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essential sf novels – the analysis

So there we go: 50 essential science fiction novels, as chosen by Jared Shurin (here and here), James Smythe (here and here) and myself (here and here). And, of course, there’s the original abebooks.com list.

Only three books appeared on all three lists: Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. None, you’ll note, were published as sf novels. Two are by women. Only the one by a man appeared on the abebooks.com list.

There were several books which appeared on two of the three lists: Flatland (Jared and James), The Time Machine (Jared and Ian), The Sword of Rhiannon (Jared and Ian), The Stars My Destination (James and Ian), Solaris (James and Ian), The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Jared and James), Neuromancer (Jared and James), Watchmen (Jared and James), Mindplayers (Jared and James), Red Mars (James and Ian), The Road (James and Ian) and Zoo City (Jared and James). I myself have read 23 of James’ 50, and 26 of Jared’s 50. There were several titles on both lists I’d not heard of, and I plan to pick up copies.

Across all three lists, there were 34 books out of 150 by women writers (including duplicate choices). We could – should – have done that better. There were nine books by non-Anglophone writers. So, a fail there too. Theme- and subgenre-wise, however, the choices were widespread, with everything from a Choose To Your Own Adventure to a bande dessinée.

Time-wise… both James and Jared liked the 1950s (both with 10 books), and the 1980s (9 for James, 12 for Jared). I preferred the 1970s (12 books) and the 1990s (also 12 books). Which is odd, as I think I’m oldest.  The 1980s was the most popular decade overall, with 28 books chosen by the three of us. Jared like the most 19th century novels (4), and James liked the most 21st century novels (11).

Finally, for the record, here’s the list which sparked off the ones put together by Jared, James and myself. I’ve done the meme thing to it – you know, bold if you’ve read it, italicise if it’s on the TBR. Also, * if it’s on my list, † if it’s on James’, and ‡ if it’s on Jared’s.

1 A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
2 The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
3 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
4 When Worlds Collide, Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933)
5 Odd John, Olaf Stapledon (1935)
6 Nineteen Eighty-Four†‡*, George Orwell (1949)
7 Earth Abides, George R Stewart (1949)
8 Foundation†, Isaac Asimov (1951)
9 The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury (1951)
10 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (1953)
11 Ring Around the Sun, Clifford D Simak (1953)
12 Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (1954)
13 The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
14 The Chrysalids†, John Wyndham (1955)
15 The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
16 Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein (1959)
17 The Sirens of Titan†, Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
18 Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank (1959)
19 A Canticle for Leibowitz†, Walter M Miller (1960)
20 Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
21 Solaris†*, Stanislaw Lem (1961)
22 The Drowned World†, JG Ballard (1962)
23 Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (1962)
24 A Wrinkle in Time‡, Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
25 Dune*, Frank Herbert (1965)
26 Make Room! Make Room!, Harry Harrison (1966)
27 Logan’s Run, William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967)
28 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick (1968)
29 The Left Hand of Darkness‡, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
30 Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
31 Ringworld, Larry Niven (1970)
32 Rendezvous with Rama*, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
33 Roadside Picnic, Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972)
34 The Female Man*, Joanna Russ (1975)
35 Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (1976)
36 The Stand, Stephen King (1978)
37 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy†‡, Douglas Adams (1979)
38 Nor Crystal Tears, Alan Dean Foster (1982)
39 Ender’s Game‡, Orson Scott Card (1985)
40 Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)
41 Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
42 Hyperion†, Dan Simmons (1989)
43 Red Mars†*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
44 Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo (1996)
45 Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (1999)
46 Uglies, Scott Westerfeld (2005)
47 Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
48 Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (2007)
49 Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (2008)
50 Embassytown†, China Miéville (2011)

I make that 32 read and 3 on the TBR. There are, I must admit, some bizarre choices – Alan Dean Foster? But no more so than the lists James, Jared and myself put together, I suppose. There are a number of traditional choices, books I avoid because I don’t think they’re very good, even though most people claim them as “classics”. Such as, of course, the Asimov. It’s also a very testosterone-heavy list – I make it 5 female authors. I was embarrassed I only managed to list 16 on mine, but that’s three times more than this list. Finally, of those books I’ve not read or are not on the TBR… I’m not bothered about actually reading them. Which I guess means this list fails in one respect.

Overall, it’s been a fun exercise. I’m not sure I’d generate the same list if I were to do this a year from now. I suspect James and Jared would say the same…


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 2

Day two and here are my essential sf novels, from 26 through to 50. See here for Jared’s on Pornokitsch and here for James Smythe’s.

To me, what constitutes science fiction has always been quite clear, and my numerous attempts at defining the genre have merely been a way of communicating that certainty. But what does “essential” mean? I found that much harder to define. Yes, I relied a lot on my favourite novels when compiling this list – I thought they were brilliant, therefore they must be essential. Except several of them I could not quite squeeze in. My favourite DG Compton novel, for example, is Synthajoy, but in yesterday’s list I instead included The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – because I think it covers a theme more essential to a true exploration of the science fiction genre. Likewise, I wanted to include Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel that has been a touchstone work for my own writing for several years. But it only hints at being alternate history in its final pages, and it barely qualifies as space fiction. Oh well.

We readily agreed that graphic novels, or bandes dessinées, were allowed. I picked the most obvious choice – see number 26 below. I’d like to have chosen Dan Dare or the Trigan Empire, but I don’t think either really characterises a tradition in British sf comics – certainly not one that continues to this day. So, much as I love them, I found their inclusion hard to justify.

Certainly, there were movements during the last few decades in sf which I needed to represent in my list: cyberpunk, steampunk, New Space Opera… As long as I picked one work from each, and could justify its presence, then job done. The works I chose for those subgenres are not the most obvious ones, but I think they’re the most important – or  I certainly believe they deserve to be. Others may disagree.

Anyway, the list…

26 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
In France, there is a strong sf tradition associated with comics, or bandes dessinée. Not all of these have been translated into English – sadly. The Incal is one of the most popular bandes dessinée, and rightly so. It is completely bonkers, beautifully drawn, and an excellent example of what the medium can do.

27 Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Cherryh has been churning out muscular hard sf since 1976, and she’s still going. Somehow she has managed to stitch all these novels in to a single future history. It’s an astonishing achievement. This book is perhaps her best-known, and is very much characteristic of her oeuvre.

28 Native Tongue, Suzette Elgin Haden (1984)
Women-only utopias do not happen overnight – though from some of the novels which feature them you might think so. Native Tongue charts one route, starting from a near-future in which women are reduced once again to the status of chattel. The development of a women-only language, Láadan, is instrumental in overturning this situation. This novel is both linguistic sf and feminist sf.

29 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

30 Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Hav is not a real place, though you might be fooled into thinking so as you read this novel. Very early proto-sf often couched its tall tales in the form of travel journals, but once Gernsback bootstrapped the genre into existence, as a form of sf it seemed to go into decline. A pity, if Last Letters from Hav is any indication of what it can do.

31 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
Say “cyberpunk” and everyone immediately thinks of Neuromancer. But I’m not convinced that’s an especially essential book – cyberpunk has become a lifestyle, and does it really matter which novel – arguably – booted it up into existence? What is essential, however, is the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. This one. It marked the end of cyberpunk as a sf literary movement. All the cyberpunk novels and stories that followed were just twitchings of the subgenre’s rotting corpse.

32 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
This is one of my two slightly sneaky inclusions. We did agree to allow novellas, and many novellas are indeed published as independent books. But this one never was – it first appeared in the collection Novelty. It is possibly the best time paradox story ever written, with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

33 Take Back Plenty†, Colin Greenland (1990)
New Space Opera has been good for science fiction. But if this book had been its model rather than Banks’ Culture novels, it could all have turned out very differently. Take Back Plenty celebrates the pulp side of sf, and does so with intelligence, wit and verve. It is one of the genre’s best books.

34 The Difference Engine†, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
Another slightly sneaky choice, as Sterling appears alone at the end of this list. The term “steampunk” was coined by KW Jeter, and his Morlock Night and Infernal Devices are emblematic of the subgenre. But they’re not actually that good. The Difference Engine is good. It is the one steampunk novel that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre (which is now, sadly, a lifestyle).

35 Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
This sf novel is the only one I can think of which mixes science fiction and Southern Gothic. It’s a mashup that shouldn’t by rights succeed. But it does. It is a rich and strange book – and sf needs to be rich and strange more often.

36 Sarah Canary†, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Not all first contact novels involve hardy explorers beaming down onto an alien planet and trying to communicate with mysterious aliens. Sometimes the mysterious aliens are here on Earth; and sometimes we will never know if they were alien or even if we have made contact. This book is proof that sf does not need to be about the future, spaceships, robots, time travel, or giant computer brains.

37 Red Mars*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
This is the definitive novel on the near-future colonisation of another planet – in this case, our neighbour, Mars. Enough said. (Don’t forget to read the sequels too.)

38 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Near-future sf is difficult to do well, if only because the author is expected to have some sort of magical crystal ball. But sf has never been predictive, and when it has got something right it’s been a happy accident. China Mountain Zhang is a near-future novel, but that’s incidental. It is beautifully written. That’s all that matters. McHugh is one of the genre’s very best writers.

39 Dark Sky Legion, William Barton (1992)
We may never find a way to circumvent the speed of light. Which means 90% of science fiction is just so much magical hogwash. But some writers have tried to envisage a distant future in which the speed of light restriction still holds true. This is the best of the bunch. It also does something interesting philosophically – and sf is traditionally not very good at that.

40 A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
Some space operas aren’t New, though they appeared while New Space Opera was doing its thing. The central premise of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Zones of Thought, is one of those ideas that shows why sf is such an important and vibrant mode of fiction. The somewhat ordinary plot attached is almost incidental.

41 Fatherland, Richard Harris (1992)
One form of alternate history is vastly more popular than any other: Hitler winning WWII. It’s impossible to write a story based on it that is neither derivative nor clichéd. This is probably the best of the lot – because it is set decades after the War, and is only peripherally concerned with the fact of the Nazi victory.

42 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
There are many themes which science fiction rarely tackles. Postcolonialism is one. It smacks too much of the real world – and too much of the real world that is not the First World – for most sf writers and readers. Coelestis treats the subject with intelligence, and then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. A masterwork.

43 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Among the many themes covered by sf over the decades has been sexuality and gender. The most famous such novel is LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, but given the one-book-per-author rule I couldn’t pick that. (And besides, its treatment of its hermaphroditic humans is somewhat problematical.) Scott complicates matters here by throwing in five genders and nine sexual preferences and, while the gender politics are still a little iffy, this is an essential exploration of the theme.

44 Voyage, Stephen Baxter (1996)
This is not only alternate history, it is also space fiction: it is an alternate history of a NASA mission to Mars. The research is impeccable, and it makes a highly plausible fist of its premise. Space fiction has been chiefly dominated by writers who are not very good, which is unfortunate. Happily, Baxter can write well, and he does so in this book.

45 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? The world of the title character does seem more fantastical than sfnal, but it’s wrapped in a near-future narrative which is resolutely sf. And the way the two narratives interact, and change each other, is definitely straight from science fiction’s toolbox.

46 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
This is perhaps the most literary science fiction novel ever written (not counting, of course, the two sequels). Or perhaps it’s the most science-fictional literary novel ever written. On balance, I suspect the former – it is too steeped in genre to be wholly accessible to readers of literary fiction. That still makes it essential for sf readers, however.

47 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
Surprisingly, working scientists are not especially popular as protagonists in science fiction. This novel is about one. And science. It is also brilliant.

48 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
First contact is a genre staple. This novel – the first of the Marq’ssan Cycle quintet – is not the first in which the visiting aliens choose to speak only to women, and which subsequently prompts a global crisis. It is, however, notable for a near-future world in which the ultra-rich rule openly and cruelly. Elizabeth Weatherall, PA to the chief villain of this book, goes on in later volumes to become one of the genre’s great villains in her own right. Go read all five books.

49 The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Post-apocalypse is such a well-established subgenre that recently most such novels have been by writers of literary fiction. And this is the best of those. It’s also much better than any genre post-apocalypse novel. Sadly, the trope has now been so over-used it’s become banal. Someone needs to do something different with it.

50 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
We look at the world today and see impending climate crash and the collapse of national economies… but no sf novel except this one has dealt with such a scenario. It’s for good reason that Sterling was one employed as”Visionary in Residence” at a Californian university. Essential reading for the near-future.

And that’s it. I think I’ve covered all the major bases. Not every book in my list of fifty is a blinding piece of literary genius – this is science fiction, after all… But I think my choices show a good spread of themes and subgenres, and every book is certainly worth reading. I couldn’t get everything in, however. Some choices were just too hard to justify. For example, one subgenre of sf I was keen to have on my list was early space travel. Unfortunately, I’ve not read Garitt P Serviss or Willy Ley, and there’s a reason why High Vacuum (1956), First on the Moon (1958) and The Pilgrim Project (1966) are forgotten. So, no early space travel. Instead, I have Voyage as my entry for realistic space fiction (as if I’d really pick Bova, or Steele, or their like).

Finally, it has been a little dismaying putting together this list to discover how many of my selections are out of print. Some have recently been made available after many years OOP, either in the SF Masterworks series, or as ebooks through the SF Gateway. Respect to both for that. But others on my list have languished in obscurity since their original publication. This, I feel, doesn’t invalidate their, er, essentialness. After all, books don’t stay in print because they are essential, they stay in print because they’re popular, because people keep on buying them.

We have no real agreed academic canon in genre fiction, no fixed list of sf novels which teachers and lecturers turn to when designing courses on the subject. Yes, there are several books that people point to when the word “classic” is mentioned, but most of those are artefacts of the genre’s history. They were not chosen because experts in the subject have over the decades deemed them the best science fiction has produced in its eighty-seven years. Perhaps it’s good that sf is democratic in that regard… but when it elevates Foundation, Starship Troopers, the Lensman series and the like to greatness, I have to wonder…


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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Recent notable reading

In other words, we’ll not bother mentioning the crap ones, or the ones that are meh – though I did include one that was so bad, people should be warned off it. I’ve also excluded those I’ve read for review elsewhere – on SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus (for which I have a backlog of reviews to finish and post).

JACK-GLASS-by-adam-robertsJack Glass, Adam Roberts (2012)
Which I read too late in the year to consider for my best of the year post. Adam Roberts’ novels in précis always sound interesting and appealing, and yet I still need to find the right way to read them. This one I think I’ve come closest. It is, as Adam himself describes it, an attempt to “collide together some of the conventions of Golden Age science fiction and Golden Age detective fiction”. It opens with an impossible escape, told from the point of view of the escapee. Next is a murder-mystery. Finally, there is a locked-room mystery. All three involve the mysterious figure Jack Glass. This is a gruesome and quite Dickensian novel. The Solar System is filled with disenfranchised poor, living in fragile space habitats, while a hierarchy of the ultra-rich and privileged live a life of luxury. But the possibility of FTL – even though against the laws of physics – threatens this situation by providing an escape to the stars. And that’s the maguffin driving the three sections of the novel. The characters are a bit annoying, especially their speech patterns, and perhaps there’s a little too much authorial sleight of hand used in places to delay the solution, but it all hangs together very entertainingly and readably. Though I’ve only read about four or five of Adam’s novels, this one was the most enjoyable – perhaps because it felt the most authorial, despite managing to capture the tone and verve of Golden Age sf.

asonoftherockA Son of the Rock, Jack Deighton (1997)
A somewhat old-fashioned sf novel – it wouldn’t have looked out of place among British sf of the 1970s; and I hold British sf of the 1970s in high regard – and well-written, but with a mostly unlikable narrator. It’s set in a sort of future galactic human co-prosperity sphere, in which primitive worlds are exploited for raw resources. The population also undergoes an anti-ageing treatment, which is so endemic that signs of ageing, and old people themselves, are viewed with fear and hatred. The narrator works for a mining company, but before taking up his post he goes on a Grand Galactic Tour. On the world of Copper, he meets the titular character, an old man, who both repels and fascinates him. It also seems the old man sees a kindred spirit in the narrator. Later, after he joins the mining company, the narrator chooses not to take the anti-ageing drug – his grandmother reacted badly to it, and the condition is genetic so he could also suffer from it – and over time becomes a freak in society. There’s some very nice description in the book, and the premise is handled well, but it feels a little old-fashioned in places, and the supporting cast are nicer than the narrator is. Definitely worth reading, however.

David-Mitchell-The-Thousand-Autumns-of-Jacob-de-ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell (2010)
I took this with me to Denmark to read over Christmas, as it had been sitting on my TBR since November 2010. And I’m glad I did. It is the late 1790s and the title character has arrived at the Dutch East-Indies Company’s trading post in Japan, Dejima in Nagasaki’s harbour, to assist a new manager root out corruption. But the novel is only sort of about de Zoet. It’s also about the Japanese midwife he falls in love with, and the bizarre shrine where she becomes a prisoner when her father dies, and how de Zoet beats the British attempt to muscle in on the Japanese market. It reads like straight historical fiction – although that shrine holds a horrible secret, which seems to have given its monks immortality. The period detail rings true and it’s clear Mitchell did plenty of research. They were a horrible venal, nasty, brutal and racist lot in those days, and Mitchell pulls no punches. It doesn’t make for sympathetic characters, so it’s impressive Mitchell manages to carry the story with such an ugly cast. I think this is the best of Mitchell’s novels – yes, even better than Cloud Atlas.

the-godless-boys-978033051336401The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood (2011)
This one got a lot of positive word of mouth last year, so I thought it would be worth a go. In 1951, a Secular Movement opposed the increasing hold the churches had on British society. This prompted a government backlash. The secularists were rounded up and exiled to an island off the north-east coast of England. In 1977, there was another wave of church burnings, and yet more people were sent to the Island. And on the Island, a decade or so later, a group of youths, led by Nathaniel, see themselves as guardians of the inhabitants’ godlessness. That is until a young woman arrives, looking for her mother, who disappeared in 1977 and was implicated in the burning of a church. I wanted to like this book, but it was trying so hard to be A Clockwork Orange, and failing, that it annoyed me. The Island came across as some parody of “grim Up North”, the neologisms felt horribly forced, and I never really got a good handle on the age of the protagonists. It comes as no surprise to discover that Wood has a MA in Creative Writing.

ultramarineUltramarine, Malcolm Lowry (1933)
So I read ‘Through the Panama’ in Lowry’s only collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, and was blown away. Perhaps the rest of the collection wasn’t as impressive, but I wanted to read more. Happily, I’d grabbed the aforementioned collection, Ultramarine, Lowry’s first novel, and Under the Volcano from my father’s Penguin paperback collection. But I also went further and picked up some first editions of his other books. And, er, Ultramarine, his first novel. Again. The edition I have, in both paperback and hardback, is the 1962 revised edition of the 1993 original – revised, obviously, not by Lowry, who died in 1957, but very much based on his part-written revisions for the novel (which he had done in order to bring it in line with a planned seven-novel sequence titled The Voyage That Never Ends (actually used for a collection of Lowry’s “fictions, poems, fragments, letters”)). The narrator of Ultramarine – who is loosely based on Lowry himself, as indeed are most of his protagonists – joins the crew of a tramp freighter as a mess-boy, but is not liked by the rest of the crew. The book takes place in the Far East, while the ship is moored at Tsjang-Tsjang. This is a book you should read for the writing, which is excellent. There’s not much in the way of plot. The characters are superbly drawn, often just through dialogue. It’s easy to see why Lowry was such an important writer.

ninthlifeThe Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen (2004)
Whenever I see a Liz Jensen book I’ve not read in a charity shop, I buy it. But I think I shall start buying them new because I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of her books I’ve read. And that’s not something I can say for many of the authors I read regularly. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is set in France in the present day, and the eponymous character is an accident-prone ten-year-old boy currently lying in a coma after falling down a cliff at a family picnic. His father is also missing and, according to the mother, responsible for pushing the boy off the cliff. Louis has just been moved to a new hospital for coma patients in Provence, and the doctor in charge – who alternates the narrative with Louis himself (apparently speaking from within his coma) – finds himself unprofessionally drawn to the boy’s mother. Essentially, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a murder-mystery, but one eyewitness is lying and the other is comatose – but is speaking to the reader via a worldview which obfuscates their meaning. It’s all very cleverly-done, and if the ending comes as no great real surprise, the journey to that point was not wasted. Definitely must read more of Jensen’s books.

OsamaOsama, Lavie Tidhar (2011)
Originally published by PS Publishing – the edition I have – then brought out in massmarket paperback by Solaris. Winner of the World Fantasy Award last year, and a surprising omission from several other shortlists (though it made the BSFA Award shortlist). It would be unfair to say I did not come to this book with high expectations. Happily, they were met. A private detective based in Ventiane is tasked with tracking down Mike Longshott, the mysterious author of a series of pulp novels which feature Osama bin Laden as a vigilante hero. This is not, of course, the world we know. Though there are echoes of it there, and as the PI draws closer to Longshott so those echoes begin to ring louder and louder. Interspersed between the chapters are short pieces of reportage on terrorist attacks from our world. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on, and the prose sometimes stumble – trying to pastiche pulp prose at one point, then not at another. There’s also an odd substitution of “dawdle” for “doddle”, and Lavie reveals his secret love for the music of Eva Cassidy. But it’s certainly a worthy award winner and fully lives up to its audacious title.

farnorthFar North, Marcel Theroux (2009)
This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2010, but lost out to Miéville’s The City & The City. It is yet another US post-apocalypse novel. The writer is British, but the son of US author Paul Theroux; and the novel is actually set in Siberia. The central premise is that Siberia was opened to American settlers, but then some sort of catastrophe did for the rest of the world, and those remaining in the “Far North” gradually succumbed to the usual violence, rape and warlordism. Theroux can’t decide if his settlers adopted Russian culture, or simply transplanted their own – he makes reference to both situations. The narrator of the story is a young woman who acts as constable for a town in which she is the only survivor. She encounters a group of slavers, and later witnesses a plane crash. That crash persuades her that somewhere there is a settlement with technology – albeit primitive technology. She sets off to find it, and is captured by those slavers… I’m a little puzzled how this made the Clarke shortlist. True, it’s literary fiction that’s science fiction in all but name, which means the quality of writing is generally much better than genre fiction displays. It also means the genre tropes are presented as if they’ve never been used before. Except post-apocalypse has been done before – in literary fiction. The first third of Far North, in fact, was trying hard to be The Road. And failing. The fact it later abandoned that template – and introduced some magic glowing substance, for no good reason – couldn’t prevent it from being as banal as most post-apocalypse novels are.

before-the-incalBefore The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012)
It’s not that The Incal required a prequel, but Jodorowsky has done a clever job here of explaining stuff you were perfectly happy to swallow unexplained in that book, as well as set things up beautifully for the later story. Janjetov’s art nicely emulates Moebius’ style – in fact, according to the introduction it was Jodorowsky’s observation that Janjetov’s style was similar to early Moebius that prompted him to write Before The Incal in the first place. All the characters from The Incal are here, and the story cleverly sets them up for the roles they will later play. The whole thing is not quite as bonkers as The Incal (though it is still quite insane), but it’s beautifully drawn, and this is a handsomely-produced volume on a par with Self Made Hero’s lovely edition of The Incal.

regimentRegiment of Women, Thomas Berger (1973)
A 1970s sexual satire. Oh dear. I haven’t read a book as bad as this for quite a while, and I’ve seen more biting satire on gender roles in a Two Ronnies sketch. A century or so from now, in what amounts to the ruins of the twentieth century, the women are in charge. But they dress and behave just like men – in fact, “effeminate” means behaviour currently associated with dumb macho males. Men, of course, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose, and behave like the sort of women a dumb 1970s sexist imagines women behave. Men also have breast implants. Yes, that’s right: the women are in charge, but the men conform to male gaze. Georgie is a secretary at a publishing house, but after getting unintentionally drunk at a friend’s, he is caught in public dressed as a woman – ie, in trousers, shirt and tie. He is arrested. Transvestism is illegal, but the police are convinced he is some sort of dangerous subversive. Georgie manages to break out of prison, and meets the Male Underground. They persuade him to infiltrate a Sperm Camp, where men are milked for their sperm for ex-utero procreation. (Women’s sex with men consists solely of anal penetration with a dildo, usually without the women undressing; and, most often, it’s rape.) In prison and in the Sperm Camp, Georgie encounters Harriet. She’s a woman but she just wants to dress and behave like a man – ie, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose… It’s a monumentally stupid set-up. Berger has to go through so many contortions to overcome the obvious flaws in his world, and none of his “explanations” are even remotely plausible. And that’s not to mention the deeply offensive views on gender roles on which the entire plot is based. Mystifyingly, this book has a 3.46 average on Goodreads, with quite a few 5-star reviews. Incidentally, I don’t recall any POC characters in it.


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Apollo Quartet 2 on Kindle

The second book of the Apollo Quartet,The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, is now available for Kindle on Amazon. It’s priced at £2.56, which is a bit odd as I did set it a little higher than that. But then Amazon probably included VAT in that price since it’s an ebook, and then took it off the listed price as they don’t pay it because they’re based in the Channel Islands. Not that they pay much tax anyway. But that shouldn’t stop you buying a copy of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself for your Kindle, of course.

the_eye_with_which_ebook_cover

On the other hand, you could buy the EPUB or MOBI ebook editions direct from the Whippleshield Books website here.


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BSFA Awards shortlist announced

And it’s a bloody good set of shortlists – and I don’t just say that because I’m on the short fiction shortlist for Adrift on the Sea of Rains. (Which astonishes and pleases me.) I’m also on the non-fiction list in spirit via Karen Burnham’s ‘The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit’ from the anthology I edited, Rocket Science.

It is all together a strong set of shortlists. Unusually, I’ve read more of the shortlisted items than for most years – three of the five novels (and the other two are on the TBR); two (well, three) of the short fiction; and four of the five non-fiction nominees (if you can be said to “read” an entire website).

Anyway, the shortlists goes like this…

Best Novel
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: A Haunting by M John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

Best Short Story
‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69)
The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)
‘Song of the Body Cartographer’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)
‘Limited Edition’ by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)
‘Three Moments of an Explosion’ by China Mieville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)
Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

Best Artwork
Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)

Best Non-Fiction
“The Complexity of the Humble Space Suit” by Karen Burnham (Rocket Science, Mutation Press)
“The Widening Gyre” by Paul Kincaid (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press)
The Shortlist Project by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The World SF Blog, Chief Editor Lavie Tidhar


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Books to look forward to

There have been a few posts on anticipated genre 2013 releases around and about the internet, but most have either been uncritically exclusive, or squeeing fannishly over volume umpteen in various piss-poor epic fantasy series. Which is not to say the outlook for 2013 is entirely glum. Yes, there will be the usual badly-written tomes of badly-mangled mediaevalish adventure, all of which are interchangeable: swords! rape! magic! feisty princesses! rape! war! rape! But there are one or two books upon which I have my beady eye…

January
ROBOTSAdam Robots, Adam Roberts
A collection of Mr Robot’s stories. Who could not want this? I’ve appeared in a couple of anthologies alongside Adam, which has sort of forced me to read his stories. But what I’ve read I have liked and thought very good, so I’d like to read more of them. I seem to react better to his short fiction than his novels. And, it has to be said, that is a pretty damn cool cover.

the-explorer-by-james-smytheThe Explorer, James Smythe
Astronauts are definitely in – what with Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine (see here) and Christian Kiefer’s The Infinite Tides last year. The Explorer looks pretty much like genre heartland, although it seems to be marketed on the edges of science fiction. Given my own fascination with astronauts – Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, ‘Faith’ (PDF), etc –  it’s certainly a book I plan to read.

February
bestofallpossibleworldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord
This has been getting lots of good press and looks like one of the year’s more interesting sf releases. I’m not sure the précis on Amazon makes it sound wholly appealing – remnants of the galaxy’s once ruling elite is short on women, and a civil servant must accompany one such male on his search for a mate – but it all depends who’s writing it…

disestablishmentThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann
I’ve been a big fan of Mann’s fiction for decades (oof, that makes me feel old) – see here – so I’ll buying this one in hardback the moment it is released. It will be Mann’s first book since 1996’s The Burning Forest, the final book in his A Land Fit for Heroes alternate history quartet. That’s quite a long silence – seventeen years. Alexander Jablokov spent a decade not writing before Brain Thief was published. I thought it very good, but it didn’t seem to do very well. Let’s hope Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise does better…

March
Life-after-life-cover-194x300Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I’ve not read any Atkinson, though I understand she’s quite good. I did watch the television series with Jason Isaacs, however (though, to be honest, it clashed with Scott & Bailey, which I thought much the better series). This book, about a person who serially reincarnates, sounds like it might be worth a go. I’ll wait for the paperback, though.

NecessaryIll-cvr-low-resNecessary Ill, Deb Taber
According to Suzy McKee Charnas, this novel “offers hopeful glimpses of alternatives to the current cultural barrage of post-Apocalyptic savagery and regression to warlordism”. Am sick to bloody death of post-apocalypse novels in which people turn into animals and only some warped version of right-wing US society offers hope or a way forward. So, want.

April
sereneinvasionThe Serene Invasion, Eric Brown
Eric has been churning out quality sf for more than two decades, and his novels and short fiction are always worth reading. It’s a shame his books seem to cause few, if any, ripples. Except, of course, he’s been shortlisted this year for the Philip K Dick – albeit bafflingly for Helix Wars, rather than the year before for The Kings of Eternity, which is by far the better book.

prophetofbonesProphet of Bones, Ted Kosmatka
To be honest, I’d sooner see a collection from Kosmatka. I’ve only read a handful of his short fiction, but what I’ve read I’ve thought very good – I even picked his ‘Divining Light’ for the Locus All-Centuries Short Fiction Poll. I’ve been meaning to pick up Kosmatka’s first novel, last year’s The Games, in paperback, and whether or not I get Prophet of Bones will depend on my reaction to that book.

June
shininggirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
I really liked Zoo City (see here), so I’m keen to read this one, even if the plot has been described as “The Time Traveler’s Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“. Ugh. But I trust Lauren to produce something good despite that. (Incidentally, it really annoys me they never bothered correcting the spelling mistake in the title of The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, it’s the american spelling; but I don’t live in the US, and we use British English here).)

The AdjacentThe Adjacent, Christopher Priest
I’m always late reading Priest’s novels, though I usually get there in the end. It’s useless speculating what it might be about, because Priest’s novels generally defy summary. This one is allegedly his “most complex yet”, although if anyone knows of a simple Priest novel I’ve yet to hear it. Santa brought me The Islanders for Christmas, so I’ll be reading that soon… two years after everyone else and a year after it won the BSFA Award…

July
Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley
The fourth book in McAuley’s hard sf nearish-future series. I really must read Gardens of the Sun

August
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
The second book of Poseidon’s Children and the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I liked the first book, I liked its optimism and its avoidance of sf’s usual panoply of magic bullshit technology. This one I will certainly be buying in hardback on its release.

September
Proxima, Stephen Baxter
There’d be something wrong if there wasn’t at least one Stephen Baxter novel out each year. It’s deep future sf, with humans living on a dead world orbiting Proxima Centauri, and all sounds very Baxterian.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts
A sequel to The Asylum’s “mockbuster” of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Sea by Adam Roberts has to be worth a go. Though, to be fair, I did think the ending to the film was pretty unequivocal – the Nautilus was destroyed by the nuclear warheads Nemo had planned to launch against the US, and everyone aboard, including Nemo, was killed. But I’m sure Adam will come up with some cunning trick to show how Nemo escaped death in a nuclear explosion at the very last second.

December
Equilateral-Kalfus-Ken-9781620400067Equilateral, Ken Kalfus
I saw mention of this on io9, and its description sounded interesting: British scientists at the turn of the century have come to believe there’s life on Mars, so they propose to build a massive triangle in the Egyptian desert. Yup, I’d read that. (io9 gives the publication date as April, but according to Amazon it’s December in the UK. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer than them, then.)

No doubt there will be more titles I want to read appearing throughout the year, but these are the only ones that have been announced so far that appeal to me. I’ll also probably end up reading other new books recommended to me but which, at first glance, I hadn’t thought worth trying, or hadn’t known about. So it goes.

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