The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

My Welsh sister-in-law taught me a wonderful Welsh word: cwtch.  It’s a hug, but not just any hug.  It’s the kind of warm, comforting hug that one gets from a close friend or family member, full of love and reassurance and the knowledge that there is always a safe space full of unconditional love.  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a cwtch in book form.

Cross Farscape with Firefly and add in a hefty dollop of life-affirming goodness and you have The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  A multi-species crew travel across the galaxy under contract to build a new tunnel connecting the centre of the galaxy and the Galactic Commons, a collection of planets that have formed a loose alliance.

This novel is a love-song to the human condition, and our relationships with one another.  As the crew of the Wayfarer travel across the galaxy to the start point for their tunneling operation, we learn about them and their relationships with one another.  Everyone has secrets, but these are ones that expose their essential humanity – stories of love and loss that have shaped them as individuals.  Rosemary is coming to terms with her father’s arms dealing, Ashby with his love for an alien woman in a dangerous profession, Dr Chef wrestling with the self-destructive urges of his species and Ohan with the beliefs of their people that propel them on a course towards self-destruction.  And then there’s Corbin, the annoying flatmate we’ve all had to deal with at some point or another.

Although this isn’t the deepest or most complex of books (it’s a little too on-the-rails, with little sense of real peril at times), it’s one of those rare and special books that left me in tears.  Jenks’s love for Lovey, the ship’s AI, is real and intensely moving, and there are moments of real connection for all of the characters.  The visit to Sissix’s homeworld, in particular, reveals all that she has given up to travel with the crew of the Wayfarer.

The story of the novel itself is equally life-affirming: Chambers found herself out of work and short of money.  The generosity of strangers through a Kickstarter campaign enabled her to complete the book and self-publish it.  The success of the novel meant it was picked up by Hodder, a mainstream publisher.

Ultimately, what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet teaches us is that we are all made of stardust.  All essentially the same, and capable of profound  connections with one another, regardless of how different we may seem.  We are enriched by our diversity if we are open-minded enough to appreciate it and let it blossom.  And I, for one, want to spend more time with the crew of the Wayfarer.

Goodreads rating: 4*


A Scanner Darkly – Philip K Dick

In his Author’s Note to A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick explains that the novel is based in part on his own experiences and those of a group of friends.

“This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.  They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed – run over, maimed, destroyed – but they continued to play anyhow.”.

This novel is a love song to the joys and perils of drug-taking.  It follows a group of friends addicted to a drug called Substance D.  Over time, it breaks the links between the hemispheres of the brain.  At its worst, its users become hollow shells of themselves, practically vegetables, with their sense of self entirely eroded.  But knowing this doesn’t deter people from taking it, even though the only apparent attraction of taking it is that it leaves people feeling ‘mellow’.  The addictive appeal of stepping outside of life’s cares and responsibilities is one that is impossible for some to resist.

But A Scanner Darkly is also a novel about the role and power of the state. Bob Arctor, the main character, is an undercover agent working for the state to identify the ultimate source of Substance D by tracking its dealers.  The state is happy to tolerate its agents becoming users of the drug they are seeking to investigate, and it takes a particularly cold-hearted approach to its agents.  When reporting back to the authorities, agents wear ‘scramble suits’ that obscure their appearance, and to further protect their identity agents report on themselves as suspects within their own investigations.

This layering of paranoia and conspiracy, aided and abetted by the effects of Substance D, is the real strength of the novel.  As he becomes further addicted to, and affected by, Substance D, Arctor develops multiple personalities.  (One of the side effects of the drug can be that the hemispheres of the brain develop distinct and independent existence and identities.)  Bob Arctor the drug addict becomes an entirely separate person from ‘Fred’ his identity as a narcotics agent.  ‘Fred’ puts Arctor under surveillance, and becomes convinced that Arctor’s suspicious behaviour (behaviour that in actuality is covering his work as an agent) means he must be high up in the organisation supplying Substance D.  In a glorious satire on McCarthyism, the state looks to undermine and pull down one of its own on the flimsiest of evidence.

As well as posing questions about just how far the state is prepared to go to tackle crime, A Scanner Darkly asks profound questions about the nature of identity and reality, and the truth of our own perceptions.

“Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well.  A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person , defeating him from inside.  A man inside a man.  Which is no man at all.”

This is far from a perfect novel.  It suffers from a slow start that made it difficult to get into.  And it is very of its time: my inner Feminist Hulk raged against some of the dated gender and race stereotypes.  But it has moments of real humour and Dick’s ambiguous feelings about the joys and perils of recreational drug-taking give it real depth.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I know it seems like heresy to say it, but I’m often left under-whelmed by Neil Gaiman’s writing.  Too often it feels over-slick.  Too polished.  As if it were written with the sale of the film rights in mind.  However well-written it is, his work often lacks … something.  Some essential heart that this reader can connect to.  But that’s not the case with The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Famously, this novel was written when Neil was going through a rocky patch in his still-new marriage to artist and performer Amanda Palmer.  He was seeking to explain himself to his wife through his art, drawing on aspects of his childhood to tell a story about a young boy’s coming of age.  Although the novel is only very loosely semi-autobiographical, it finally seems like we get something that is authentically Neil coming through on the page, rather than just a highly commercial product.

There is deep, mythic truthfulness in this story of a young boy struggling to come to terms with his family’s difficult financial circumstances and friendship with the girl who lives down the lane.  The narrator’s world is destabilised first by the suicide of the family’s lodger, and then by the arrival of a new nanny, Ursula Monckton, who embarks on an affair with the boy’s father.

The narrator escapes from these changes to his world through his friendship with Lettie Hempstock.  Her family’s home is a safe place for him to escape to from the difficulties at home.  Lettie is part playmate, part protector, helping him to deal with the challenges of home.

All of this is carefully shown to us through the allegory of a story with very English fairy-tale elements.  Ursula Monckton is a monster from the edges of reality.  Woken by the lodger’s suicide, she has found her way to the ‘real’ world and begins to take it over.  Lettie, with the narrator’s help, is able to banish it, but at a great price.  The narrator is left with a ‘door’ in his heart to the very edges of reality.

Although written from the perspective of a child, this is an adult story of changing relationship dynamics, grief and loss.  It’s dark and terrifying and peppered with lyrically-written insights into growing up and the human condition.  Rarely has a book made me pause so often to reflect on a sentence or two.

But it’s a slippery fish, this book.  Just like Lettie Hempstock’s ocean, when one is within it the secrets of the world are laid out for your perfect comprehension.  Close its pages and it recedes into a half-forgotten childhood memory.

Goodreads rating: 5*


Vurt – Jeff Noon

Jeff Noon’s debut novel Vurt was a game-changer when it was first published, breathing new life into the genre and winning the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1994.  Many people reading it in the early 90s recognised themselves and their lives in this story of young people, northern urban deprivation, diverse communities living side by side, drugs and clubs.  I was not one of them, having lived a sheltered and conventional life in rural Dorset, but I still loved Vurt for its freshness and vibrancy when I read it.

Vurt is the simple story of a man on a quest to find a lost treasure, assisted by his friends.  The twist is that the lost treasure is Scribble’s sister, Desdemona.  She has been lost to the Vurt, a dreamlike world that is part drug, part immersive video-game, accessed through feathers, some rarer and less legal than others.  Desdemona has been swapped for a mysterious alien being that Scribble has dubbed The Thing and hopes to swap back for his sister.

Around this core is built a world that is part aching cool, part Alice in Wonderland fairytale strangeness.  Noon’s near-future Manchester is a place of deprived and dangerous council estates full of dogpeople, shadowpeople and people enhanced with robotics as well as humans.  Tensions between these communities are rife, despite the vibrant life they bring to the city.  Scribble and his friends exist on benefits, on the run from the police and stealing vehicles.  Vurt feathers are their escape from this reality, and they spend their time chasing the rarer and most dangerous ones.  Scribble, of course, is looking for the mysterious feather Curious Yellow, which was responsible for the disappearance of his sister.

Even 20 years on, Vurt still feels fresh and relevant.  The themes of a diverse and multi-cultural society full of tension, and the desire for escape are ones that still have currency.  Scribble’s search for Desdemona is a way of dealing with his feelings of grief, guilt and loss.  While the odd reference in the novel jars (for example the references to Jimmy Savile as a much-loved cultural icon), Vurt still has a lot of insight about our contemporary society, as the best science fiction should do.

Goodreads rating: 5*

2016: A Look Ahead

Having reflected back on 2015, it’s also time to look ahead to 2016.  I’m not the kind of person who makes New Year Resolutions.  The coldest, darkest time of year is not the best time for me to make plans or commitments, particularly those involving the kind of dramatic life changes that require significant amounts of effort and willpower.  So all I will do on that front is continue to commit to trying new things, having adventures and living life as joyfully as I can.

The TBR bookcase

I thought it would be interesting to take a New Year look at the state of my To Be Read pile.  Well, To Be Read bookcase.  And the piles next to it.

Yes, it’s double, nay even triple, stacked …

That is a lot of books waiting to be read, and a lot of awesome books at that.  And that’s even after I had a good weed through it last week and put aside three boxes of books to take to the charity shop.  Some of that must be down to me continuing to buy the books I would like to read at a prodigious rate, despite having 3/4 of my reading in 2015 dictated by review copies and my book club.

I don’t feel weighed down by this at all.  I love having choice.  It means that when I finish a book I have the luxury of being able to pick the perfect one to suit my mood at that exact moment.  And while I’m lucky enough to be financially comfortable enough to buy books without having to think too hard about it, I will carry on adding to the pile.  The day may well come when I might be less fortunate, but at that point I’ll have a resource to draw on.

One of my reflections from last year is that there are a lot of books by authors that I love that I have chosen not to read yet.  Part of that is knowing that I will only have the experience of reading them for the first time once, making me want to save and savour them for when I will really appreciate them, or want the certainty that I will not just enjoy, but will love a book and be guaranteed transcendent escapism.  The pile on the left are some of those books.  (Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven came out in 2010, which shows you how long I’ve been hanging on to that one.)  But it seems crazy to spend my time reading books I’m a bit indifferent about while leaving ones I’d love on the shelf unread.  So, this year, I’d like to make a bit of a dent in that pile.

The pile in the centre is one I will definitely read.  These are books for my book club for the first part of this year.  There will be a couple of additions to that pile – The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge (ordered, and on its way) and The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.  I’m particularly looking forward to getting stuck into a bit more PKD, and to re-reading Vurt, which I haven’t read since it came out.

The pile on the right are all books that I also have in ebook format, usually because they were on offer or part of a Hugo voter packet, like the Chu.  It’s likeliest I’ll get to some of these on holiday.

This is the main section of the bookcase.  There’s lot of good stuff in here too, and that’s just the front row that is visible.  I’m particularly looking forward to carving out the time to read the Ian McDonald and Aliette de Bodard, not least as both are GOHs at this year’s EasterCon, which I might go to.

Finally, this is the pile on the left, which is a ragbag mix of literary fiction and genre fiction, including a lot of second hand books.

I’d be very interested to hear if there is anything there that you think I should be moving closer to the metaphorical top of the pile, to be sure to read soon.

The Ravelry Queue

Another area I’ve been reflecting on is the current state of my Ravelry queue.  At 1,144 patterns there is little chance that I’ll make everything on it.  I use it more as a “short”-list of patterns I like to rummage through when I have startitis.  But it could do with a serious weed nonetheless, to remove the things I really have no intention of ever making.

There are a few queued items on the first page of the queue worth touching on:

sachertorteI love this cabled swing jacket and I have some Kilcarra Donegal Tweed yarn that has been in stash for a while.  It’s in a lovely purple colour and will be perfect for it.

rhinecliffThis is the cardigan I bought the tweed yarn at New Lanark to make.  But I want to lengthen the pattern so that the garment finishes at mid-thigh rather than on the hips.  That will need a bit of thought.  And some sums.

octopusI fell in love with this colourwork octopus sweater the moment I saw it.  There are some issues with the pattern (the pattern writer suggests doing the whole thing stranded, which is a very inefficient use of yarn for the design, and would make it unbearably warm) so it will also need some thought.  But I have the yarn and would love to get on with making it.

hemlockFinally, I have a burgeoning stash of sock and laceweight yarn, which I would like to make better use of.  That means lots more socks and shawls, like this beautiful two-colour shawl.

It’ll be interesting to come back this time next year and see how different the To Be Read bookcase looks, and what progress I’ve managed to make towards these projects.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

What would you do if you could live your life over again, with the knowledge and experience you’ve gained in this one?  That’s the question posed by Claire North in her Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  Those known as kalachakra or ouroborans face an eternal Groundhog Day, born to the same parents and living through the same events over and over again.

But Harry August isn’t just fated to be reborn over and over again.  He is a ‘mnemonic’, someone with perfect recall of everything he’s learned and experienced throughout all of his many lives.  Over the first few he comes to terms with his existence, cycling through mental health problems, spirituality and science in a search for an explanation for his condition.

Harry connects with generations of other kalachakra through a loose, global organisation called the Cronus Club.  Each chooses to spend their multiple existences in different ways, but all obeying the convention that no-one should seek to alter the course of history.  But that comfortable existence changes for Harry when he learns that someone is changing the future and accelerating the end of the world.  What follows is the story of Harry unravelling the mystery and saving the future.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gives us a fascinating insight into how we grow and change and how our experiences shape us as individuals.  That knowledge and experience cannot help but influence our actions and the approach we take to the issues in our lives.  For the ourobourans, death and injury hold no fears (beyond the inconvenience of having to relive childhood and puberty), leading to a low appetite for risk and a potential longer term strategic view that eludes those of us consigned to a single life.  Harry is content to spend several of his lives preventing the premature end of the world, far in the future.  But for many, the endless cycle of repeated existence leads only to endless rounds of fruitless hedonism.

Where the novel excels for me is in the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Vincent.  The friendship between them is profound and fully-realised, despite the dark turn that it takes.  There are no pantomime villains in this novel, just competing visions of what the role of individuals in society should be.  Is our role to promote human development, or to live a good life helping others?

But that strong portrayal of male friendship comes at a price.  Where the novel falls down for me is in its portrayal of women.  They are largely absent, falling into the category of prizes/rewards (Harry’s wife Jenny),  helpmeets/henchpeople (Virginia and Charity) or are used simply to illustrate the implications of the ultimately constrained life of the ourobouran (Akinleye).  It’s a disappointment, given how well North’s more recent novel Touch deals with questions of gender and identity.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Ack-Ack Macaque – Gareth L Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell is a fast-paced thriller about cybernetic enhancement and sentient personhood.  The title character is the star of an online game about a wise-cracking, rum-drinking, cigar-smoking monkey, who is an ace Spitfire pilot in an alternative WW2 world.  Although commonly believed to be a sophisticated AI, it turns out that he is a monkey who has been ‘uplifted’ with brain enhancements and imprinted with an artificial personality and history before being hard-wired into the game.

That game is run by Celeste Technologies, a shadowy company run by the Duchess of Brittany, wife of the current ruler of a UK that includes France and Norway.  Her husband was critically injured in a grenade attack that is widely believed to have been committed by republican terrorists.  Her son Merovech is a reluctant prince, constricted by duty and protocol.

The story opens with the murder of Paul, an employee of Celeste technologies and the estranged husband of former journalist Victoria Valois.  She is called to the murder scene, where she learns that he is the latest victim of a serial killer who has been brutally murdering people, removing their brains and the technology that provides a back up of their personality, thoughts and memories.  But while at the crime scene, Victoria is herself attacked by the killer.

Victoria teams up with Prince Merovech, Ack-Ack Macaque (who has been liberated from Celeste’s labs by AI liberation activists), the Prince’s girlfriend Julie, a hacker called K8 and Victoria’s godfather, the owner and operator of an airship called the Tereshkova.  Together, they uncover a global conspiracy to usurp the throne and trigger an apocalyptic war with China.

What follows is a fun and pacey thriller. It has a strong start, posing questions about technological change and how we define sentience and personhood.  Ack-Ack Macaque is an incredibly charismatic character, but it does feel like the story was created to allow him to feature.  The plot wobbles a bit in the second half of the book.  There’s a bit too much deus ex machina for me, yet another example of the tiresome and overused trope of threatening women with sexual violence, and characters who become pantomime Bond-style villains.  But it’s a tremendously fun read.

Goodreads rating: 3*