Anders Monsen

Lost worlds and ports of call

Amazon to adapt Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels

The big news today is that Amazon announced it’s bought the rights to Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel. I’m still surprised (no, not really) that Banks never won a Hugo Award for any of his Culture novels, as they are pure SF through and through. The novel will be turned into a series, and likely if successful will spawn adaptations of other novels. Alas, Feersum Endjinn isn’t a Culture novel, but still one of my favorite Banks books, as well as the non-M mainstream novel, Whit.

Slowdive’s album Slowdive

I’ve long considered’s British band Slowdive’s 1993 album Souvlaki one of the best sounds of the 1990s, with Dagger, 40 Days, Allison, Machine Gun, and When the Sun Hits five memorable tracks with a unique sound. Yet the British music press can be brutal, raising up bands one moment only to tear them down the next. The arrival of Britpop and grunge in the mid-90s doomed Slowdive, while the press fawned over bands like Blur, Oasis and Nirvana.

In 2017 Oasis is long gone, while the Gallagher brothers attempt daily to top each other in their silly feud. Nirvana is long gone, for more tragic reasons. Grunge and Britpop are relics of the past, while Slowdive is back and stronger than ever with a new studio album, 22 years after their last one, Pygmalion, released in 1995. Between Souvlaki and Pygmalion, Slowdive took an ambient turn, and while Blue Skied An’ Clear is almost a holy experience, the rest don’t measure up (at least in my opinion) to the balanced strength of Souvlaki.

After the hatred from the British music press and fading sales lost Slowdive their record contract with Creation Records, some of the members reformed as Mojave Three. However, while pleasant-sounding, it felt like their music lost of the its soul, a soul formed through a synergy among the five core members of the band. I was surprised to hear around 2014 that these five individuals started to play a few live gigs, and then excited to hear they were back in the studio to record another record. What would it sound like? Would it be along the muted ambient tones of Pygmalion, or classic pedal-driven Souvlaki, or something different altogether?

Released in May of 2017, their self-titled album, Slowdive, contains only eight songs:

  • Slomo
  • Star Roving
  • Don’t Know Why
  • Sugar for the Pill
  • Everyone Knows
  • No Longer Making Time
  • Go Get It
  • Falling Ashes

The first song I heard was Star Roving, released prior to the album. Far peppier than anything on Pygmalion, it seemed to call back to earlier days, with all five members of the band involved.

For a long time I thought No Longer Making Time was the best song on the album, but the more I listened the more I have decided that Slomo ranks as one of the best songs in many years, from any band. The bass hook, followed by Neil Halstead’s terrific guitar, the mix of vocals, and the overall feel of the song is undeniable. Sugar for the Pill might be second, then No Longer Making Time and Star Roving. For Pygmalion fans the last two songs harken back to that album.

Here is their Pitchfork session:

And their recent live performance on KEXP:

Finally, I’m beyond thrilled that I have tickets to see them live in April in Austin, along with a second generation fan. Sugar for the Pill is one of my 11-year-old son’s favorite songs. And he plays guitar.

Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios

There are some novels that seem anchored in a specific place or time, or sometimes both. That doesn’t mean they are bad, but they exist like flies in amber—stuck in place. Then there are books that span ages. Eric Ambler’s outstanding novel, published in the US as A Coffin for Dimitrios and in the UK under the more sinister title, The Mask of Dimitrios, is set in the 1920s, and 1930s in Europe, but feels as current as today.

From Constantinople to Smyrna, from Sofia to Geneva, and finally Paris, Ambler weaves a tight tale of detection by a deceive writer tracing the path of a wily criminal. There is no motive other than curiosity here, yet Latimer, the protagonist, places himself in difficult and often dangerous situations, a strange affair for someone used to sitting behind a desk writing stories, not living them.

The criminal whose paths he traces built a life upon exploration, from fellow criminals to prostitutes to drug users and dealers. He worked himself up form the very bottom toward a place of potential respectability, something that seems true to life as well as multiple works of fiction, where the past of people in power often contains many skeletons.

Although written at the cusp of WWII, this novel could just as well have taken place during almost any decade in the past two hundred years, with wars, smuggling of people and drugs, and criminals quick to murder and betray. The prose is superb, the plot never wavers, and the ending both tragic and amusing.

More Wodehouse

Since my last foray into the world of Wooster and Jeeves I’ve found a few more stacks of Wodehouse books, increasing my library by nearly a dozen books. While not ideally suited to binge reading, I’ve read a couple more Wooster books, and a pair featuring the tales by a certain Mr. Mulliner, as related to a rapt audience in a local pub. (The fact that my compute attempts to auto-correct the name to Milliner is a sad testament to computer illiteracy.)

The two Mulliner books that I’ve read so far are both collections of short stories, each a tale of some hapless nephew, or cousin, or other relative of Mr. Mulliner’s. Nearly each story tells of a young(-ish) lad falling in love, his travails and eventual triumph. The stories are islands in time, so ideally suited for PBS costume dramas set in England between the wars, although likely some were written after WWII. They tell of a time when young men were gentlemen, often of leisure, with butlers and other people to take care of vital needs. Back then people belonged to various clubs, Great Britain still had traditions, and public school chums were chums for life. Some of the characters that appear in the Wooster and Jeeves books appear in these stories, so they exist in the same fictional universe.

Some of those things are obvious inventions, but I found it jarring to read a throw-away line about a tuck-shop, since that’s the term we used for such a place back when I went to school in Lusaka, Zambia, in the 1970s and 1980s. Some British traditions and nomenclature spans decades. This fact sounds trivial, but the reach of the British Empire stretched far across the world in untold ways. Does the tuck-shop still exist in places today?

While not every Mulliner story amuses on the same scale, and they tend to follow for the most part a certain formula, the ones that are good are dashed good, in Wodehousian terms. They’re maybe not Jeeves and Wooster good, but the best ones rise almost to that level.

The lackadaisical collector

Twenty or so years ago I bought my first Fritz Leiber book. It might have been The Swords of Lankhmar or one of the other books in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. Back in the late 1980s, early 1990s you could still find the old Ace paperbacks in good condition in used book stores. If you were lucky.

At any rate, I bought The Knight and Knave of Swords in hardcover in 1988 or 1989, since this was the first publication date, and picked up The Leiber Chronicles, the massive collection published by Dark Harvest, in the same year or shortly thereafter. I bought as many of Leiber’s fantasy books as I could find, especially the books set in and around Lankhmar with those two rogues. Yet one book eluded me – Swords Against Wizardry. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, or I rejected the beat-up copies I found whenever there was a Leiber book in the paperback section of the (mostly) local used book stores I visited over the years.

This weekend I found a decent copy of the missing book, merely by chance, twenty or so years after my first introduction to Leiber’s works. For the princely sum of $3, marked down from $5, with an extra 20% that weekend, I’ve now added this book to my collection, garish cover and all.

I find it somewhat amusing since Centipede Press has begun the process to reprint in nice, expensive editions the entire eight books in the series, and likely I will end up buying them over the next few years. At least I have a reading copy.

RIP Victor Milán

Victor Milán died on February 13. I learned the news one day later, and found it nearly impossible to believe. I’d known Vic for nearly two decades, mostly via email, though we met a few times in person in the mid-1990s when I attended some SF conventions. He wrote an article once for Prometheus back when I used to edit the newsletter, and we discussed books and other subjects when we corresponded. We were both huge fans of Lack Vance, a topic that came up several times. He was alway writing, and publishing great books, all entertaining stories across many genres. I’ve read only a fraction of his books, mainly ones that were published under his own name, not his many pseudonyms. Looking at my stack of his books I’m surprised to find that I own only ten, even though in all he wrote close to 100 novels.
A few years ago he became quite ill, but recovered and kept writing. He recently finished an acclaimed trilogy about dinosaurs and humans, and wrote short stories for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards anthology. Having mostly left the major social media platform out there a few months ago, I had no idea that he became ill once again in mid-December 2017, or that he was in the hospital. The news that he died struck me particularly hard.
The first book of his that I read was Cybernetic Samurai, back in 1987. I still have the UK paperback edition. The pages have yellowed slightly, the print seems small by today’s standards. When I moved to the US from Norway in 1988 I found a hardback copy of the US edition, which he later inscribed to me, “Thanks for your friendship and support,” at one of those conventions. I bought the sequel, Cybernetic Shogun, as soon as it was published. Every time I saw a Victor Milán new book I bought a copy, from Runespear; CLD; even his Star Trek novel, From the Depths; Red Sands; and a couple of the Wild Cards anthologies. I treasure the New Mexico writers anthology, A Very Large Array, published in 1987 and containing many of the luminaries of SF, such as Jack Williamson, George R. R. Martin, Roger Zalazny, Fred Saberhagen, and, of course, Victor Milán.
A giant in the field of libertarian SF is gone. More importantly, I have lost a friend, and I’m still processing this loss.

Altered Carbon – episode one

Cyberpunk is so 1990s. And yet, here is Netflix in 2018, throwing millions left and right at virtually any project. Some are successful, and change the cultural landscape, like Stranger Things. Some I enjoy, like the various Marvel comic books adaptions such as Luke Cage, Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones. Others are strange, like the oft-cliched western, Godless. Then there’s the SF series, Altered Carbon. Based on a cyberpunk novel from almost two decades ago, this 10-episode series is one of the more recent Netflix “original” series, debuting on February 2nd, 2018.

I’ve watched the first episode, and so far I see nothing special. Although I’ve not read the novel upon which it’s based, so far it feels like I’m watching a slightly inverted take on Blade Runner. Rather than a cop as the central character, we have a criminal, a terrorist. Frozen for 250 years (!) after being killed, this person is decanted into another body. Supposedly the state in the 24th century keeps spare bodies around, depositing the essence or souls into these bodies. No mention is made of why the spare bodies are so conveniently present. Did their essence die in the virtual world, leaving the shell behind?

What bad science fiction so often gets laughably wrong is time and technology. Time accelerates with progress, and the difference between the 22nd century and the 24th should be massive, but instead the people and place look almost indistinguishable from the present time, as if nothing happened in three centuries except a few advancements in computer interfaces. This silliness alone makes me hesitate to give the series an additional look beyond the first episode, and supposedly this is just the first season.

Why not create a series of science fiction based on Iain Banks’ Culture novels, instead of warmed over cyberpunk that look like it ripped off Blade Runner?

The Earnest Writer

Just over 20 years ago, on August 3rd 1997, the writer P. D. James began a one-year project, intending to keep a diary of her activities for 365 days. The complete title is Time to Be In Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography. Although herself a fan of reading diaries, she admitted to never keeping her own diary. Somewhat reluctant to partipate in someone writing an authorized biography, her short memoir is a begrudging nod in that direction, claiming for herself the right to write about her personal thoughts and histories. She includes personal information in brief snippets along with daily activities, so this may be the closest we get to learning about her life, aside from any unauthorized biographies. James doesn’t follow a rigorous schedule (a fact which she remarks upon at the end of the book), and there are almost as many gaps as there are entries.

The writing of this diary coincides with the publication of her then latest novel, A Certain Justice. During the year that followed its publication she embarked on multiple book tours, including one to Canada and one to the US. She also signed books at bookstores in the UK, including bulk signings for stock of 1,000 and 750 copies. On my bookshelf sits a signed first edition of A Certain Justice. Although it’s the US edition, the inlaid letter addressed “Dear Bookseller, please enjoy these signed copies…” implies James carried out stock signings in the US as well, which seems remarkable generous on her part.

In 1997 P. D. James owned a house in London, another house on the Atlantic coast in East Anglia, and an apartment in Oxford. She flitted between these three locales as well as many other places, a dizzying schedule for a full-time writer. As she’s not a driver, James relies on trains, busses, taxis, and friends to drive to engagements. This allows her to be a constant observer. Twice while on trains she complains (gently, it seems) about the noise from people on their mobile phones or audio devices. Imagine were she to take the train today, where smart phones are everywhere, and not just the nascent audio and texting devices of the late 1990s. On both occasions she wishes for a quiet compartment, which I found amusing when taking the train from London to Reading and Cardiff this summer. On those trains there was a quiet compartment, so obviously James was ahead of her time. Not just relying on public transport, she also walks along the streets of London. Her home, on Holland ParkAvenue just west of Kensington Palace and Hyde Park, means she often travels through Kensington Gardens on her way into central London.

I found it almost jarring when she mentions the Princess of Wales early in the book, wondering on the 17th of August why the public really cares about the antics of Diana and her lover. Only a few days later, on August 31, the Princess of Wales died in a car crash, spurring a waves of mourners depositing flowers outside Kensington Palace. I mention this, not because I particularly care about the British Royal family, but because 2017 is the 20th anniversary of this event, and it’s been in the news consistently over the past month. Reading James book for the first time, 20 years almost to the day she began her diary, the convergence of events is unsettling.

Throughout her entries James muses on her personal history as well as presents some thoughts on writing the detective novel. She elaborated on this in a dedicated book, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) though much of her thoughts on the genre maybe surfaced first in her diary. On the other hand, she’s probably had thoughts about the genre and its writers for many, many years.

Often we forget that writers live their lives just like any one else, but I found it amusing to read about her travails with surly bus-drivers as she took the Number 94 bus down Bayswater Road, or shopped at Marks and Spencer for weekly groceries, or even at John Lewis, the department store that seemingly has everything, to judge by the one in Reading I walked through in 2017. Alongside these quotidian events she talks about her role at the House of Lords or jetting to Grand Cayman to visit fellow author, Dick Francis, or to visit Oxford and Cambridge, or other places in the UK. Such a busy schedule, I wonder how she ever had time to work on her fiction. She kept busy well into her 90s, although in this book she mentioned taking on fewer and fewer engagementsas she aged. As an aside, since the event took place after the publication of this book, she opened the crime section at Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross, a store I visited this past summer. It’s strange to think of James’s echoes haunting the very location where I stood and looked at her books.

This is a slim book, and as mentioned not every day of her so-called diary receives an entry. Still, James is a goddess in the field of British crime fiction, and anyone who reads her books will gain insight into the mind behind Inspector Adam Dalgliesh from these pages. Maybe one day we’ll get an authorized biography, even though P. D. James is now dead, and delve more into her mind and life, but for now this small book is a charming wonder and great way to remember her life.

Vinyl Devolution

Last weekend I took my kids to a record store. This is one of those rare dinosaurs that sells actual records, the waxy vinyl kind. My daughter had wanted a record player for Christmas, along with a few records. These are records by modern artists, some of them born after vinyl supposedly died and CDs took over, only to be superseded by digital tracks and now streaming. I own a few vinyl items, most of them bought over 30 years ago, and all transported across the Atlantic when  moved from Norway to the US. I think some of them might even have been bought in Paris back in 1985 while on a school trip. They all remain in pristine condition.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been in a record store in the intervening years. There was Tower Records during college in the 1990s, though I think by then they had converted to CDs, and so the “records” in the name of the store really was misleading. Anyway, Tower Records failed a few years ago, brought down by the digital revolution. The other music stores I frequented are either gone (CD Exchange in Austin, Borders – also in Austin – a CD store in San Antonio that lasted one or two years before it folded), or are getting rid of physical music.

Now, it seems, vinyl is on the rebound. Is this a temporary fad, brought about by a spasm of nostalgia in the cultural mode? Or, will it last and see a resurgence beyond a handful of vintage locations? While vinyl remains a small percentage of the overall music purchases, it carries on, and we may even see the return of record stores in the US. In fact, that may be the only record store I’d visited in the States, and it wasn’t even a record store. I did end up with some vinyl a few years ago, when I supported a Kickstarter for the band, Stripmall Architecture, and ended up with a white vinyl copy of their record. I also have a 7″ single from the tribute album to The Smiths, but that’s about it in the last 30 years.

This record store, however, is not recent. It’s been around a few decades. I’d read about it, but in the nearly two decades I’ve lived in this town have never visited. Since my daughter expressed an interest in records, I thought to myself, why not, and so dragged them over there Saturday afternoon. It’s only a 12-minute drive, though made longer by a slow-moving postal truck that trundled along a road until finally turning into the nearby post office. The outside is inconspicuous; no one would know it was a record store. A few cars stood parked outside the building, so obviously some business was being transacted inside. People still were buying records!

Inside, a handful of people – all males – stood in front of displays of various albums. The lighting was harsh, and I got the strange impression this was one of those old-time adult book stores, but instead of certain magazines the people here perused album covers. My two kids were quite confused by the layout. Knowing my daughter’s interest might prompt her to find some records, I asked her which bands she liked, and pointed her in the right direction. The other child stayed close to me, not sure how to find anything. The records themselves were packed tightly into the bins, making it almost impossible to flip through them to read the artist and title. Space in this store was at a premium, but surely they could make it looser between the albums?

Since I wasn’t there not just on my behalf I browsed quickly, in case boredom struck and caused mutiny among the younger generation. I ended up picking out two albums – the new one by The National, in a limited “blue vinyl” release, and one by Midlake, called Antiphon. Being somewhat used to digital album prices it shocked me to pay more than twice and almost three times the cost of a digital album for something so seemingly fragile. But, like an over-priced souvenir I considered it palatable for the moment. Walking out with my two LPs and my daughters two LPs I was impressed by the weight of so much vinyl. It just seemed solid, far more so than CDs.

These days vinyl comes with coupons for digital downloads. I went for The National download first, and after entering my code in the record store web site was presented with two options: flac and mp3. I had never heard of flac, but a quick search indicated compression was better than mp3 in the sense it was lossless, and I picked flac. However, I then learned that iTunes doesn’t play flac, so I had to sheepishly return to the website and download the mp3 files. I’m not sure what to do with my flac files, at least not yet.

Next, I turned to Antiphon, by Midlake. Whereas the other album was released in 2017, Antiphon came out in 2013. Five years in the digital-vinyl age is a vast chasm of time. When I plugged in the code on the website for www.atorecords.com, I was informed that the files no longer exist in that folder, and please fill out this form. I duly filled out the form, included my email address, and by now feel quite duped, in the sense that not a single soul behind that web site will ever read my email, or if they read it, will respond with an alternate option. These days if you don’t redeem your coupon swiftly enough the digital files simply disappear into the ether, or cloud, or whatever.

I think if I buy another vinyl record it will be only for recently released records, so that I may enjoy the music on the turntable as well on the road, plugged into my fragile and soon to be obsolete musical delivery device. Also, if I keep buying more vinyl I will need to upgrade my record player. It’s seen better days, a relic of a bygone age.

Six-Four review

Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, Six-Four, is his first to be published in English, appearing in early 2017 under the imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and weighing in at 566 pages. My knowledge of Japanese detective fiction is admittedly limited. Aside from having read all of Haruki Murakami’s books, the only other Japanese book I’d read before Yokoyama’s novel was Natsuo Kiruno’s Real World, another crime novel.
The title of the novel, Six-Four, is evocative and multi-layered. Its meaning refers to the 64th year of the Showa period, the last year of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. Hirohito died in January 1989 and a new Emperor ascended the throne, starting the Heisei period. The novel takes place fourteen years after 1989, with Six-Four now the unofficial name of an unsolved kidnapping and murder case that forms the background of the novel.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a former homicide detective recently appointed as press director, finds himself fighting many battles. His teenage daughter has run away from home. His relationship with his wife, Minako, herself a former police officer, is crumbling under the stress of their daughter’s disappearance. Meanwhile, he is assigned from homicide to become the director of the press relations group, and feels veru much like a fish out of water.

Mikami is new in his role, still finding his feet when balancing police needs to keep certain details from the the public while still satisfying a hostile press corps who question that very need for secrecy. Almost from the outside he finds himself at odds with the press contingent that covers crime and the police, when he withholds the name of a person involved in a fatal car accident. The fact that this person is connected to a government official makes his position more delicate. To the press that news would become a leading story, no matter any extenuating circumstances. The small but loyal police press department consists of two young male assistants (one of whom likely envisions himself one day in the job of press director himself), and a young female officer busted moved over from the transportation division. Mikami places himself almost in a fatherly role with the young Mikumo, limiting her contact with the devious and salacious members of the press, who frequent karaoke bars with the police outside work in a two-way street in terms of information and disinformation efforts.

As if dealing with the press and disappearance of his daughter wasn’t enough, Mikami also finds himself fighting internal political battles inside the police department. The press division isn’t the greatest of tasks, and supervisors and other divisions appear to be plotting against Mikami in various internal battles, jockeying for future appointments within the precinct and greater Tokyo police force infrastructure. A former classmate seems to be behind many of the plots, at least as envisioned by Mikami. This person, Ishii, hovers in the background, runs unofficial investigations of past cases. One such past case, Six-Four, becomes yet again a present case, as a high-ranking inspector from Tokyo plans a visit to pay his respects to the dead girl’s father, Yoshio Amamiya, who has suffered in silence for many years, and lost his wife one year ago, compounding his pain.

To facilitate the meeting between Amamiya and the police contingent, Mikami is sent to pave the way, both in his role as press director and as a detective from criminal investigations who worked the case, which remains unsolved to this day and weighs heavy on Mikami. The initial meeting doesn’t go well, and Mikami emerges with the feeling that he has failed his role, a feeling compounded during a meeting with his superiors. In that meeting the seeds are sown in his mind about internal plots within the department, various groups working at odds with each other, and maybe at the root is the failure of the Six-Four case fourteen years ago.

Events accelerate when a copy-cat crime takes place, with another young girl kidnapped and the exact same process as in the previous crime repeats itself. Finding himself at the center of various threads, from a rebellious and antagonistic press to imperious commanders and police chiefs seemingly plotting against him, Mikami sees the new case as a way to atone for past wrongs, and dives into his own investigations.

Although some of the plot points seems byzantine and contrived, Yokoyama’s massive novel became impossible to put down once the various plots had settled into their individual paths. The language is sparse, economical. As a reader I felt almost one with the protagonist, felt his paranoia and anguish, and wondered how the various elements would come together. Not everything is tied neatly at the end, and some mysteries remain, but Six-Four is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Admittedly it felt slow to start, and the dispute with the press somewhat contrived, but the characters come to life in the pages. I should also note that the book was made into a two-part movie. I’m not sure if this was for the big screen or television, as I watched it this summer on an intercontinental flight between the UK and US. The movie remained relatively faithful to the book, something probably difficult for a book of that length and complexity.

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