Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Nova Swing by M John Harrison

cover of Nova Swing by M John HarrisonAward-winning SF noir novel from 2006, the resolution (or lack thereof) perhaps unworthy of the set-up, but worth reading if it’s one of your sub-genres of choice.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide, leading wealthy tourists to the unstable edges of Saudade, where reality isn’t as real as it could be and no-one knows what you might find. In between clients he hangs out at Liv Hula’s bar with Fat Antoyne, who only wants a chance to fit in. Together they watch the cats stream past twice a day, and the ships taking off and landing in the city, largely minding their own business. Sure, Vic smuggles the odd artefact out of the event site for collectors and the mildly eccentric Detective Aschemann keeps half an eye on him, but it’s not such a big deal. Until it is, and Vic really finds out who his friends aren’t.

With any kind of noir it’s the details that make it, and when you’re weaving some sci-fi world-building in, doubly so. The details in Nova Swing really make it work. There’s a musical theme which I liked, as well (playing it, listening to it, watching performers in bars).

Nova Swing is described as the sequel to Harrison’s earlier novel Light, which I haven’t read but I understand it to be set in the same place with completely different main characters. I didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in my understanding as a consequence, it just felt like I’d been dropped into a complete world where life went on before I started observing the place, and will continue (after a fashion) after I’ve gone. That should be the case with any well-written fiction, anyway.

I didn’t feel completely satisfied by the time I closed the back cover, one too many loose ends perhaps. Nevertheless I’d enjoyed my time in Saudade and I was left with a dreamy feeling of enlightenment being just beyond the grasp of my sluggish brain. If you don’t mind having some questions remain unanswered as long as you’ve absorbed the atmosphere of the place during the investigation, then this might be just the SF noir for you.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.

Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Finch is at least a couple of books in one. It’s a detective thriller in the noir tradition. It’s a novel of resistance and rebellion in occupied territory. It’s other-world urban fantasy. Whichever one of those attracts you, read it.

John Finch is a detective in Ambergris, a city-state that’s featured in a couple of Jeff VanderMeer’s previous books (which I haven’t read). It’s a city occupied by the oppressive grey-caps, a race of something like walking mushrooms who took over the city a few years earlier. The essential otherness of all the non-human characters was conveyed well, and the organic technology and all-pervasive fungal growths were vividly imagined and described.

The novel opens with Finch being called in to investigate a murder he’s not sure is a murder; he does get the feeling that if he gets it wrong (in the eyes of his grey-cap boss) then that will be the end of the road for Finch, so a lot is resting on this case. The detectives are toyed with by their fungal superiors, fed parts of the picture and left to flounder. Finch clearly has a Past, which we are allowed to glimpse gradually as we are let into the backstory of this city – civil war, long years of building aggression, spies and double-crosses, shifting temporary alliances. Betrayal.

As well as being a gripping adventure (a bit bloody in places but nothing gratuitous) this is a poignant and moving novel about friendship, trust and allegiance. What (or who) do you hold onto when everything else is lost? The souvenirs from a dead past that allow you to hold on to the last of your sanity.

Passivity personified

Here’s a tip if you’re a disorganised writer, prone to procrastination: don’t join a well-stocked DVD library. Or if you do, swiftly admit your mistake and disengage as soon as possible. I’ve been having a grand time recently, watching films I hadn’t seen for years, or had meant to watch when they were released, or had never heard of. A fair few were based on books, like Elling, LA Confidential, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Elling was every bit as special and amazing a film on the second watch; it’s based on the third book of a quartet as far as I remember, the only one available in English rather than the original Norwegian but I’m holding out for the first book being translated. I did try learning Norwegian, but being able to describe OneMonkey’s appearance or ask for breakfast is a far cry from picking up a literary nuance. LA Confidential put me in the mood for some hard-boiled detection (more of which shortly), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil felt wonderfully slow, atmospheric and literary (probably won’t read the book though, without John Cusack and Kevin Spacey I’m not sure how much it would hold for me).

Feeling guilty for watching so many films, but still not stirred to write much, I read a couple of novels you’d definitely file under noir. The first I was wary about but delighted with, the second was disappointing but maybe only in comparison to the first.

Poodle Springs, by Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker: I don’t know how much of the manuscript Chandler had left but I couldn’t see any joins. I’ve never read any of Parker’s novels (I will now) but my dad, about as keen on Raymond Chandler as I am, had read this hybrid work when it came out (1990) and pronounced it OK. At first I thought Marlowe wasn’t acting the way you’d expect, then I realised that was almost entirely down to the circumstances (we first encounter our hero returning from his honeymoon to a small Californian town), and once I’d accepted that I was drawn in and dragged along to the end at a fast pace, forgetting it wasn’t Chandler through and through.

In the mood for more of the seamy side of California, I picked up Die a Little by Megan Abbott in the local library; it had a recommendation from James Ellroy (whose book was behind the film I’d just watched) on the cover, and another quote that said ‘the kind of book that should make devotees of Cain and Chandler fall down and beg for mercy’, which at the time I thought was intended positively but now I’m not so sure. Set in the 1950s but published in 2005 I wasn’t sure how well Abbott had caught the tone. Lora King is a strait-laced teacher from a small town, moved to LA with her brother Bill who becomes an investigator in the District Attorney’s office. Bill marries a girl with a shady background which might not be as strictly in the past as it seems and Lora, worried about her brother, sets out to investigate.

As a premise it sounded good, but part of what I mean by not catching the tone is that Lora seemed too modern in her grey areas: there was nothing to suggest she wasn’t every bit as innocent as you’d expect from her background, but the way she uncovered some things without apparently batting an eyelid didn’t sit right for me, and in the end she comes across as morally ambiguous with no real explanation. On the technical side, there was no sign of investigation until a good third of the way through, and there were a few loose threads (for instance Lora makes a note of the address when she sees someone she knows going into a house, then later sees an address and because it’s the same street she wonders if it’s the same house – surely she’d know, or be able to look at her note?) and a bit of a ‘look I’ve researched the 1950s’ info-dump (a half-page list of dinner party dishes Bill’s wife learns to make, plus the named kitchen gadgets she buys to assist). I did read the book all the way to the end so it can’t have been that bad, but it left me unsatisfied. Maybe if I hadn’t read it straight after such a good example of the genre my reaction would have been a bit more favourable.

I will mention the last film I watched, before I settle down to write: Bunny and the Bull, a recent British film which has some things in common with Elling I suppose, as far as the set-up goes (shy, neurotic man with a loud, sex-crazed best friend with questionable personal habits). Visually it’s very striking, lots of interesting animation styles and clever representations of a reclusive man’s shaky grasp on reality. Quite sad and touching in places, but also daft, funny and crude. Well worth missing a couple of hours’ writing time for.