an epub purchasing machine. I’ve never had any luck running Adobe Digital Editions on Linux: it’s supposed to be possible in WINE emulation layer, but is only ever stable for a week or so, before Adobe change some setting. The curse of Linux, that to keep up you must be able to converse with IT graduates in their autistic language, frustrates me in this situation, as in so many others.

So, Windows it is, with the unlocking of purchased books done by the hated Adobe DE, and then the DRM stripped from the books by Calibre, before installing on our readers. I favour a website called Indieebooks.co.uk, but am also using Kobo a fair bit, although there is little real price competition in the ebook market, which is fine, as I am happy to pay a price that secures writers some chance of making a living from the books I want to read.

I have also bought a few books from Baen. My longest standing reading quest is to find readable literary junk food, preferably SF, that will absorb me without completely insulting my intelligence. My ideal in this search is to match the pleasure I got from Elizabeth Moon‘s Serrano series, which I first read when I was working at The Rat and Parrot in Southampton. I used to take an hour off after the lunch rush, do the banking in town and then have a coffee somewhere close enough to the pub to not require a long walk back to work, but far enough away that I would not meet any of our regulars or staff. The books are military SF with female heroes, and a bizarre aristocratic social system under threat from its own decadence. They don’t bear close examination, but are sufficiently consistent within themselves to support the breathless adventures undertaken by a huge cast of likeable and superficially believable characters, and the settings are distinct, closely written and often quite vivid. Moon also managed to make the conflicts in which her characters were embroiled meaningful: one volume of the series involves the capture of several women and girls by a breakaway human culture rooted in fundamentalist Christian patriarchy, and the sense of injustice and horror of that heretical but convincing society brought to mind (in a vastly starker way) some of the attitudes I encountered when I lived in Arkansas.

Alas, they are a unique oddity. They are part of a huge publishing sector, American military space opera, that is otherwise despicably monotone and ugly. Perhaps the low point in my search was The Lost Fleet series, by Stephen Baxter. The entire dismal product was in the Camp Hill library, and I waded through the first two before giving up. They are circular, hateful, paranoid and describe a conflict without any cause or justification. If one of the points of SF is that it allows for stories that are not limited by mundanity, it seems almost a heresy to write science fiction that is dedicated to reducing real human suffering – the agonies of war – to mundane tropes. The Lost Fleet is suffused with war for war’s sake; a mere plot device, in which ‘warriors’ are misunderstood and betrayed by the ‘softness’ of people who would live their lives without conflict. Comically, in American war-worship fiction, these tropes combine into a form of campness unrivalled by any genre other than the classic Western: the high point of this tendency is The Seafort Saga, by David Feintuch, which almost redeems itself by being so bad it’s good.

Nevertheless, for a few days last month, I thought I had discovered a decent replacement for The Serrano Legacy. Baen Books publish David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which follows the career of a female naval officer who is the self-doubting but dutiful hero of the Confederate navy. The Confederacy is a monarchy, but a nice, American one, that spans a huge sector of the galaxy but is succumbing to decadence, which, in American Military SF terms, means reduced military spending. Its arch enemy, the People’s Republic of Haven, is evil, because it is a welfare state, and thus, inevitably, expansionist and tyrannical as well as technically backward, bureaucratic and hopelessly democratic (‘democracy’, here, meaning two-faced and futile). In the first novel, On Basilisk Station, borders are violated, command abdicated and our plucky hero has to step in to beat overwhelming odds with only good ‘ol American know how and lots of guns. It’s a romp, and a well-plotted one, that achieves the internal coherence and impetuous excitement of the Elizabeth Moon series. I overlooked the undercurrent of soldierly self-pity and contempt for peace because it was so readable, and it has other virtues: the first two novels of the series are free on Baen, the characters are distinct and memorable, and the author is amazingly prolific. Here is a vast source of mental chewing gum for when I don’t want to be challenged by my reading.

However, by the third novel, the repetitiveness and obviousness of the genre was asserting itself. To be fair, Weber is honest about his inspiration: he is trying to recreate his enjoyment of the Hornblower novels in science fiction form, an ambition that is not unique, or even particularly elevated: I’ve read the first Hornblower and that was quite enough. Other Napoleonic naval writers have done much better. Weber is, without doubt, a competent and engaging writer. His adventures are well-plotted and full of excitement. They were just failing to overcome my better instincts. I came to the conclusion that, in the years since I first read Elizabeth Moon, I have changed too much to enjoy war porn, however professional the product. I suppose I should be proud of the fact that I have outgrown such an adolescent genre, but I can’t help feeling a sense of loss.

The Better

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah

So much for the crap. The book that has impressed me most over the last month is non-fiction, which, given my dislike of the real world, is unusual. It is the autobiography of the comedian, Trevor Noah, Born A Crime. I bought it because I’d seen a video of him talking about it and he seemed a nice guy with plenty to say. Having read it, he is now my greatest man-crush ever. I am stupidly jealous of his intelligence, his energy, his understanding and his beauty. He is ambivalent, but never slighting, about religion, but what shines from the book is a sense of goodness, despite having lived a fairly destructive and dispiriting childhood. His understanding of the absurdity of racial definitions has a clarity that cuts through all the crap surrounding the current American situation: South African history is so absurd that it counterpoints the viciousness of current American divisions vividly. Despite the seriousness of all his topics (racism, an abusive stepfather, economic repression) he is incredibly generous in his ability to identify with those people who have done him harm, and he identifies his good nature as coming from the fact that, despite everything he endured growing up, he has never been without love: of family, friends and the wider communities with which, as a mixed-race South African, he had to consciously decide to identify.

Noah has now reached a position of fame and influence that is awe-inspiring and, although he does not go this far in the book, one has to wonder whether there is some divine influence in the idea that, in times of trouble, humans have a way of finding the spokespeople we need. As the Trump government gets bogged down in its own success, Noah is a real voice of rational, pacific dissent and opposition. I cannot think of anyone whose critique of politics I would rather hear.

Undead Boredom

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

A free edition is available from Feedbooks.

There is a Radio 4 series called ‘I’ve Never Seen Star Wars’, on which people who pass as interesting undertake common experiences which have passed them by. It’s quite boring; the sort of self-congratulating in-crowd stuff at which Radio 4 excels, but it’s a good idea. In the same spirit, I have a list of books which I feel I should read: most of Hardy, having been forced to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, all of Henry James, Gibbon, etc. I’ve made inroads into it over the last decade and it has provided some real pleasures. Dickens, for example, had never excited me, beyond A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, but I’ve read a fair chunk of his writing now and he has actually got onto the list of authors whose books I ration, so that I don’t run out, rather than the list of foggy challenges in which James and Hardy still languish.

Dracula had defeated me once, in my teens, after I first fell in love with Frankenstein and was looking for something similarly compelling. While Frankenstein is a progressive novel that took Gothic fiction forward towards the creation of science fiction, Dracula is everything that frustrates me about the Gothic: where SF reaches for the sublime through the expansion of human experience, the Gothic attempts to create it through what became surrealism: a mythos of self-examination; a narrowing of experience; a miserly raking over of old stories smeared over contemporary values and uncertainties.

I read Dracula last week, and it was still a chore, but I made it. It is an exercise in praise of late-Victorian efficiency and planning, interspersed with a few passages of vaguely evocative but pallid pastiche of high romance. I found myself comparing it with other early twentieth century novels whose values make me uneasy: it is not as openly racist as the Richard Hannay novels of John Buchan, but it is rooted in an assumption of the virtue of English and American civilization and in a feeling that that assumption is under threat. As I dragged myself, dutifully, to its underwhelming climax, I was surprised to realise that the modern pop-culture ubiquity of vampires-as-ideological plot devices is not a watering down of past glories but a continuation of a dreary tradition whose high point was just as awful as its Murdoch funded modern lows.

The problem with the co-opting of speculative themes by conservative authors is that the undermining of reality that is at the heart of the speculative imagination is, inherently, radical. Once a writer, or film maker, or comic-book artist, ties himself to a radical theme, he denies himself the right to conclude the story in a way that safely restores order. Thinking about it now, this may be why Hollywood, with its addiction to uplifting conclusions, has such trouble with Science Fiction: in speculative fiction there has to be change, and conservative storytelling is all about the preservation of established order. Dracula, in the end, is defeated, and the protagonists return to their lives, victorious and vindicated, with reality restored. The token American, it’s true, is killed, but he is such a non-character that he is hardly missed. It doesn’t make sense. The existence of vampires is an offence against what the protagonists are supposed to represent: rational, scientific civilization. The fact that Van Helsing is supposed to be one of the great characters of fiction seems absurd to me: he’s a mashup; a pseudo-scientist who accepts with little more than a frown the existence of supernatural villains. He hums and hahs in his cod ‘Johnny Foreigner’ accent, the cover for his ‘openness to things we can barely give creedence’, hops off to Amsterdam to collect the garlic and from then on he is basically a mystic, dragging out the thinnest of plots with inconclusive ‘clues’. It’s all very frustrating.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

In my irritation with Dracula, I remembered that I had bought ‘I Am Legend‘, by Richard Matheson, as part of a collection of SF Masterworks, when I first started buying ebooks. I loaded it on to the Tolino and read it and it proved to be an effective palate cleanser. A vampire story it may be, but it follows the logic of its use of the plot device. The vampire plague in Matheson’s book is triggered by nuclear war (he wrote the novel in the fifities) and spread by the dust storms of a minor nuclear winter, and the hero, an engineer rather than a scientist, gets only so far as the plot requires in understanding the ‘science’ of his plight. The important thrust of the book is that the idea of surviving a nuclear war is not a triumph: the survival of the human race is at the cost of our essential humanity. In my dissertation, I called nuclear conflict the Satan of post war culture, and I think it is very clever of Matheson to have addressed the topic through a familiar cultural metaphor, giving it the role of nuclear war’s Beelzebub.

Apart from its rather dodgy nineteen-fifties sexual politics, I Am Legend is a surprisingly good book, that handles grief and isolation with painful clarity. I recommend it. I can’t say the same for Dracula.

What Next?

I’ve got two weeks’ holiday from work, although I will have to do some work early next week, as I didn’t get everything finished yesterday. Nevertheless, I’ve been stocking up on reading for the forthnight’s rest. I’ve bought the three book series by Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem, that has garnered wide praise. I started the first novel this morning, and it is looking very promising. As backup, I’ve also got the first three books in a historical thriller series by S J Parris, the Giordano Bruno books. Set in Elizabethan London, they’re marketed at fans of C J Samson’s wonderful Shardlake series of mysteries.  Shardlake is a lawyer in Henry VIII’s London, and one of my favourite characters; a wise, honest investigator of mysteries who is marked as an outsider by his physical deformity and his moderation in a time of religious and political intolerance. Samson is a careful and beautiful writer whose craft transcends his genre, but he is not prolific, and both Amanda and I lament the gaps between his publications. I am wary about reading what, I assume, will be a lesser example of the genre, but will give it a try. I loathe Henry VIII, and am not much more positive about Elizabeth, but the cultural darkness of her father’s reign gave way to the flowering of English culture in hers, and so I have some hopes that, even if Parris is a lesser writer, her novels are set in a more fruitful period, and will provide something to enjoy.

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