Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Reading report Q1 2013: Kindle is King

For me, the first quarter of this year was dominated by February, when I fled the winter chill of London for a month of summer in my antipodean mother land. I won’t bore you with how great it all was – great weather, old friends, family on good behaviour, plenty of good wine and beer and so forth. Instead I’ll bore you with far less interesting chat about reading.

I’ve had a Kindle for a couple of years and have taken it on holiday a couple of times, but this is the trip it was made for. I always end up taking what I consider a sufficient number of books (perhaps six) and then while I’m in NZ one thing like to is search second-hand bookshops for obscure SF paperbacks from the seventies and eighties. What I particularly love is a small town book exchange (every small town in NZ has got one) with a SF section that looks like it might have come from the estate of a lonely farmer and SF fan.

I’ve done pretty well with Jack Vance, picking up nice seventies and eighties editions from Grafton and the New English Library with cool covers by Jim Burns, Mick van Houten and Peter Elson, etc. But this year I discovered something that’s killed that hobby dead: The SF Gateway

It’s changed my holidays for ever and I may now never visit New Zealand again.

If you’ve clicked the link already, you’ll have realised what it is: an absolutely mind-bendingly huge digital archive of classic SF, accessible for a few pounds per book. I like those covers, but I genuinely am looking for obscure or new books by the handful of classic SF authors that interest me at the time. There’s a thrill in the hunt when something new by Vance or Michael Shea or Kim Newman turns up, or in their day hard to find gems by Philip K Dick and Michael Moorcock.

Shopping has always been a good filter for how much you value your time, I think. When faced with the immediate choice in a second hand bookshop, one’s priorities are genuinely tested. Do I want to read this now? If no, move on, knowing that the chance is probably gone and I too many regrets of books passed up in these circumstances. If it’s yes, then it becomes a kind of commitment. I won’t pretend I’ve read every book I’ve ever bought from a second hand shop, but heaving them around in my back pack in New Zealand certainly keeps them front of mind.

In the same way, I’ve never been a big one for downloading films or music, either. If I’m not prepared to spend actual money on it, then I probably don’t want it. And if I do spend money then I’ll make sure I watch, listen or read whatever it is because my inner miser insists on getting his money’s worth.

But now there’s no need. Now, any book I care to think of is instantly available and I face the paralysis of choice. Worst of all, it’s no fun any more. There’s so many secondary pleasures – checking the prices of books you already own, the aesthetic pleasure of all those creased spines in ranks before you, the studious silence broken only by the Concert Programme or be bop jazz, the thrill of that sudden find of an obscure writer you’ve only heard of or read about in a review, that vital precious book published thirty years ago or more that you never even knew existed til you found it.

It’s such a let down. Is this how the humble hunter gatherer felt when the first shop opened and he no longer had to sustain himself through his skill and cunning? Well, no probably not, in fact I imagine he was terrifically relieved, but the point is that the thrill has gone.

Like our hunter gatherer, I have quickly sunk into decadence. I downloaded the Cadwal Chronicles while still in New Zealand after spotting a copy (first UK edition hard cover with dust jacket!) of Ecce & Old Earth in a second hand shop. Although I did covet that copy, I have the paperback; instead it made me recall that I’d never tracked down a copy of the third volume, Throy. There it was on SF Gateway and off I went.

Before I left London, bought two novels from SF Gateway by familiar names, The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison and Orbitsville by Bob Shaw. It’s a few years since I read anything by either of these guys and there’s always the danger that they’re going to disappoint. I was concerned about Harry Harrison, in particular, because his classics – the first few Stainless Steel Rats, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, Bill the Galactic Hero, the Deathworld series, The Technicolour Time Machine – were an important element of my early SF education.

Well, the good news is Harry didn’t disappoint. In fact The Hammer and the Cross was even better than I’d hoped it would be. It grabbed me right from the moment of take-off until we landed and got me through my jet lag. It’s a brilliant alternative history of the 11th century, where Shef, a youth of prodigious intellect, makes the journey from pot boy to hero, anticipating various technological innovations to change the course of English history.

I didn’t realise what was going on at first. I was expecting something like Poul Andersen’s The Broken Sword, and it wasn’t until I started to recognise the names that it dawned on me what Harrison (and Tom Shippey, co-author here) was up to. Most cunningly, the technological innovations were all feasible at the time, mostly based on Roman technology that hadn’t been used for hundreds of years.

It feels like a fantasy, with the olde worlde setting and the ambiguous intervention of the Gods (it’s not clear whether they’re supernatural experiences or some kind of mental fugue) but it’s as much a tale about science as the absurdist logic puzzles of I,Robot. It’s all about the power of scientific deduction and reasoning against superstition and unquestioning reliance on authority, be it temporal or intellectual. It definitely has that optimistic feel of SF that pure reason leads to peace and understanding. This is balanced by the grim transformation of Shef from passionate youth to hardened battle leader, and it’s only the first in a trilogy so maybe it ends up given a more nuanced picture on the whole. I’ll definitely be following the rest up when I get a chance to find out.

Orbitsville was less of a success. It reminded me a bit of the Coyote series by Allen Steele. Both start with the protagonist pursued by the forces of a corrupt government, and fleeing to an explored alien world. Both are harrassed later on by their oppressors (or their descendants in the case of the Coyote series).

I remember quite enjoying Coyote, but Orbitsville was pretty painful. The space captain hero’s wife gets particularly short-shrift and Shaw plays on the mad evil queen aspects of the principal villain a little strongly. Shaw adds sexual tension and tales of epic survival which tip the story into melodrama. But it’s action-packed stuff and Shaw does a particularly good job of portraying the enigmatic aliens that inhabit the sphere. It was okay holiday reading, but I’ll be scanning his catalogue carefully before picking another Shaw.

The third book I downloaded before reading was Automate This by Christopher Steiner, a non-fiction account of the world of algorithmic control programs that increasingly dominate how deciusions are made. I’m very familiar with the idea of algorithmic investment – quant strategies have always relied on that – and I’m intrigued by how far that kind of automated decision making might end up running our lives.

I didn’t really find out from this book. Instead I got something that felt a lot like an extended magazine article. It wasn’t quite as disappointing as Freakonomics – which was trumpeted as a paradigm-shifting historic tome – but it didn’t really tell much I didn’t know, except about the history of quants which included much more about cabling than really interested me (although I take the point that timing is crucial for quant strategies). These books never live up to their rep!

I was not able, of course, to resist the the lure of the second hand bookshop entirely. New Zealand has a fantastic second hand book culture. Two I particularly like are Scribes in Dunedin and Arty Bee’s in Wellington. I think next time I go I might pick some vintage Kiwiana – old editions of Barry Crump or Reed hardbacks from the 50s and Scribes has a great NZ section. I used to go to Arty Bee’s when I lived in Wellington and it’s still going strong. In fact, it’s bet than ever, definitely a more of a book lovers shop than the Whitcoulls and with a selection to rival Unity Books. Both of course have shelves and shelves of SF. (I'd also just like to mention the Ferret Bookshop on Cuba Street - motto: 'Poke your nose in' - which has a smaller but more considered selection and has been in the same place, in more or less the same state since as long as I can remember.)

I was able to resist most of the temptations – that copy of Ecce and Old Earth – but I came back with a few volumes of interest. First, I picked up a Kingsely Amis-edited volume The Golden Age of Science Fiction from Scribes in Dunedin. As well as a a dozen or so stories form the 40s to the 60s, it’s got a lengthy introduction by Amis which has a number of interesting observations. At Arty Bee’s I discovered a three-volume set, The History of the Science Fiction Magazine edited by Mike Ashley. Each volume covers a decade in SF pulp publishing, starting with 1926 to 1936 with an introduction and a selection of stories, one for each year of the decade covered by each volume.

Old anthologies of stories Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, Galaxy and New Worlds, published in the 60s and 70s, formed a big part of my introduction to SF as a kid, but they’re hard to find now and not available at all in a digital format. These aren’t the anthologies I read as a kid, but between them I reckon they’ll give a good selection of similar stories. I’ve been looking for this sort of material since I started thinking about the death of science fiction. I want to understand where SF came from. Maybe I can also recapture something of what it was that attracted me to SF in the first place.

I’ve started the first volume and will be posting about it, probably starting this weekend. My vague plan is to blog about each story as I read it (I’ve already read half the first volume, and made a bunch of note, so I’m cheating a bit) and I’ll be starting in weekend. When I’m done I’ll look at the modern scene, but first, ladies and gents, science fiction as she once was, young and full of the spirit of the impossible!

Comics wise, the most interesting thing I read was Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. This was a library book, another massive glossy tome that I would find disturbing having to pay for myself. I’d recommend it, though, as it’s a fantastic book, far more interesting than Automate This! Every town has these corners and curiosities in its histories, and Talbot presents Sunderland in the context of a dizzying parade of links to Alice in Wonderland and Charles Dodgson. It’s a bit like a cross between that old James Burke TV show Connections and a Jonathan Meades TV documentary.

When I got back from NZ, I also picked up a couple of Marvel Essential volumes at the cheap bookshop – Marvel Super Hero Team Up vol X and The Punisher vol 4. The former offered decent Spidey-based thrills although suffers as all these do from the necessity to include more or less random B and C listers as a sales boost. The Punisher isn’t a character I’ve ever really got into, but this was really good. It was early 80s era, with a great script by Mike Baron. It was surprisingly brutal, too, very much like the 80s vigilante movies and TV shows that no doubt inspired it.

After reading Cadwal furiously morning, noon and night, I’ve returned to my former routine of books on the train and comics before bed. I’ve got a nice pile of comics scrounged from those cheap bookshops and I’m due a visit to the Deptford Lounge again soon. I’m not missing pamphlets, yet!

I also read a few Secret Avengers compilations by Jonathan Hickman, and his run on Fantastic Four/Future Foundation, filling in my collection of pamphlets with collections. I had half thought at the time that I would write about that now, A few years ago I wrote a pretty food review (I think!) of the first few volumes of Marvel EssentialFantastic Four, and so I thought it would be interesting to look at the current incarnation of the series. But I didn’t keep any notes and I don’t think I had anything profound to say about it anyway except that it’s pretty good version of the team, although maybe it doesn’t have that revelatory feeling of the originals.

I read a few other books, too, notably two translation which is unusual for me, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov and The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers. These were okay, but didn’t really fit in with what I’ve had to say today, so they are neglected. Remember, you can follow me on goodreads, where I at least rate everything I read and sometimes comment, too. In fact, why not be my goodreads friend?

And I'm kidding about never going back to New Zealand, by the way, assuming I can ever afford it again.

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