Tag: good books


Confessions Of An Eco Sinner (Not Quite A Review)

The neoliberal culture has led to our complete disconnection from the food we eat, or the clothes we wear. We merely consume, never thinking of where our goods come from, only that they’re in our hands.

With this in mind, Fred Pearce wanted to explore the paths of everyday items, the totems of every day life, from the gold in his wedding ring, to green beans, to our furniture, to the cotton from which his socks are made.

Without agenda, each territory is explored with gentle facts: a pint of mass market lager requires some 24,000 beer miles – transport of crops etc – whereas a pint of local ale requires 600 beer miles at best; Mauritania only abolished slavery in 1981, though it persisted much later than that; Britain is the second largest importer of illegal timber; an explanation of how the EU buys the rights of tropical fish stocks so that they may be strip-mined to the point of no return.

Around this, the harsh detail is built. He follows the ridiculous journey that, for example, our t-shirts take; from cotton farms in Uzbekistan, uncovering the appalling human rights abuses and child and/or slave labour and environmental destruction.

If I can put this simply, our obsession (yes, my obsession too) with ever cheaper jeans is not just helping to sustain the dreadful conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops, it is also helping enslave the Uzbeks, desecrate their land and finish the emptying of the Aral sea.

Accounts of environmental degradation are dealt with in a very accessible way. Carbon footprints are mentioned here and there; it is shown how intense agriculture destroys the very land on which people depend; how the loss of mangroves creates coastal instability. But the focus is mostly on the people behind our products. Pearce shows the conditions in which people work to bring us our food and clothing (there are some horrendous factories, and where labour laws are poor and unions are weak, it’s barely above the level of slavery). Pearce explores the influence of business and governments in undermining the quality of life of individuals. All of this is done in a conversational style, a gentle “You know, I just wanted to find out where so-and-so came from, and this is what I saw.” It’s not preachy, it’s just a bunch of deeply sad, but occasionally uplifting observations.

The absence of any solutions is rather telling, perhaps, but there are some positive things we can do: yes, generally speaking it’s better to buy organic. Organic Indian cotton farmers are actually more profitable because they’re spending less on pesticides, plus their soil is of a significantly better quality, which means they need to use less water and put less of a strain on resources. Yes, buying Fairtrade products (when not done via major supermarket brands) provides a significantly better quality of life: better prices, more community projects, children with a hope of a future – there is no spin, it does what it’s meant to. Buying local is also a boon – the mileage some of our food takes from field to dinner plate is spectacular. I would like to have seen a more thorough investigation into the politics – how, for example, US and European agriculture subsidies undercut the poorest farmers in developing nations so that they are forced to buy from abroad and become dependent upon them. But perhaps that wouldn’t have sat well with the tone of simple observation.

The most telling thing about this book is that it has prompted me to review how I actually consume items. It’s made me think about where my food and clothes come from. The thing is, if more consumers changed their buying habits, if more consumers questioned companies on where their products were sourced and what they were doing to help promote a fairer existence for workers, then people’s lives in far corners of the world would improve. But that’s unlikely to happen, because as we wonder around the aisles of supermarkets, we do not look these workers in the eye, and we remain unmotivated to change our ways. The neoliberal culture lacks the human touch.

When the bottom line is profit (cheaper prices that customers demand), in the global economy, people lose out massively. It’s often mooted in defence that when we buy crops from foreign farmers, we’re helping them out with an income, and there certainly is some truth in that; but when a surge in our demand for, say, green beans forces women to work illegally long hours and travel home across a dangerous country on their own at night… well, you get the picture. These are the things the balance sheets neglect to observe. People we will never meet are worked to their limits in order to satisfy the whims of our bellies.

I urge everyone to read this book.

Fred Pearce’s remarkable Confessions of an Eco Sinner is published by Eden Project Books.


More Recent Reads

Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are The Angels, published by my overlords at Tor UK. Bell has written literary fiction under another name, but this is his genre debut. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, where the zombies aren’t central to the narrative. Think Cormac McCarthy (the prose really does channel this particular style – even down to the punctuation, such as a lack of quotation marks), and which taxonomically branches off from I Am Legend. Focussing on a young girl called Temple, the narrative follows her arduous road trip across a future USA, a deeply disturbing setting, and one which offers more questions than resolution. Because of these qualities, do not go looking for pulp entertainment: that isn’t to be found here, and Bell neatly bypasses all the zombie uprising froth. Instead he presents us with a connection of haunting images years after the shit has hit the fan, each scene revealing a little more about the world, but never too much to explain it all away.

The prose is marvellous, full of acute observations:

He looks like someone who could slap you or kiss you and you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is coming and it would mean the same thing either way.

And wonderful, heady descriptions:

The next city she comes to is a big one, growing up around her like something organic. Thick with overgrowth, it has reverted to wilderness and old times under the shadowed canopy of spindly oaks. The trees grow beards of Spanish moss that hang nearly to the ground and float their ancient white tails in the breeze. Spreading out from the main avenues like twigs from branches, the broken asphalt roads give way to brick lanes, brittle barbeque shacks with torn screen doors and collapsing roofs tucked into alleyways behind big white colonials hidden behind gates of thick ivy, which, in turn, are secreted behind the commercial districts of block stores and low-stacked parking garages.

Temple is a loner for the most part, and even when she pairs up it’s with a mentally ill man, Maury, so we see much of her thoughts projected onto him – a clever move that maintains, possibly even heightens, her sense of isolation. She’s tough – self-sufficient and with a truly lethal edge – but her companionship with Maury betrays her stubborn streak of warmth and compassion. It’s her care of Maury, her quest for his return to safety, which is the subtle narrative drive. For the most part of this journey (a road trip: an American icon), Temple is being hunted across this desolated landscape by Moses Todd, who often catches up with her only for Temple to escape, and we see her at her most human when she is in dialogue with her enemy.

Oh, the zombies. Yeah, they’re there – but as I said, they’re not the stars. The ‘slugs’ are background music for this often horrific landscape, present for a quiet juxtaposition. Because this is a novel of humanity stripped of any humanity, of the raw limits of existence; it’s a flux of dreamy and bleak images, a blurring of the lines between being a human and an animal. And I loved every word of it.

I saw a pretty abysmal review of this in SciFi Now, where the novel was handed to a poor reviewer who gradually betrayed their hope that it would have been something else entirely, instead of exploring the details presented within this text. I wouldn’t like this book to be dismissed so simply, and though I’ve not really championed many current novels (it all feels a little new and awkward for me if I’m honest), I will certainly rally behind this one.

I’m slowly working my way through many of the Fantasy Masterworks range, and next up was The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip.

Sybel is a woman cut off from the world of Eldwold, and lives in a woodland glade in the mountains, more or less in isolation. But she doesn’t quite live alone: she can communicate telepathically with animals, and has the ability to reach out to their souls. Though it sounds a little twee, I was utterly charmed at this point – it was very well rendered and evocative. A man called Coren, arrives at her cottage and leaves her with a baby, which she is to look after – Tamlorn, the son of a king, and of a queen who has died. If not loved then the child will be found and killed.

A decade or so later, Coren returns for Tamlorn, and Sybel is more than reluctant to hand him over, since she is convinced that he’ll be used as a political weapon. But she gives him up eventually. Numerous chaps arrive at her door, the king, and also Coren, who are both so wrapped up in her beauty, and we’re generally led to believe all men are incredibly stupid and horrible (and throughout the novel, this is almost to the point of misandry). I reflected on this point quite a bit; then I realised women had been so badly treated by male writers for decades – and still do – so this is probably what it feels like. If that was McKillip’s point, which I’m inclined to think it was, then touché, it was bang on the money.

It kind of fell apart a bit at the end, but all in all, it’s a smart, charming rural fantasy.


Recents Reads

Weymouth Sands, by John Cowper Powys is a big book in every sense. Set in 1934, it’s a properly interconnected, multi-POV rambling around the town of Weymouth, in Dorset, and discusses the big issues of life, love, death, sexuality, and doesn’t shy away from a spot of philosophy. I couldn’t even begin to summarise the plot in one blog post – kudos to the author for that – but one of the main thrusts is of a brutish man, Jobber Skald, and his intentions to kill the local quarry owner, whilst coming to terms with his affections for newcomer, Perdita Wane. Add to that mix a famous clown and his mad brother (though Powys’s non-judgemental ways of handling the madness were wonderful), a middle-age teacher and his affections for a questionably young lady (whose love is possibly directed elsewhere), a gypsy, a philosopher (Richard Gaul – perhaps a voice of Powy’s himself) and “Hell’s Museum”, a residence / mad-house in which experiments on people and dogs take place… you get the picture. All in all, it’s like Thomas Hardy on acid, and if you can get to grips with the intense exposition – which I loved – and the representation of the local dialect, then it’s worth picking up in order to discover this often-forgotten classic writer.

Perhaps reacting to the horrid smoke and grime experienced during my trip to London, I bought Wildwood, by Roger Deakin. Like any example of nature writing, it’s as much about the author’s relation with the natural world than nature per se, and I couldn’t help at times but feel that it was a kind of rich-boy childhood reminiscence fetish (I know, I said to myself, I’ll just buy a Tudor house with a moat – anyone can do it!). It was good, cleansed me of the Big City, but never really scratched my itch. Instead, I had to pick up Richard Mabey’s fantastic Flora Britannica, which is one of the best books around for understanding how the natural world really is a foundation of British culture, and how plants still play a significant role in our lives.

I shall return to the fantasy genre shortly.


Rural Fantasy

Enough of this Urban Fantasy malarkey, because I’m now interested in Rural Fantasy.

I’ve written a Book Club feature for SFX Magazine, on Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It’s probably no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that I’ve chosen that book to write about. I hope I’ve done Mythago Wood justice, and that I’ve served Robert, who sadly died not that long ago, as well as he deserves. I think I sufficiently explored the numerous themes within, pleasing the many fans of this novel, whilst also exciting any potential new readers. As an aside, before he passed away, I was lucky enough to have exchanged a few emails with him, and I browsed through these hoping to glean something for the article (unsuccessfully) but found the experience of reading the emails of someone no longer with us remarkably poignant. The digital age preserves everything.

I’ll give no detail here on what I’ve written for the article, but if you’ve read and admired the book, why not pop along to the SFX forum page, and leave a comment, since I believe they use some of the forum comments to feature alongside the print edition.

So then.

Where are the great Rural Fantasy novels?

I’d love to compile a list of Rural Fantasies – stories which depend upon and inherently involve the natural environment, rather than those which merely use it as a casual backdrop, scenery through which the characters stroll. And also, I’d be more interested in narratives that veer away from folk tales as such, because I can easily see how, for example, the Brothers Grimm have left their mark upon literature.

In the contemporary genre form, I guess Rural Fantasy novels are rarer by far than Urban Fantasy because city populations are obviously denser, therefore (a) there are more people to tell stories about, more human interactions to inspire thought, and (b) statistically, a lot more writers grow up with bricks and concrete around them, and their relation to that environment is more easy to explore – leaving nature a relatively wild and untamed part of the genre.

Or maybe that’s all complete nonsense and it’s simply down to Buffy.

Discussions of genre origins often descend rapidly into argument, so I’m not interested in where one species peeled off from another, particularly considering the difficulty when throwing folk tales back into this particular mix. That said, I suppose modern Rural Fantasy could possibly be traced to the Romantic thinkers, with their rebellion against the scientific rationalisation of nature (and of urban encroachment) combining with the growth and development of the fantasy genre. Fantasists such as William Morris, who in so many aspects of his life embraced rural and environmental concerns, was perhaps a founding father. (It’s also worth stating that he was one of the earliest environmental thinkers, period.)

This sort of thing is much clearer in the writings of Lord Dunsany, and anyone who’s read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, or many of his short stories, can easily see how the natural world supplies the material from which he builds his prose. Even Tolkien had a love affair for the natural world, which is well-documented.

Of more contemporary writers, I can only really think of Robert Holdstock, but after that, I’m struggling to recall names and books. So, feel free to drop suggestions of Rural Fantasy novels or writers in the comments section, and fuel my next book spending spree.

And it occurs to me that, at some point in the future, I really need to write a Rural Fantasy novel – even though most of my output has been about cities, I feel more comfortable with my head in greener places.


More Recent Reading

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is a brilliant book. It’s huge – in themes, in scope, and in sheer fun. I’m not going to review it, but I wanted to at least tell people they should read it. The book follows the lives of two cousins. One is a Czech artist called Joe Kavalier (also trained as an escape artist), and Sam Clay, raised in Brooklyn. It’s set mainly in the years leading up to the Second World War, where the cousins become major comic writers as the industry enters the Golden Age. I love the themes of escape that prop up this beast of a novel (Kavalier, who is trained as an escape artist, escapes his homeland because of the build up to WWII, and who then seeks to help his family escape). Chabon, whilst not quite as stylish as Letham at his best, certainly knows his way around a sentence, too.

Then, onto C. L. Moore, the first lady of weird fantasy. I read the collection Black Gods And Scarlet Dreams, the Masterworks edition, and even in the first story, I could see it contained more imaginative power than a lot of this year’s combined fantasy output. My initial excitement wavered a little after that, for there were endless descriptions of psychological reaction, of emotion, of fear, of abstract shapes and entities. And I’m all for a little exposition, but some of this was way beyond heady. I admit I stopped halfway, after the adventures of Jirel of Joiry – a hugely important character in genre taxonomy, because she was the first proper female warrior/lead. I was impressed: Jirel was utterly non-sexualised, not made into some leather-clad male fetish – she was properly hard as nails, the equal of any male warrior.

I’m now half-way through a bound manuscript of Kraken, by one China Miéville. (I should say here how wonderful my publicist and editor are for supplying me with a copy.) About a hundred pages in and by god it’s good fun.

After that, I’m hoping to escape core genre for a bit. Possibly, I’ll read some John Cowper Powys, though I’m not hugely knowledgeable on some of his output. I very much enjoyed Wolf Solent – which was written in the style of a horny Thomas Hardy on speed. JCP’s books look intimidatingly big, so if anyone out there knows of some of the smaller tomes, suggestions would be welcome. I found some available on Faber Finds, their Print on Demand range, but I’m not forking out £15 for a copy.


Resurrecting The Dying Earth

Originally, this article appeared in slightly different formats on Speculative Horizons, and later on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog as a guest post. I’ve many more readers than I had last year, so wanted to share what is one of my favourite sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

You can’t move in Hollywood for people clutching screenplays about the apocalypse. If you’re in a café out there there’s probably someone writing one next to you right now. These days there’s some kind of cinematographer’s fetish for destroying landmark buildings and tearing up natural monuments. So maybe because of this rise in the popularity of post-apocalyptic media, or because a younger genre audience might have little knowledge of the fictions of yesteryear, I wanted to write a little more about the Dying Earth genre.

There are plenty of stories about the Earth being gutted, but the Dying Earth is something quite different, and it deserves more attention. Although I’m not concerned with the business of genre taxonomy here, and nor do I want to pursue the aesthetics of an academic essay, there are a few things worth noting that sets the Dying Earth genre apart, and a few key texts to explore. So here are some initial observations for the uninitiated, and some Memory Lane fodder for the rest of you.

The setting for Dying Earth novels is consciously towards the end of time, not merely after any major event. In fact there’s a good chance several such events might have happened – we could be so far into the future we can’t possibly tell. The world as we know it is unrecognizable. As a result, there is perhaps a melancholy associated with the genre – a conscious reflection at how great things once were. There seems to be a sense of fatality that seems bound in writing about the far future. Dying Earth fictions are inherently fantastical. Call it science fantasy if you must, the genre certainly feels like more of a fantasy than it does science fiction. There’s a mix of technology in there, too – the fantasy isn’t merely limited to magic, and the magic is sometimes intended to have some kind of justification, often through a spurious science. Dying Earth settings are very much secondary worlds, and by that I mean there is less of a reliance on current realities for the infrastructure of the book. Gene Wolfe alludes to South America in his Book of the New Sun sequence (which I’ll mention later), but we know that his Urth is a different place entirely.

So, some key books.

People point towards H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as one of the origin novels. Later, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, set on Earth’s last continent, began crystallizing the genre. Published in the 1930s, they were some of the first works to explore the cycles of cultures moving forward into a deeply unrecognizable fantasy future.

But we most likely didn’t start recognising the genre as such until a certain Jack Vance (influenced by Smith) wrote his Tales of the Dying Earth.

Finally we had a name for this thing. Some of these earliest stories were first published in the 1950s, and upon first reading are a surreal and heady collection of images. Cugel’s Saga is often seen as the most popular of the later works, first published in 1983, but Vance’s wit and dynamic style proved intoxicating, and the stories became iconic. For more detail, check out The Wertzone’s review.

The power of Vance is very much apparent. Recently there was an anthology released called Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which was a tribute to Vance’s novels. It gave a boost to the old master’s works, and plenty of Big Named Writers wanted to play in Vance’s toy box.

Gene Wolfe, influenced by Vance, wrote what is commonly thought to be one of the high points of Twentieth Century science fiction and fantasy – fuck that, of any literature. His original quartet was called The Book of the New Sun, and was laced with mythical and biblical imagery, and more symbols than you can shake at Aleister Crowley. The tales of Severian the torturer and his journey are established classics, and cannot be done any justice in a pithy paragraph.

Larry’s collection of in-depth postings on the series is one of the best studies of these books online.

Out of the Dying Earth subgenre, one of my favourites is M John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence. In fact, I made a conscious nod of the respect in my title to one of the books, Viriconium Nights / Nights of Villjamur. These stories are almost anti-fantasies. The city of Viriconium changes consciously (even its name to Uriconium), deliberately avoiding the ability to be mapped. The world possesses the technological litter from thousands of cultures previously. It is a bleak vision, but spellbindingly surreal and with a beautiful and complex prose, and there’s something very English underneath it all, which sets it apart. This is not a literature of comfort, and it requires more than a couple of readings to discover the treats within. These stories have been divisive amongst the SFF community, people either love them or loathe them. See the Westeros forum.

There are many other books and series that will fall under this category, and if anyone wants to add to my reading list, please feel free in the comments section. I merely wanted to outline a few of the major works. And maybe in writing this, a few readers might go and order some of these wonderful books.

Specifying what it is about these books that appeal to me as a writer proves rather difficult. Perhaps it’s their melancholy fatalism: these settings all possess a vastly different psychogeography from other fantasies. Perhaps it’s the fact that the setting opens up more options – that the literature has more freedoms, more potential for meaning than a setting that reflects backwards.

It’s worth adding that none of these books would likely be published as new novels in the modern era by conglomerates. Publishing tastes and sensibilities change by the year, of course, and commercial pressures are vastly different now than they were then – for better or worse.

This fan boy recognises this, probably wouldn’t have been published unless he did, but I’ve made scattered references to these stories throughout Villjamur, in a few structure names, or the colour of a cloak, all out of respect for what’s gone before.

In trying to help resurrect the Dying Earth subgenre, and put a distinctly modern spin on things, I may well be standing on the shoulders of giants, and that may well be ambitiously stupid. However it’s difficult to resist the allure, because the view at the end of time is amazing.


Jonathan Lethem Interview

One of the coolest authors around – both in prose style as well as concepts – is interviewed here. (It’s a little quiet, so turn your speakers up.) I adored the Fortress of Solitude, and you should all read it now to see how else a magic ring can be used.



“Point Omega” by Don DeLillo

I’ve read a sizeable chunk of Don DeLillo’s output, and consider myself a huge fan of his work. Not everything he writes his easy to get through, and his sentences and dialogue have a habit of annoying some readers, but I can’t get enough of them. Nearly everything he writes seems to connect with the deepest possible sense of understanding the world. I’ve often thought of him as a writer who can turn everyday blandness into a science fictional landscape. His sentences are the finest in the English language, with a cadence you can spot of mile off.

So, because of one of the many perks of being published by Pan Macmillan (me – Tor UK, DeLillo – Picador), I was chuffed to bits to get my paws on Point Omega, his latest tome, clocking in at a brief 120 pages.

In the middle of a desert ‘somewhere south of nowhere’, to a forlorn house made of metal and clapboard, a secret war adviser has gone in search of space and time. Richard Elster, seventy-three, was a scholar – an outsider – when he was called to a meeting with government war planners. For two years he tried to make intellectual sense of the troop deployments, counterinsurgency, orders for rendition. He was to map the reality these men were trying to create.

At the end of his service, Elster retreats to the desert, where he is joined by a young filmmaker intent on documenting his experience. Jim Finley wants to make a one-take film, Elster its single character – ‘Just a man against a wall.’

The two men sit on the deck, drinking and talking. Finley makes the case for his film. Weeks go by. And then Elster’s daughter Jessie visits – an ‘otherworldly’ woman from New York – who dramatically alters the dynamic of the story. When a devastating event follows, all the men’s talk, the accumulated meaning of conversation and isolation, is thrown into question. What is left is loss, fierce and incomprehensible.

The novel is bookended by a section with man attending a gallery, viewing 24 hour Psycho, which is, quite literally, the film Psycho stretched out over 24 hours, and as a result, each scene becomes enhanced somehow, as the action is stilled. Also, it implies foreshadow of events to come, though the links come in different ways. There’s a nice irony here, because I often think this is exactly how DeLillo writes. You get slow-motion scenes with his books, or stilled points in existence, the gaps in daily life, and his novels seem to sit there, in such moments, giving readers his unique spin on the world.

The true life is not reducable to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.

The rest, and bulk, of this very small narrative takes place out in the desert, with Elster and Finley engaged in deep intellectual conversations at the old scholar’s retreat, where all concepts of the universe are discussed. Finley is there to persuade Elster to be filmed by him, to give a raw portrait of his career. Elster uses Finley, largely, as a sounding board. The usual DeLillo themes of death and time, stripped more than ever of any humour, ebb and flow over that particular this-is-how-people-actually-talk dialogue that DeLillo does so well.

In their endless conversation, what strikes me as particularly important is the discussion of the Omega Point, “a term coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to describe a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving.”

It’s particularly problematic not to give spoilers here, due to the very short narrative. Elster’s daughter joins the two men, and what happens after that is unsettling to the reader, but a massive jolt to Elster and Finley.

I was struck, at the end, by this point: none of the verbose discussion of intellectual matters seemed to… matter anymore. It was as if this was DeLillo’s intellectual anti-intellectual novel, a lament at how useless such qualities can be at times of deep human stress (something I’ve noticed hinted at in his other novels). One can’t help notice the reversal of the omega point as the title in the role of this theory, too – a point where intellectualism cannot cope. Moments become stilled, slowed down and confused, and Elster – the scholar – in particular seems unable to cope or to function properly.

I dare say a bunch of national newspapers will spew out spoilers, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, so I’ll stop myself there.

Point Omega is sparse, poignant, and brilliant.


Shame On You, Bloggers! (Or: Why Aren’t You All Reviewing Robert Holdstock’s New Book?)

I’m going to call you out. James, Graeme, Aidan, Pat, Wert, Liz & Mark, Larry, Gav and Mihai. There are more bloggers who I’ve missed out here (I am in a rush!) but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching…

Robert Holdstock is one of the finest writers in the fantasy genre. And he’s written a new book called Avilion, which is a Mythago Wood Cycle book. Last year I wrote about the first book in the cycle, called Mythago Wood. I’ve recently purchased Avilion, and will be reading it very soon, but although major newspapers have sung the praises of this novel, I’ve noticed too little coverage across the blogosphere. This is an online crime.

These are fantastic books, and here are some reasons why you, bloggers, should be reading Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle, and telling everyone about it.

1) His novels are meditation on the very nature of fantasy, and what it is to imagine.
2) He writes with such a delicate and sensitive prose.
3) Whereas China Miéville is the master of urban spaces, Robert Holdstock lords over the rural setting.
4) If you have an appreciation or interest in mythology, particularly celtic mythology, or indeed British culture, then you will love these books.
5) He’s criminally underrated.
6) He’s a lovely man.

So, who wants to give them a go?