Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Word for World is Forest

I have at long last read my first Ursula Le Guin. It was the novella The Word for World is Forest, and it was in translation, arriving as it did from a friend’s garage, where it had also been a bit unexpected.

It was all right. The sentiments are ones I obviously identify with. Don’t use violence. Don’t burst in on someone else’s world and start telling them what they must do, enslaving them in the process. First published in the early 1970s, it’s clear where this was coming from.

Ursula Le Guin, Där världen heter skog

But I didn’t enjoy it. Not really. I suspect my garage-owning friend felt much the same, but we both had a curiosity that needed satisfying. Like why had we not read Ursula’s books when we were young? And why had we not even heard of her?

The trouble is, I was under the impression this was a children’s book, due to its size and design. I stopped believing it was for children after about a page. But it still looked like a children’s book. At least this translated version did.

Basically it is about a faraway planet invaded by Earth, and where the hitherto peaceful inhabitants are forced to become cruel and violent like the invaders in order to get rid of them, which mostly involves a lot of killing.

I think I would have liked to see ideas like these executed with a bit more thought through science fiction elements.

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Ursula Le Guin

Luckily, there are some really great authors in this world; great both as authors, and as persons. I understand that Ursula Le Guin was one of them.

When the news of her death broke earlier this week, I noted two things. One was that everyone had something to say about her. The other was a question to myself, ‘why did I never read any of her books?’

Because I’m afraid I didn’t. I had to look her up to see when her first books were published, in an effort to work out why they didn’t cross my path earlier. I only heard of Tolkien when I was about 16. Everyone read him, but I still haven’t. The odd thing was that he’d never been mentioned, until I was the sort of age when it was the done thing to read Lord of the Rings.

And I would have thought the same would go for Ursula Le Guin. I could have read her in English, but for that I’d have needed to know about her. And I see that only one book had been translated by the time I left school, which presumably explains why no one much talked about her books.

Then, I sensibly married a man who liked Ursula’s books. I thought they looked slightly weird, had no wish to read them, but discovered they were not books I was allowed to take to Oxfam… And the no-Oxfam rule has remained in place all these years.

But my thought this week was why I never tried them later on. I have a dreadful feeling I had catalogued them as ‘those books that sit on the shelf but are not for me.’

I was pleased to discover this article in the Irish Times, by her long-standing fan Adrian McKinty. I like his memories of Ursula and her books. I already knew she had been a fine author and person, but Adrian just proves it.

Places in the Darkness

This is pure Heinlein Noir. Do those two words not fill you with happy (-ish) expectations?

When I heard that Chris Brookmyre’s latest novel was crime in a science fiction setting, I thought it sounded like a wonderful marriage of two great genres. It is. I was also indiscreet enough to say so out loud, and before I knew it Daughter had magicked us a copy to arrive practically overnight.

I never find myself awake at night, sifting through all I’ve read in a crime novel, looking for clues, remembering almost everything, trying to work out who did it, and how, and maybe why. With Places in the Darkness I simply had to. I did suspect who was behind things, and maybe one other fact, the spoiler-ish aspect of which, means I can’t elaborate. But the rest, no. Quite good, really, because I wanted to be surprised.

Chris Brookmyre, Places in the Darkness

Towards the end of this American style noir, set in a man-made world up in space, some time in the future, I couldn’t see how there was going to be time to end it properly, let alone in a good way. But I was ready for a bad ending if that’s what it took.

There is no serious crime on Ciudad de Cielo. At least no murders. But when Dr Alice Blake arrives on CdC, one has just happened, and Alice just happens to be the next head of ‘police’ up there. And when she starts looking into things, Alice chooses to work with Sergeant Nikki Freeman of the Seguridad (I love all the Spanish words up in this cielo).

Nikki refers to the place as Seedee, and it certainly is. And no one knows the seedier side of her place in life better than she does. Nikki runs protection rackets, drinks too much, has lots of lovers, but no friends. You get the picture.

After the first gruesome murder, there are plenty more. The question is whether Alice and Nikki can stay alive to solve them. There’s also the question of AI. How can you be sure you’re not talking to a robot?

Chris has clearly spent a lot of effort on building his City in the Sky, and it is so interesting, and anyone who loves Heinlein will feel right at home. It’s not the same, but it feels right. If you love noir, there is more to enjoy. And as a girl I approve of there being so many important women characters; strong women, whether a Goody Two Shoes or a bent cop.

I could return to CdC.

My Side of the Diamond

Aliens. Inexplicable happenings, with more than a hint of Roswell. And it’s written by Sally Gardner. What more could you want?

This isn’t Sally’s first science fiction novel. It could be her best, but when I say that I don’t have the others in such fresh memory that I can swear to it. She is a woman who can tell stories. Yes, it’s sort of not original, but it is. I’ve not read anything like it.

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

It’s short. I was almost worried Sally wouldn’t have time to reach the conclusion by the end, but of course she does. There are no wasted words. And it’s all so normal, too, apart from the abnormal, and the little futuristic view of London, which seems so likely when you think of it.

Weird stuff has happened. Jazmin’s best friend Becky jumped off a tall building and disappeared. She didn’t die. Or she probably didn’t. There was no body. But the authorities don’t like this kind of thing so it’s all blamed on Jazmin, the poor working-class girl.

Told mostly from Jazmin’s point of view – but occasionally by various other characters as and when their input is needed – she appears to be talking to someone about what happened. If there really is someone there? Maybe she’s gone crazy and sees things?

Absolutely wonderful, with likeable and sensible adults (well, there is the odd exception), and a genuine mystery as to what might have happened; both this time and the strange goings-on in the past. There’s not enough intelligent science fiction in YA, especially with romance.

Those murdering Scots

How I love them!

It’s Monday morning, and it’s Book Week Scotland. And here at Bookwitch Towers, I am most likely to spend it reading, rather than being out and about, despite all the events on offer. I feel as if I’ve finally got into the swing of reading again, after far too much travelling, or agonising over things, and it does my mental state a lot of good.

And you really don’t want me too mental.

Scottish Book Trust have looked into what everyone else in Scotland is doing, and it appears that Scots are into crime, in a big way; ‘crime/thriller books are the single most popular type of fiction in Scotland.

In a recent Ipsos MORI Scotland survey of 1,000 adults, just over 1 in 4 Scots (27%) who read for enjoyment said that books which fictionalise crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives topped their choice of reading or listening genres. — While the crime genre was the most popular among readers of all ages, the second most popular genre among young readers (aged 16-34) was science fiction/fantasy (15%). — Eight in ten Scots (79%) read or listen to books for enjoyment and 39% do so either every day or most days. Additionally, among those —  50% read or listen to more than 10 books per year.’

Well, that’s good to know; both that people read, and that they like what I like. (If I hadn’t given up ironing, I’d be listening to more audio books as well.)

I suppose that with their fondness for a good murder, the Scots really are – almost – Nordic. It’s dark up here, although possibly more cheerful than ‘over there.’

And, on that cheery note I will dive back into my waiting book mountains, before the January books arrive. There tends to be this brief lull for a couple of weeks, or three, as one year [in the publishing world] comes to an end and the new one begins. When the publicists go off on their Christmas holidays, they might fire off the ‘first’ 2017 books. (That’s apart from the ones I’ve already received and filed away because 2017 was such a long way off…)

Space Team

This is Galaxy Quest as though it had been written by one of ‘my’ many crime writing Irish boys; Eoin, John, Declan. Except it wasn’t them, but their crazy cousin from across the water, Barry J Hutchison. Barry has been tinkering with some adult writing for a while, and he is under the impression that adding a J to his name will mean his littlest fans won’t accidentally find themselves in space with a ‘cannibal’ who swears a lot.

Space Team is very funny, and not too sweary, as there is some kind of translation system set up between the different species of aliens which not only translates but cleans up the worst four-letter words. Just as well, since that lone J is not going to fool anyone. Us fans can tell it’s Barry.

I had a lot of fun reading this. Galaxy Quest, Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Take your pick. There are bits of everything in here, and you find you don’t mind too much that Earth is no more and neither are we. Cal Carver survives, and what an ambassador for humankind he is! Teaming up with a group of criminally minded aliens, it becomes his job to save the universe. Or some such thing.

Barry J Hutchison, Space Team

Setting off on a junky spaceship, the team have a task, at which they must succeed. Or die. The question is, do they have the right skills? Are we in safe hands? Actually, it doesn’t matter, since we are all dead. At least I think we are.

The lesson here is that it’s good to be cheerful and to try and do your best, for the team and for the universe. There are a lot of bad aliens out there. This is hardboiled space humour at its best.

Monday, Mounties, Metaphrog and the Makar

On my walk from Haymarket to Charlotte Square on Monday I was overtaken by a Mountie. This doesn’t happen often, and as this one was a fake, it might not even count. But still. That’s Edinburgh in August. Thank you kindly.

Just before the entrance to the book festival, I came across our new Makar, Jackie Kay, being photographed by a fan. On my way to a reception in the Party Pavilion, I first stopped by the signing tent to see who I could find. I had missed Philippa Gregory, but caught Dominic Hinde with his last fan. He’s written a book about Sweden, which I’ve not read, but is why I sort of knew he’d be there.

Dominic Hinde

Got to the party just as it was beginning, finding Debi Gliori in the queue by the door and had the nerve to ask her why she’d been invited… (For a good reason, I may add.) She was debating the impossibilty of removing more garments in the somewhat unexpected heat. It’s hard when you are down to your last cover.

Janet Smyth

We were there to eat scones and dainty sandwiches, and to hear about the book festival’s new-ish venture outside Charlotte Square and August, Book-ed. Janet Smyth introduced the speakers, who told us what had been happening, or was about to happen, in their home areas, primarily half a dozen new towns, including Irvine, Glenrothes and Cumbernauld. It seems that having the EIBF behind you means any venture stands a much better chance of success, so I believe we can look forward to many more little festivals here and there.

A wealthy Bookwitch would have offered to sponsor something on the spot, but in this case she merely had another piece of rather nice cake. Met a crime colleague, who was able to tell me what I did last August, which is something I increasingly need help with. To make the most of my invited status, I sat outside on the decking for a while, enjoying the sunshine.

Charlotte Square

It was going to be an afternoon of bookshop signing photos, and I hurried over to catch Nicola Davies and Petr Horáček (for a while I lost Petr’s lovely accents, which was worrying, but they have now been found again), who had so many young fans I didn’t stop to talk.

Nicola Davies

Petr Horacek

The really great thing about Charlotte Square is that someone built it near a good shoeshop, making it possible to pop out for new shoes whenever a gap presents itself. I found such a gap on Monday.

Richard Byrne

Back for Richard Byrne, who seems to be a very nice man, with a whole lot of lovely little fans. And then I crossed the square for Jackie Kay and Zaffar Kunial, checked out the sandwich situation, and went and had a chat with Sarah from Walker Books.

Zaffar Kunial

Jackie Kay

Refreshed from my brief rest, I braved the world of Harry Potter. Jim Kay, who is illustrating the books about the famous wizard, had a sold out event, which then filled the children’s bookshop. Although I couldn’t help noticing that those first in line were really quite old. I chatted to Jim’s chair, Daniel Hahn, who is so relaxed about travelling that he’d only just got off the train.

Jim Kay

After a little sit-down in the reading corner I was ready for Ross MacKenzie and Robin Jarvis. The latter had brought a skull. And with all three signings happening side by side, there was quite a crush. On the left side of the queue I encountered Ann Landmann, who told me she was feeling stupid. When she’d told me why, I also felt stupid, so it must have been an Ann thing. (We should have brought our copies of A Monster Calls. And we didn’t.)

Ross MacKenzie

Skull

My sandwich required eating, and I repaired to the yurt, before going zombie-hunting. Darren Shan was signing his Zom-B Goddess (and I can’t tell you how relieved I am I haven’t really started on his – undoubtedly excellent – books). His hair was extremely neatly combed. I liked the way Darren allowed time for chatting with his fans, initiating a discussion if they seemed shy. I can’t see how he’d have time to do it with all of them, but maybe he feels that those who’d waited to be first in line deserved a bit of extra attention.

Darren Shan

Over in the children’s bookshop I found Metaphrog still signing, and was pleased to see they look nice and normal. The name has always worried me a little…

Metaphrog

And then all I had left to do was get ready for Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans, which you’ve already read about. Listening to others in the queue, I got the impression, as with Michael Grant on Saturday, that many people buy tickets on the day for an event that sounds reasonably suitable, but might be with an author they’d not heard of before. I like that. It’s good to know you can discover a new favourite out of the blue.