‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

What a great title, I thought, as I passed this by in the book shop. Months later, having been lent it by Ms O, I can tell you it’s a great read.

It’s SF. It’s won awards. It didn’t seem to be my sort of science fiction, because it is a stream of constant invention rather than an exploration of one basic premise- like huge carnivorous plants (Day of the Triffids), or an alien artefact on the moon (2001- A Space Odyssey). After the first 20 pages, I nearly gave up, but I’m very glad I didn’t. Eventually the invention was thrilling. I’ll try to explain.

The basic premise is that a spaceship has been hired to make a long journey to a potential war zone (the small angry planet) to create a hyperspace tunnel. The ship is a motley collection of technology and is crewed by a motley collection of humans and other species, including an artificial intelligence. A lot of fun is in the description of the aliens (how can you not like a book which uses the phrase “chitinous blue exoskeletons”?), their interactions and relationships, even including inter-species sex. (No it’s not pornographic. But don’t let that put you off.) There is no real chief protagonist, though some of the crew get more attention than others.

Then there’s the technology and “science”- which eventually captivated me. Tunnelling through hyperspace- lockjaw clips- ambi- scribs- sib transmitters- voxes- modders- catastrophic cascade failures- fixbots; the list goes on and on. I don’t pretend to understand what all of it does, and especially how a spaceship can run on algae, but the creativity is addictive, without there ever being a cheap “magic wand” solution to problems.

In Ms O’s always highly intelligent opinion, a chief quality of this book is the personal interaction- the human or sapient element rather than the space opera element. There is however also a powerful plot. I have to admit that some of the personal moments actually made me cry. I feel some of the writing is a bit “young adult”, although I can’t find examples, but it’s a lovely book. Pleasingly there is a sequel, ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ which seems to pick up some of the unresolved elements. I look forward to reading it.

small angry planet

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The Ms Oblique Library

LoansFurther to my last blog on “Print Junkies” I was fortunate enough to visit Miss (or Ms) Oblique #1 at the weekend. She and her partner, the erudite Red Rob, have an extensive and growing library, reflecting their varying interests of politics, military history, art, fantasy, SF, young adult fiction and much, much more. As is often the case on these sadly infrequent visits, I returned a stack of books that I had borrowed and came away with an even bigger stack, all recommended by the aforementioned Ms Oblique. This is of very little interest to anybody else, but I wanted to thank her with this brief post and to show the world what a 27 year old doing an MA in publishing thinks her 62 year old father with an MA in Education will enjoy. (She is very rarely wrong.) Thanks, Ms Oblique.

Print Junkies

Many years ago I was privileged to hear Harold Rosen give a talk at Southampton University. (A few years later I was privileged to hear his son, Michel Rosen, give a talk to teachers and read his poetry, in a classroom in a primary school in Winchester. For free. But I digress.)

I don’t remember the title of Harold Rosen’s talk and I remember virtually nothing of its content. It must have been something to do with reading, or literacy before that became a term hijacked by the as yet unborn National Curriculum. (Yes, children, there was a time before the National Curriculum and I was there. I am that old.) I probably took some notes, but these must be long gone, maybe even in the final clearout I made of all but a few sentimental items from my teaching career.

All I remember of the talk is Mr Rosen calling his audience of teachers and academics ‘print-oriented junkies’. He was right about me then and right about me now.

The Bookworm by Carl SpitzwegWhen I was younger I was that mythical person, a reader of cornflakes packets. If we still ate cornflakes, I would still be that person now. I am addicted to print. If cleaning my shoes (which is rare since I stopped working) I have to read articles in the discarded newspapers I am using. Mrs Oblique still gets annoyed, quite rightly, at my habit of reading signs aloud as we drive or walk down the street. I am addicted to print, especially books.

Like any addict, I do my best to avoid being without my fix. The Kindle has helped. I make sure I have books ready on it whenever we go away, but also take a print/ real book “just in case” the Kindle fails. Another digression: I recently recklessly loaded up on Amazon recommendations for my Kindle when we went away for a fortnight, only to find that at least three of them were dross. But anything will do when you’re craving a hit.

If I go into somebody else’s house, I make a beeline straight for their bookshelves. (Why is it a beeline? Do they always fly straight to their target?) Since I decluttered my own library, as documented earlier on this blog, I am sometimes saddened by the losses from mine. I always expected to have a huge, rambling library in my third age, but living with other people involves compromise.

It’s always a pleasure to meet another print junkie. My eldest daughter is one. She says her gateway drug was ‘The Hobbit’. I am delighted that she is now recommending books to me. I don’t look down on people who don’t read, but I wonder what they get our of life.

Addictions or obsessions have their problems. I have on occasion, probably fairly, been accused of ignoring people because I have had my head in a book. Maybe more seriously, I think that being a fluent reader might have handicapped me in my approach to young readers, both as a parent and as a reader. It’s always been hard to empathise with somebody who just doesn’t get reading, no matter what I might claim.

Now to continue with Miss O’s latest recommendation. ‘Ancillary Justice’, by Ann Leckie, as you are so kind to ask.

The illustration is ‘The Bookworm’ by Karl Spitzweg, in public domain. Mrs O. was unavailable for illustrating duties, being occupied making Dockers’ Chutney.

 

 

‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham

One of my top three SF novels. But has it stood the test of time?

I have no idea how many time I have read ‘Day of the Triffids’ (1951), or when I first encountered it. I can quote chunks of it. John Wyndham has written other novels with a disaster theme, for example ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, but this is the best known. It has been filmed and dramatised for TV and radio.

20170908_151603Most of humanity has been blinded by a spectacular meteor display, which may be due to human intervention. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the threat of the Triffids soon emerges. They are tall, walking, poisonous plants, grown for their high quality oil. Escaping from cultivation, they take advantage of the blind.

What makes this book such a good read is the logical, reasoned way in which it develops from these speculative elements. It doesn’t invent anything else; it just explores what could happen. Variations in individual morals, from altruism to pure self-interest, cause variations in the way individuals cope. Different communities struggle to survive in very different ways. A great interest is in the human interaction and the effects the disaster has on the country.

Of course, this book has aged; but I would say enjoyably. In many ways, the science is remarkably prescient; nowadays, 66 years on, we would say that the Triffids were genetically engineered. Developments in IT are really not relevant, because of the lack of electricity that would soon develop. Other than the science, there is pleasure in what is now a period setting.

I am not sure how somebody new to this book, especially somebody much younger, would react. It may be that its time has gone, at least until it becomes truly historic. I re-read it with great enjoyment, along with some mild amusement at how it is beginning to date.

The Three Best SF Novels Ever

This is a very personal choice. I like plausible, near future SF. I’m not a great fan of space opera or wild fantasising. All of the three I have chosen start from a believable twist or speculative element, then follow the plausible consequences.

The Day of the Triffids (1951): John Wyndham

An end of the world as we know it story.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Arthur C. Clarke

A alien artefact is found on the moon.

The Martian (2014): Andy Weir

An astronaut is stranded on Mars

20170908_151517

I am re-reading these and will write brief reviews. But how can I have forgotten to include a fourth book…….

Neuromancer (1984): William Gibson

The first cyberpunk novel, allegedly.

‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)