July 20th, 2013

western sahara

July Books 7) Desert, by J.M.G. Le Clézio

Ils sont apparus, comme dans un rêve, au sommet de la dune, à demi cachés par la brume de sable que leurs pieds soulevaient.
They appeared as if in a dream at the top of the dune, half-hidden in the cloud of sand rising from their steps.
When Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back, I was fascinated to discover that he had written a book set partly in the Western Sahara, which is indeed where his story starts and ends, following an uprising of then indigenous people against the Europeans of 1910-11, told from the viewpoint of a young boy close to but not in the events. But more than half of the book, interwoven with the sections set earlier, is the story of Lalla, set perhaps in the early 1950s, following her from a shanty-town near the coast, with her unspeaking herdsman lover, to Marseilles and back. It is Marseilles that turns out to be the real human desert, full of alienation for Lalla; Nour's desert is a vibrant human space, full of physical and cultural significance. It would be interesting to read some critiques of this from sources nearer the region, but I very much enjoyed Le Clézio's turning round the questions of who is alien, what is normal, where is the real desert.
tardis

July Books 8) The Also People, by Ben Aaronovitch

One bright morning the citizens of me!Xu!xi-si!cisisa had got out of bed to find that their entire city was suddenly in the middle of a lake the size of Arizona. Which was why Bernice and saRa!qava had to catch a hydrofoil from a terminus on the lake shore.
This New Adventure is an obvious tribute to Iain M. Banks: the People of the title are very similar to the Culture, a post-scarcity interstellar society with intelligent drone robots and spaceships. Banks himself had mixed feelings about the show. In 2008 he wrote that "some of the Doctor Who episodes over the last few years have been amongst the best SF ever to appear on TV or film and may well prove much more influential than anything I've ever written", but by the time of his last interview he had "fallen out of love" with it. Banks fans who are at least vaguely acquainted with Who will enjoy Aaronovitch's adaptation of the Culture to the Whoniverse; for Who fans, who are of course the primary audience, it's one more well-realised alien culture, with a bit more depth to it than is the norm.

Apart from the audacity of the setting, it's quite a good story. The Doctor and friends (two of his current companions being their time's equivalent of police officers) are asked to investigate the mysterious murder of a drone, and work through the suspects despite various distractions. Roz in particular gets some very good character development time, which she hadn't really had much in her previous five books. I was less happy about the sub-plot involving the Brigadier's descendant Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart and Bernice; the Seventh Doctor as manipulator doesn't always work for me. But it's a small element of an enjoyable whole.
earthsea

July Books 9) Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo

Ma mi colse allora un'altra piccola malattia da cui non dovevo più guarire. Una cosa da niente; la paura d'invecchiare e sopra tutto la paura di morire.
At that time I was attacked by a slight illness from which I was never to recover. It was a mere trifle; the fear of growing old, and above all the fear of death.
This is supposedly one of the great twentieth century novels, the tale of Trieste businessman Zeno Cosini, his smoking, his father, his wife and mistress, and his largely unsuccessful business dealings. James Joyce, who had taught the author English in Trieste, boosted it and it's pretty clear that Zeno Cosini is a very close ancestor of Leopold Bloom's and that the novel is consciously placed in the wider Proust / Woolf / Joyce tradition.

It's not really as good, though. Zeno is difficult to like or sympathise with; he is the author of his own misfortunes, but not in a terribly interesting or engaging way. The stories are presented as if published by his psychiatrist, who warns that they are full of lies; but if so, we never really find out what the lies are, which I find a weakness. However the detailed depiction of Trieste in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, brick by brick, is very good and again is something Joyce drew on later. Recommended for fans of early twentieth century literature.
buzz

2013 Hugos: Best Professional Artist

The deadline is drawing nearer, and it's time to quickly look through the Hugo nominees in a couple of the other categories. I was struck by how many of the Best Professional Artist pictures were sketches just of sultry individuals looking sultry; then the question is, how much circumstantial detail can be fitted in to make this image more memorable than that? It is very much a matter of individual taste and mood. I feel pretty sure of my first and fifth rankings, but the middle three placings are much more difficult because I found them so similar to each other.

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There you are: my carefully considered judgement. Or something.

See also: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

1915

July Books 10) The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

It was the spring of 1868 and rain soaked the soil. Blue winter tulips in my garden began to rot. I was thirty-four years old. My nights were filled with the sound of crickets. The smell of incense fluttered over from the Palace Temple, where the senior concubines lived.
This is a historical novel framed as the autobiography of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi (normally transcribed as Cixi these days; she'd have written it 慈禧) from her consolidation of power in 1863 to her death in 1908. I knew almost nothing of Chinese history in this period (or indeed any); I had encountered Tzu-hsi previously in Flashman and the Dragon, where the hero (inevitably) conducts a love affair with her in 1860, before this book is set. I found the historical detail fascinating but, alas, some of the most dramatic incidents turn out to have been invented (or at least elaborated) by the author; I was impressed by the sense of a woman trying to prevent the disintegration of her regime against the twin threats of a series of weak emperors and external pressure from the Europeans and Americans. There are also some lovely descriptive set-pieces. Unfortunately it didn't really grab me emotionally, and towards the end got a bit rushed - I was simply confused by the account of the Boxer Rebellion. Also I had not realised that this is the sequel to Empress Orchid which describes her rise to power; I will look out for it - struggle to get to the top is generally a more interesting read than struggle to stay at the top!