A YEAR IN BOOKS: JANUARY

Or, to be more accurate, a year in books, films, music, comics and anything else that takes my fancy.

The Houses of Iszm – Jack Vance
The Sword of Welleran – Lord Dunsany
Into the Land of Bones – Frank L. Holt

THE HOUSES OF ISZM by Jack Vance

Jack Vance is widely – and accurately – regarded as one of the finest writers of science fiction and fantasy of the 20th century. At a time when much SF remained content to stick closely to its pulp roots, both in terms of style and substance, Jack Vance was consistently doing his best to break the genre mould.

The Houses of Iszm is a short novel written relatively early on in Vance’s career (originally published in Startling Stories in 1954 and expanded for the Ace Double imprint in 1964) and is a colourful, fast-paced and vivid tale of interplanetary intrigue set on both the titular world of Iszm and, in its latter half, a future Earth.

Aile Farr, a botanist, travels to the alien world of Iszm to study the exotic plant life there – in particular the Houses grown by the Iszic people, organic dwellings that are by turns astonishingly beautiful and dangerous. They also hold the key to easing the misery of an overcrowded Earth, except for the fact that the natives of Iszm guard both the secrets and the seeds of their Houses with a fanatic and murderous determination.

What follows is partly imaginative travelogue, partly futurist heist as Farr finds himself unwittingly drawn into a plot to break the Iszmic monopoly and steal the seeds of a coveted House.

To say more would spoil the fun, but suffice to say no one really writes ’em like this anymore, a baroque space operetta that is hugely entertaining and beautifully written.

Vance would go on to refine his storytelling and prose – notably in works such as the award-winning Last Castle, The Dragon Masters and the sublime novella The Moon Moth – but The Houses of Iszm is a wonderful early example of his work.

THE SWORD OF WELLERAN AND OTHER STORIES by Lord Dunsany

Of course, when it comes to prose stylists there are few to rival Lord Dunsany. To call his writing jewelled is both to be accurate and, equally, do it a disservice.

Unique even in his day, Dunsany’s work continues to delight and frustrate more than a century later and his influence can still be felt via – albeit obliquely – via the followers of J.R.R Tolkein, Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft, all of whom admitted their debt to Dunsany and his startling imagination.

The Sword of Welleran is arguably the most Dunsanian of his short story collections, the contents ranging from prototypical heroic fantasy/ sword and sorcery (The Sword of Welleran, The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth) to meditations on loss and destruction (The Fall of Babbelkund) to elemental fable (The Whirlpool) and even gothic horror (The Ghosts).

What unites them is Dunsany’s world view – at once bright eyed and jaundiced, delighting in both the power and beauty of the written word and yet with a melancholy perspective on human nature.

The Sword of Welleran itself is a powerful anti-war fable in which a group of long-dead heroes are called back from Paradise to save the city of Merimna from destruction but in doing so unleash a wave of slaughter that calls into question the very nature of heroism.

Similarly, The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth with its central Quest Narrative (one which has served many fantasy writers over the years) manages to question the notion of ‘might makes right’ while serving up a slice of heroic fantasy that foreshadows birth of Sword and Sorcery.

For Dunsany, the real world and the worlds of his imagination were never too far apart, and in stories like The Kith of the Elf-Folk, the streets of London and the landscape of East Anglia exist shoulder-to-shoulder with the more fantastical lands that exist purely in Dunsany’s fertile mind.

In truth, Dunsany can be a difficult writer for some modern audiences to grasp – his stories are often more reliant on imagery than plot or character – but equally there is a rich reward waiting for readers willing to engage with him.

INTO THE LAND OF BONES: ALEXANDER THE GREAT IN AFGHANISTAN by Frank L. Holt

Written in 2005 at the beginning of the most recent conflict in Afghanistan, Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones attempts to draw parallels between Alexander the Great’s invasion of Bactria with the experiences in Afghanistan of British Imperial forces during the 19th century, the Soviet invasion of the late 20th century and the U.S led Coalition in the early 21st century.

At the time of writing, of course, the outcome of the 21st century conflict was still unclear, but Holt’s central ‘warning from history’ was and is a powerful one. In essence, as Alexander first discovered, the land of Bactria/ Afghanistan is relatively easy to take, all but impossible to hold.

In the two years he spent campaigning there, Alexander faced multiple enemies, shifting alliances, frequent betrayal and, subsequently, huge losses of manpower. Similarly, his attempt at an ‘Hellenistic’ Bactria was ultimately doomed to failure as the Macedonian/Greek colonies were absorbed by the surrounding land, physically, psychologically and culturally.

This is a short, dense, book which attempts – mostly successfully – to cover a lot of ground and to marry the contemporary with the historical.

Those seeking a more straightforward account of the Afghan campaign might be advised to seek it elsewhere in the many accounts of Alexander’s life and deeds, but as a treatise on the inevitability of history it is a fine example of the maxim ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’.

CURRENTLY READING

SCHISMATRIX PLUS by Bruce Sterling. Down and dirty science fiction from a cyberpunk godfather.

ONE SOLDIER’S WAR IN CHECHNYA by Arkady Babchenko. An often harrowing account of the Russian-Chechen conflict, the futility and horror of modern warfare from the perspective of a young Russian soldier.

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