I’ve had a run of bad luck with books recently, a long string of flingings on the floor, duds that drove me again and again to (for example) Terry Pratchett and Barbara Pym to remind myself of what good writing was like. Here are some of the failures, the Xth in an occasional series.
Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth
This was bought because the title novella and several of the others in this collection won major Chinese science fiction prizes, and the cover was gorgeous. The premise was also fascinating: if the Earth needs to escape an imminently exploding Sun (imminent in Sun time, not human time) what do humans do? (I read a review recently of Stephen Baxter’s World Engines that seems to have the same plot. Coincidence?)
However, while the author’s scientific imagination is wild and poetic, his imaginative extrapolation of how humans will respond to the extreme physical and geological pressures he puts in place is irritatingly lacking. So is his complete indifference to any kind of economic thinking: how can wine, guns and even food be produced in such a radically terraformed environment? Regular readers of this column will not be surprised that I am similarly cheesed off about his treatment of women characters, which are straight out of James Blish and the 1950s. From the poster the film version looks amazing, so I’d like to see that regardless. The novellas are interesting for a Communist Chinese perspective on how people will behave individually and in relation to a governing authority, but the forward planning of their societies is shoddy.
Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
I bought this life of the twelfth-century military leader and royal counsellor William Marshal by accident because it was in a charity book sale wrapped to disguise its title and author, with only key words to guide one’s choice. I was quite happy with the book when it was unwrapped, as I once read a rather good historical novel about William Marshal when I was a teenager, and I think he appears in a Brother Cadfael novel too. While the story of Marshal’s life comes from one of the first non-royal Englishman’s biographies written by his contemporaries (the story of its rediscovery by a French historian is thrilling) this is a pretty dull book. I should have been made interested in the western European politics of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I really wasn’t.
Susan Ertz, Woman Alive
Simon Thomas alerted me to this 1935 novel’s existence, and of the author, as I’m looking for science fiction written by British women between 1930 and 1960. I scurried to the British Library to read its copy, and wow, the ART. The design and illustrations are astonishing, pure 1930s Art Deco, with more than a nod to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, so it was a such a shame that the novel is a pedestrian story of the future in 1985, written in the same way that most future fiction had been being written since the late Victorian period. The male narrator is projected into the future (in this case Ertz borrows shamelessly from John Buchan’s novel The Gap in the Curtain from three years earlier) to discover a world in which women have all been killed off, except for one, and she becomes the human race’s new hope, with a very predictable white wedding at the end. I’ve read this plot so many times already while researching early 20thC science fiction, and it is so annoying that Ertz could not exercise just a little bit more imagination.
Mary Renault, The Charioteer
I bought this for my daughter at her request some birthdays ago, and then had my turn to read it when she cleared out her bookcases. I tried hard, because I love Renault’s historical fiction, but I could not make headway with this one. It’s set in the Second World War, and positively throbs with a beautiful young man’s suppressed passion for other young men whom he encounters in his life from boyhood onwards. I was annoyed by the premise Renault sets up that a boy brought up by a single mother will of course become homosexual, just as I was annoyed by her depiction of the father who left: there were a lot of domestic politics there that seem unresolved, and which direct the course of the young man’s life in a needlessly prescriptive way. Anyway, the throbbing became too distracting so I closed the book quietly and left them to it. This was not a novel for me.
Kate Wilhelm, Juniper Time
I do like Kate Wilhelm, and most of this novel of a future environmental catastrophe is very good indeed, with evocative settings, a powerfully realised societal breakdown and memorable characters who live and breathe normally. The central sf premise may possibly have been borrowed recently by Ted Chiang, or at least leaned on by him. But the first half is marred by a brutal gang rape that is – narratively speaking – unnecessary, since the character concerned has already got all the incentive they need to escape from that environment. It’s also a gutpunch to read. I could well be wrong about my response to this, but that episode made me lose interest in the rest of the novel, which was sad. It’s so good, except for the black hole of destructive violence at its heart.
Jeannette Ng, Under a Pendulum Sky
I bought this at FantasyCon, and it was signed for me by the author (rather fulsomely, I thought, as I’d never met her before), and I could not find it worth finishing. It’s overwritten, the dialogue and vocabulary are needlessly anachronistic for a steampunkish Victorian setting, and the plot faffs around for far too long before moving the wimp of a protagonist into the place where she can finally progress towards the fulfilment of her quest. I liked the colonial and racial elements very much, but the rest felt like too much tinsel and frilly pointless trimming on what might have otherwise been an original and rewarding read.
See also: Three Small Duds, Seven Duds for Seven Dustbins, Sorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t Started, Do Not Read These At Home, It’s Not You, It’s Me: More Reading Disappointments, and Three Disappointments for the Dud Pile.