- Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth, a very involving collection of short stories by the Chilean author whose work has enjoyed quite a resurgence in recent months. A recurring theme in these stories is exile – the characters are constantly on the move or unsure of their bearings – but this is handled much more abstractly than in the straightforward “diaspora fiction” narratives we are accustomed to. (These days, the very word "exile" on a book jacket can set off alarm bells for a jaded reviewer.) Bolaño's work seems set to approach magic realism at times, but it's much more subtle: best of all is the masterful title story about a father and son who go on a very strange, meandering “vacation” together. Some of the pieces also have to do with writers and the writing process, notably "A Literary Adventure", where a low-profile writer named B becomes obsessive about the work of another, much more famous author (A). The style here is very spare and poetic.
- Long overdue: Isaac Asimov’s classic “science-fiction mysteries” The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, featuring the Earthman Elijah Baley and his robot-partner R Daneel Olivaw investigating murders together. Part of my ongoing project to devour as much sci-fi writing from the 1940s and 1950s as possible. Unfashionable as he may be these days, I love Asimov's clarity of thought and the way he combines simple prose with far-reaching ideas. His autobiography I. Asimov, written as a series of random essays on various topics, is one of the great “open and start reading from anywhere” books.
- Rahila Gupta’s Enslaved, a powerful examination of modern-day slavery, told in the form of first-person accounts by five people who were trafficked or smuggled into the UK: they include a pregnant child from Sierra Leone, a young Punjabi lady forced into marriage and a Chinese man living in fear of the criminal corporations known as triads. Gupta tells their stories very lucidly and intersperses the narratives with italicized passages that explain background, provide context and examine legal complexities in the immigration process (many of which worsen the predicament of the victimised "slaves"). A real eye-opener to the subtle forms that human exploitation can take in a highly developed country. I wasn't a fan (to say the least) of the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Provoked, which was co-written by Gupta, but this book is excellent.
- John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos: Wyndham’s sci-fi novels (which he himself preferred to call “logical fantasy”) have recently been reissued by Penguin with attractive new covers. The Midwich Cuckoos, about a group of sinister, frighteningly precocious children slowly assuming control over a quiet English village, was the inspiration for the 1960 film Village of the Damned. A little verbose at times but overall this is very good paranoia fiction, the full implications of which only gradually sneak up on the viewer. I hope to move on to Wyndham's other work soon, especially The Day of the Triffids (also filmed in the 1960s) and The Kraken Wakes. (More on the reissued novels here.)
- The Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a collection of outstanding short stories by such authors as Clifford Simak, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Tiptree Jr, J G Ballard and many others. I want to write about this book at greater length sometime, so I’ll keep it quick for now: my favourite stories here include Walter M Miller’s “I Made You” (a frightening modern take on the Frankenstein story), Aldiss’ own “Poor Little Warrior!”, Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage” (with a closing line that gives us a succinct, cynical definition of what a "rational being" is) and especially Ted Chiang’s very beautiful “Story of Your Life”, in which a woman’s attempts to understand the language used by visiting aliens leads to her perceiving all the events of her life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms.
The anthology also includes John Steinbeck’s wicked “The Short-Short Story of Mankind”, a condensed history of our species. I'll close this post with these memorable lines that end the story:
Right from the cave times we’ve had to choose and so far we’ve never chosen extinction. It’d be kind of silly if we killed ourselves off after all this time. If we do, we’re stupider than the cave people and I don’t think we are. I think we’re just exactly as stupid and that’s pretty bright in the long run.