It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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From the Sublime to the ridiculous

The Gzilt are unusual among all galactic civilisations in that the holy book of their religion has proven to be demonstrably true. It predicted scientific advances long before they were made. There was other stuff in the Book of Truth, of course – the typical moralistic posturing, the usual self-serving self-importance around which religions accrete, all that sort of stuff. But people took it seriously because parts of it actually became true.

Now, the Gzilt are about to Sublime. This means they are about to leave this universe en masse for another where everyone lives in– Well, no one really knows because those few who have returned have been mysterious and enigmatic to the point of uselessness. But Subliming is good. And the universe to which races Sublime is apparently infinitely large and infinitely wonderful and everyone there feels infinitely uplifted.

Subliming calls for celebration, so various other races are descending on the Gzilt worlds to wish the Gzilt well and to, hopefully, if given permission, loot what’s left for themselves. A representative of the remnants of the Zihdren, the Gzilt’s original mentors, who Sublimed thousands years before, turns up with some unwelcome news. But before it can be revealed the Zihdren-Remnanter ship is callously destroyed by a Gzilt battleship. This could upset things. As could the news the destroyed ship was carrying.

Also, the Gzilt were one of the original races – they’re humanoid; very much so, in fact – who agreed to band together to form the Culture ten thousand years earlier. But, for whatever reason, they chose to go their own way. There is a person in the Culture who was there at those original negotiations, and he’s still alive and it seems he might know something about the news the destroyed Zihdren-Remnanter ship was carrying. So the Culture ships hanging around to see the Gzilt Sublime are keen to find out what it was…

It doesn’t take long – less than a third of the way into the book, in fact – before Banks reveals the secret carried by the destroyed ship. The Book of Truth, it transpires, was a put-up job. By a group of Zihdren academics. For reasons of their own – which are alien, no doubt – they decided to plant a holy text which could be proven true on the primitive Gzilt. And for more than ten thousand years, that the Book of Truth might not be precisely what it claims to be has never occurred to those who take it as their creed. Even though they are allegedly civilised enough to Sublime.

But, well, they’re not really civilised at all. And Subliming doesn’t appear to be a reward for being a good bunch of highly civilised people either. Because the Gzilt response to news of the Book of Truth’s, er, true origin becoming known is to go on a berserk murdering spree. The politician in charge during the last days of the Gzilt sends one of the Gzilt Regiments to massacre another who had got wind of the destruction of Zihdren-Remnanter ship. Said politician had also promised scavenger rights to one alien race, the Liseiden, but when the Ronte win the rights instead, he causes a situation in which the Liseiden destroy the Ronte fleet.

And the final action-piece of the novel is an all-out high-bodycount attack on a blimp full of partygoers by a single-minded special forces colonel and his band of lethal attack robots.

Somewhere threading her way amongst all this is Vyr Cossont. Who has four arms. Which she needs to play a piece of music on a preposterous instrument called an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. The piece of music, which was written thousands of years before and is allegedly unplayable, is called…

The Hydrogen Sonata‘.

This is the tenth Culture novel and even before it appeared The Hydrogen Sonata was being heralded as a “return to form” (which is quite a good trick) after the disappointing Matter and Surface Detail. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In fact, I think Matter was a much more interesting novel.

The Hydrogen Sonata is pacey, Vyr Cossont is an engaging protagonist (though she’s somewhat at the beck and call of events), there are one or two nice bits of invention, and there are a number of conversations between Ship Minds which are fun. But. The secret of the Book of Truth is revealed early, which robs the rest of the novel of all tension. You keep on reading expecting the other shoe to drop – but there is no other shoe. The way the violence mounts is stupidly cartoonish, particularly for a people who are days away from Subliming. In fact, the second half of The Hydrogen Sonata reads more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaption of a Culture novel than an actual Culture novel.

And that title? What relevance exactly does that have to the story? I know Banks’ Culture novels usually boast titles peripheral to the point of irrelevance, but Cossont’s attempt to play a piece of unplayable music has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps the title is a joke, perhaps it needs to be decoded… and since hydrogen’s symbol is H and a sonata is a word for a type of musical piece, it could read as…

The H(ot) Air.

Because as Culture novels go, The Hydrogen Sonata contains far more bluster than the other books in the series.

(Sorry, could not resist the title to this piece.)


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A British sf masterwork? Implosion, DF Jones

The SF Encyclopedia makes no real comment on the works of Dennis Feltham Jones, preferring instead to précis his novels. He is perhaps best known for his first novel, Colossus, which was filmed as Colossus – The Forbin Project. Implosion, from 1967, is his second novel.

An unnamed Eastern Bloc country develops a substance which renders women sterile. Because the nation’s premier is the illegitimate son of a British diplomat, he chooses to use this powder on the UK. Two years later, fully eighty percent of British females can no longer ovulate. The country’s population begins to fall, and is calculated to hit around five million by the mid-1980s. A government with far-reaching powers and a mandate to fix the problem is voted into power. All the fertile women are put into camps to become baby machines. Children are put in National Schools, where they are kept safe from harm and educated to as high a level as possible. Villages are demolished, and towns abandoned, when their populations fall below sustainable levels.

In charge of all this is John Bart, the Minister for Health and Regeneration. His wife Julia proves to be one of the rare fertile women, and is packed off to a camp. Meanwhile, the government tightens its grip on the country. After a raid on the lab which developed the powder, the Brits reverse-engineer it but can find no cure. They publish the formula, so that now everyone has it. Naturally, other countries soon find themselves in the same situation.

Meanwhile, Julia has come to realise that the regime in the fertile women’s camps has turned nasty. Women are whipped for the slightest infraction, such as smoking (even when not pregnant). She escapes… and discovers that the world outside is very different to what she had been told. She finds her husband, who is still the number two man in the government, and likely soon to be the number one, and learns that he is now shacked up with her twin sister. The twins turn on one another, Julia gets sent back to the camp, and that’s that. Except Nature has one final trick up her sleeve…

There’s a very 1960s British po-faced earnestness to Implosion. The characters are exemplary – Bart himself is young and noble and brilliant at organisation and making decisions. His wife is beautiful and loving and a true soulmate. Or at least, she starts out like that. Even their lady who does is a treasure. The prime minister is a hearty man of the people, straight-talking and more than willing to do the necessary. The Britain of the story appears pretty much the same as the Britain of 1967. Even though it begins in the early 1970s, the currency is still pounds, shilling and pence.

Implosion reads like a novel in which the author had a good idea and then set out to show clever he was in solving it. Its politics are simplistic, as is its view of the British people. The Barts are very much the “right sort”, and what few working class people do make an appearance are viewed with all the patronising indulgence of the privileged. Implosion is not a cosy catastrophe – there’s more brandy drunk than tea, for one thing – but it is peculiarly English. Perhaps it could be called a “Mayfair catastrophe”. That’s what it feels like, a black and white 1960s television Play for Today with a cast speaking in cut-glass accents, while around them the world they don’t much care for slowly falls apart…

So, not a British sf masterwork, then.

(And no, I’ve no idea what that blobby thing on the cover of the book is supposed to represent.)


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Books you must read: Omega, Christopher Evans

I’ve been a fan of Evans’ novels since reviewing his Aztec Century for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, back in 1993. His fiction is a literate, very British sort of sf, which doesn’t rely on flashy spectacle but on in-depth studies of their protagonists and their worlds. Omega, published in 2008 by PS Publishing and Evans’ first novel in more than a decade, is a case in point.

Owen Meredith is a maker of military history documentaries. One day while Christmas shopping with his wife and two daughters, a bomb explodes in Hamley’s. Meredith is outside and only injured in the blast, but his family are in the store and killed.

Major Owain Maredudd is an officer in an Allied army in a Britain that has been at war for over half a century. He had led a mission into enemy territory to test a new weapon, but something went wrong. Maredudd was the only survivor, and his memories of the mission are somewhat confused. As a result, he has been attached to his uncle’s staff. His uncle is the commander-in-chief of the allied forces in the UK and a member of the Joint Governing Council, the military junta that rules the Alliance. He is, in effect, the ruler of most of Europe.

When Meredith wakes in hospital after the bomb blast, he discovers first that at times he somehow inhabits Maredudd’s head, and so witnesses events in the major’s world. And secondly, Meredith’s memories of his life before the explosion don’t quite tally with the life he seems to now have. For a start, he is apparently in hospital because he was hit by a car while crossing the road. There was no bomb blast. And his wife left him several years before, taking the kids, and now lives in Australia.

As Meredith tries to figure out his life and pick up the pieces, so he comes to spend more time in Maredudd’s world. Maredudd himself is having his own problems as there seems to be something going on with his uncle to which he’s not privy but in which he is somehow involved. This is all to do with the secret weapon after which the book is titled. The Americans, once part of the Alliance, are apparently getting troublesome and the Omega weapon is intended to stop them.

Omega is not an easy book to do justice to. It’s an alternate history, inasmuch as part of the story is set in a world still embroiled in a world war. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a study of both Meredith and Maredudd, and their reactions to worlds they find it increasingly hard to fathom. While Meredith also has Maredudd’s world to explore, it’s implied that Maredudd is doing the same to Meredith. Certainly, there are periods when Meredith is strangely absent – though from others’ reactions it seems he continues to function as “normal”. The alternate UK is extremely well-drawn and very convincing, but it is the two protagonists who really carry the book. The writing is plain but elegant, the worlds of Meredith and Maredudd are portrayed with authority, and the novel is an engaging and surprisingly quick read.

I’m surprised Omega didn’t appear on any short-lists back in 2009. It’s certainly a better novel than the four that made it onto that year’s BSFA short-list – Aztec Century, incidentally, won the BSFA Award in 1994 – and it could have been a contender for the Clarke too. Recommended.


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20 British sf films

I had this really good idea for a post, a sort of companion piece to my British sf Masterworks. Films… Science fiction films… British science fiction films. How about a list of the best twenty-five sf films from the UK? Everyone likes lists.

Except… I couldn’t find twenty-five good British sf films – either that I’d seen or that I’d would be willing to hold up as good cinema. So I picked twenty. And, to be honest, there are a few on the list that stretch the definition of “good” somewhat. There are also a few that do the same with “British”… Kubrick was American, as are Gilliam and Hyams; and Truffaut is French. And some of the films were made with US money, requiring US actors in the starring roles – but they were British productions, so they count for this list.

No doubt I’ve forgotten lots of really good sf films from the UK, so feel free to leave a comment and suggest some. But here is my list, in order of year of release:

1 – Things To Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936) – there’s not much you can say about this. It’s an astonishing piece of cinema, especially given when it was made.
2 – The Quatermass Xperiment, dir. Val Guest (1955) – Quatermass had a powerful impact on British sf, so one of the three films featuring him deserves to make this list.
3 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest (1961) – not only a disaster film, caused by testing nuclear weapons, but also a post-apocalypse film. The shots of empty cities remain creepy even today.
4 – First Men In The Moon, dir. Nathan H Juran (1964) – the recent Gatiss adaptation on BBC4 was entertaining, but there’s a bonkers charm to Lionel Jeffries’ portrayal of Professor Cavor.
5 – Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD, dir. Gordon Flemyng (1966) – back when Daleks were cool, they drilled a hole to the centre of the Earth so they could replace it with an engine and turn the whole planet into a spaceship. And they did it in Britain. Until Bernard Cribbins stopped them. With a bit of help from Dr Who.
6 – Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966). The book is rubbish, but the film is excellent. Casting Julie Christie in two roles was inspired. And the monorail is really cool too.
7 – Frozen Alive, dir. Bernard Knowles (1966) – an Anglo-German production, set in Germany, in which a scientist, well, he freezes himself. But his wife is murdered while he is frozen, and he’s the chief suspect. It sounds daft, but it works.
8 – They Came From Beyond Space, dir. Freddie Francis (1967) – and the plot of this one seems even dafter: meteorites land throughout the UK and take over people, who subsequently build an armed camp in southern England. This is so they can send rockets to the Moon, launched from underneath a lake, to help repair the alien spaceship marooned there.
9 – A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968) – Kubrick may have been an American but this film was as British as you can get – from Anthony Burgess’s source novel through to the cast and crew.
10 – Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun, dir. Robert Parrish (1969) – Gerry Anderson’s only live-action feature film, although some of the cast were as wooden as his puppets. The central conceit – a copy of the Earth on the other side of the Sun, where everything is reversed – is complete nonsense, but all those Meddings model shots make up for it.
11 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971) – Kubrick gets two films on this list because A Clockwork Orange is too British to leave off, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is too damn good to ignore.
12 – The Man Who Fell To Earth, dir. Nicolas Roeg (1976) – Bowie was perfectly cast. Any film that can say that deserves to be on this list.
13 – Flash Gordon, dir. Mike Hodges (1980) – it’s like a panto. In space. With Brian Blessed. Three reasons why it belongs on this list.
14 – Outland, dir. Peter Hyams (1981) – there’s not much that’s British about High Noon set on a moon of Jupiter (although without Grace Kelly). This was actually a British production, however.
15 – 1984, dir. Michael Radford (1984) – qualifies in the same way A Clockwork Orange does. It’s also an excellent adaptation of Orwell’s novel.
16 – Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam (1985) – could be 1984 from an alternate Britain. It’s as British as Orwell’s novel, but… funny. Absurd, in fact. Which is the only other sane response to Nineteen Eighty-four.
17 – Sliding Doors, dir. Peter Hewitt (1997) – it’s about the Many Worlds Hypothesis… Well, sort of. It’s a romance, a fluffy version of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, in which catching a train or not causes the story to split into two separate narratives.
18 – 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002) – zombies that can run. Enough said.
19 – Code 46, dir. Michael Winterbottom (2003) – is one of those films which seems to inhabit a near-future which already exists. It also asks some difficult questions about biotechnology.
20 – Moon, dir. Duncan Jones (2009) – I wrote about this here.

So, what films have I missed off?


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Another obscure British sf masterwork

Among the books recommended to me by others for inclusion on my list of British sf masterworks (see here) was A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry’s debut novel, and the first book of the Keyman trilogy. Daventry is forgotten now. He wrote seven science fiction novels between 1965 and 1980 – the last one somewhat ironically titled You Must Remember Us…? – but his books are neither in print nor especially easy to find. Which is a shame, as there are worse authors from that period still in print, whose deathless prose continues to clog the bookshelves of Waterstone’s and other book shops.

The title character of A Man of Double Deed is Claus Coman. He is a keyman. This means he is a telepath, and one of a handful of such people, who operate something like secret agents and something like Special Branch, on an Earth a century after an all-out nuclear war, the “Atomic Disaster of 1990″. Coman is something of a throwback – he lives in a house in Old Peckham, not in a giant apartment block, and he smokes like a chimney, even though the habit is illegal. He is also, we are told on the first page, “old-fashioned in other ways also, being content with two women only”. These two women are Jonl and Sein, and Coman is bonded to them – again, something considered old-fashioned and slightly dubious.

Coman returns to Earth after adventures on Venus – several of his previous escapades are mentioned in the novel – to find something strange going on. The youth of 2090 have taken to murder and suicide. It’s almost an epidemic. The only solution the World Council can conceive is a “War Section”. This is an area, preferably on another planet, in which the murderous teenagers and young adults can be left to their own violent devices. The Council is meeting shortly to consider implementing such a War Section, but the leader of the Council, Marst, is being influenced to vote against the proposal by a conspiracy. Coman’s boss, Karns, asks him to travel to the Fifteenth City, a holiday destination built above a line of islands in the Pacific, to persuade Marst to change his vote. Marst is apparently under the influence of a pair of “jokers”, telepaths who oppose the keymen but fortunately possess much weaker abilities. Coman and his two wives travel from the Twelfth City (London) to the Fifteenth City. Shortly after their arrival, while at a swimming-pool, Coman identifies one of the jokers, a woman called Linnel. He seduces her – Jonl and Sein are not happy about it, but they trust him. With Linnel’s help, Coman manages to prevent the conspiracy.

The plot summary above probably doesn’t quite illustrate how odd this novel is. Superficially, it resembles an ordinary piece of science fiction tosh from the 1950s or 1960s, with a superman hero, a supporting bevy of beautiful subservient women, and a future Earth which in no way resembles the Earth of the time of writing but still feels horribly dated. But that would be doing A Man of Double Deed a disservice. It’s a much better book than that.

Coman is such a strange hero, for one thing. He is a dour intellectual, but not a misanthrope. He is not a man of action, but is often called upon to behave like one. There’s something of the World War II RAF officer in him, a combination of education, arrogance, pragmatism, and a grudging respect for others. He is his own biggest critic, but extremely private with his criticisms. He is very British.

Nor are the women of the story, Jonl, Sein and Linnel, characterless females. On the contrary, Jonl could become a keyman herself, but does not wish to do so on principle. Sein is more stereotypical a female character. She loves Coman, and longs for a baby. She gets her wish in the end, and it’s a result all are happy with. Linnel is a femme fatale, but an insecure one who falls for Coman’s singular charms, but refuses to bend entirely to his will. These three are not, I hasten to add, brilliantly-drawn female characters, or even especially realistically-drawn ones, but they are a good deal better-realised than is common for genre fiction of the time.

A Man of Double Deed is a novel in which principles play a large part. At several points in the story, Coman, Karns, Marst, or Coman’s cyborg friend Deenan talk about moral and legal principles, and these are well-written and well-argued pieces of dialogue. They are not the usual political or moralistic crap you’d find in most genre novels, and which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, this is solid, well-presented, intelligent argument. It makes for a refreshing change.

Perhaps the invention on display in the novel is not especially high, but the writing is solid, and even occasionally good, the characters are drawn well, and the plot comes to a satisfactory end… even if not everything is explained. What, for example, was the conspiracy which had hired the two jokers? Why did they not want a War Section? Nevertheless, A Man of Double Deed is an interesting sf novel and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. In fact, I think I’ll hunt down the other two books in the trilogy, Reflections in a Mirage and The Ticking is in Your Head, and read them.


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British SF Masterworks redux

After all the comments on my list of 50 British science fiction masterworks, I decided to revisit it. There were several authors I’d inadvertently left off – and no, I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Paul J McAuley (sorry); but he’s on there now. There were also a couple of books I listed which, on reflection, were either too peripheral to the genre, or not really masterworks. The Durrell stays on, however, because a) he’s my favourite writer, and b) it features a number of sf tropes.

Brian W Aldiss claims in Trillion Year Spree that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel, but I prefer to date the genre to the appearance of Amazing Stories in 1926. So Shelley goes. But it would be criminal to produce a list of British sf masterworks without including one by HG Wells, whose “scientific romances” were certainly an ancestor of sf (and many were reprinted in Amazing Stories, anyway).

I’ve also changed Lessing’s entry from The Memoirs of a Survivor to the Canopus in Argos: Archives quintet, as each of the five books in it are more substantial than my original choice. I’ve added Christopher Evans, Geoff Ryman, Ted Tubb, Mark Adlard, Eric Frank Russell, James White, Colin Kapp and Douglas Adams (bowing to public pressure there). Some of the books may not be masterworks per se – the Kapp series, for example, is more notable for its eponymous Big Dumb Object than it is its prose, characterisation or plot. Tubb, of course, was best known for his 33-book Dumarest series, but I’ve seen several positive mentions of The Space-Born, a generation starship story. James White probably wrote better books than the one I’ve chosen, but it’s the only one of his Sector General novels to appear on a any kind of shortlist – the Locus SF Novel Award for 1988 (which was, admittedly, a shortlist of thirty-three…).

So I have made some changes. And somehow the list has grown to fifty-five books.

1 – The Time Machine, HG Wells (1895)
2 – Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
3 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
4 – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell (1949)
5 – The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
6 – The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
7 – No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956) – my review here.
8 – The Space-Born, EC Tubb (1956)
9 – On The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)
10 – WASP, Eric Frank Russell (1958)
11 – A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
12 – The Drowned World, JG Ballard (1962)
13 – Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
14 – A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965)
15 – A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967)
16 – The Revolt of Aphrodite [Tunc, Nunquam], Lawrence Durrell (1968 – 1970)
17 – Pavane, Keith Roberts (1968)
18 – Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
19 – Behold The Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
20 – Ninety-eight Point Four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969)
21 – Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)
22 – T-City trilogy [Interface, Volteface, Multiface] Mark Adlard (1971 – 1975)
23 – The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1973) – my review here.
24 – Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C Clarke (1973) – my review here.
25 – Collision with Chronos, Barrington Bayley (1973)
26 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
27 – The Centauri Device, M John Harrison (1974)
28 – Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975) – my review here.
29 – Orbitsville [Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, Orbitsville Judgement], Bob Shaw (1975 – 1990)
30 – The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976)
31 – The White Bird of Kinship [The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time], Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982) – my review here.
32 – SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978)
33 – Canopus in Argos: Archives [Shikasta, The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5, The Sirian Experiments, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire], Doris Lessing (1979 – 1983)
34 – The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Mostly Harmless], Douglas Adams (1979 – 1992)
35 – Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981) – my review here.
36 – The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
37 – Cageworld [Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades, Star-Search], Colin Kapp (1982 – 1984)
38 – Helliconia, Brian W Aldiss (1982 – 1985)
39 – Orthe, Mary Gentle (1983 – 1987)
40 – Chekhov’s Journey, Ian Watson (1983)
41 – In Limbo, Christopher Evans (1985)
42 – Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
43 – Wraeththu Chronicles [The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire], Storm Constantine (1987 – 1989)
44 – Code Blue – Emergency!, James White (1987)
45 – Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988) – my review here.
46 – The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford (1988)
47 – Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
48 – The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (1989)
49 – Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990) – my review here.
50 – Wulfsyarn, Phillip Mann (1990)
51 – Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
52 – Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)
53 – The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)
55 – Fairyland, Paul J Mcauley (1995)

So that’s the new list. I still intend to read and review some of the more obscure books – and have already done the Rex Gordon (see here). Those books I’ve written about on this blog now have links beside them – some are full-blown reviews, some are just a paragraph or two in one of my Readings & Watchings catch-up posts.

Now let the discussion begin.

Again.


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An obscure British sf masterwork?

Several of the authors I included in my fifty British SF Masterworks list (see here), I’d not actually read. And with good reason – they’re more or less forgotten. One such author was Rex Gordon, the pen-name of Stanley Bennett Hough, born in 1917, who wrote nine science fiction novels between 1953 and 1969. Of those novels, the best-known is perhaps No Man Friday (or so I was reliably informed). Second-hand copies of the book are relatively easy to find – both under that title and under its US title, First on Mars – so I bought one. And read it. (Incidentally, Gordon’s The Worlds of Eclos was published in the US as First to the Stars, and his The Time Factor as First Through Time; there seems to be a pattern there…)

Gordon Holder is the narrator of No Man Friday. He is an engineer at Woomera, Australia, where Britain carried out its rocket and missile programme during the 1950s and 1960s. Determined to beat the Americans into space, the British engineers secretly build a rocket to take them to Mars. They sneak orders for the parts they need onto the account lines of officially-approved projects, and build the rocket inside a disused water tower. It’s a peculiarly British way to do it, working within the system, hiding in the bureaucracy – rather than fighting against it, one man versus the overbearing government, as would happen in an American novel.

No Man Friday is not an especially scientifically accurate novel, although Gordon is careful to maintain a plausible tone. The rocket, for example, carries a crew of seven, and clearly owes more to the pointy rockets of the science fiction of the period than it does to the contemporary Redstone launch vehicle of NASA (one of which would put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space six years later).

En route to Mars, Holder has to leave the confines of the rocket to fix a deflector-plate which is causing the craft to spin. On his return, something goes wrong and the outer and inner airlock doors are both opened. Everyone inside dies. Only Holder survives, because he’s still wearing his spacesuit. Gordon has clearly thought about what it would be like to wear an inflated spacesuit in a vacuum, and describes the difficulty of performing tasks in such a suit – although he didn’t anticipate the damage to fingernails that modern-day astronauts apparently experience on EVA (see here).

The rocket crashes on Mars, but again Holder survives. Given that Gordon had no knowledge of the surface conditions of Mars – the first Mars lander would not be until 1971, when the Soviet Mars 3 managed to transmit data and pictures for 22 seconds; and the first successful landers were the US’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 – nonetheless, he manages a reasonably believable Martian surface, not unlike, say, the Atacama Desert.

Holder manages to use the wreckage of the rocket, and its surviving equipment, to manufacture both water and oxygen. He builds himself a sand scooter, and goes exploring. But wherever he goes, it’s all the same: an endless red desert, populated only by strange Martian cacti and the over-sized termites which feed on them. He even experiments with the plants, trying to find some method of preparation which will make them edible and nutritious.

Then he discovers evidence of some larger animal – he has already guessed that the low gravity and air pressure would result in creatures larger in size than earthly ones. This creature proves to be humanoid in shape, but its behaviour demonstrates it is clearly not intelligent. But the giant centipede creatures, the size of buses, which feed on the corpses of the humanoids and communicate via biological light-organs, definitely appear to be.

Holder sets out to follow the giant centipedes, and eventually discovers their nesting area. He attempts to communicate with them…

Fifteen years later, a US rocket lands on Mars, and its crew are astonished to see a human approaching their craft on foot. Holder has survived as a favoured pet of the giant centipedes. He explains this to the Americans, telling them that the Martians will only allow one rocket per year to land on the Red Planet. The Americans reply that the system is unworkable, not least because the Soviets are planning their own mission. Holder tries to return to the Martians, but is unable to do so – some strange barrier prevents him.

No Man Friday clearly owes a lot to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and, in fact, references that book a number of times. Not having read Defoe, I can’t say how close the parallels are. No Man Friday is also a very explanatory book, as Holder takes an interest in his strange surroundings and in discovering how to survive in them. He explains what he does, and why. The prose is strong throughout, and Holder is an engaging and thoughtful narrator. The flora and fauna on Mars Gordon invents sounds mostly believable, and the giant centipede Martians are otherworldly enough to feel alien – especially given the hands-on engineering tone of the rest of the novel.

No Man Friday is quick, fun and interesting, without being glib or ridiculously fanciful. It’s very much a “hard” science fiction novel of its time, but also very characteristically British. There’s no mistaking No Man Friday for an American sf novel. That’s where much of its charm lies. And, yes, it does belong on the British SF Masterwork list.


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20 British SF Novels You Should Read

It seems to be the season to exhort people to read books, or watch films, from some list of what-appear-to-be-randomly-chosen titles. So, move on over up there on the bandwagon, I’m climbing aboard.

But.

Most of the lists floating about the tinterweb are, let’s face it, a bit Americocentric. Here are twenty science fiction novels by British authors you should read.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland
Tabitha Jute is the captain of a space barge, and when she agrees to ferry a cabaret act, Contraband, from Mars to the alien space station Plenty, things go from bad to… well, to crashing her space barge on Venus. A seminal post-modern space opera, and a personal favourite (see here).

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks
Cheradenine Zakalwe was an operative for Special Circumstances. While the drone Diziet Sma tries to persuade him to come out of retirement for one last job, a second narrative recounts Zakalwe’s career in reverse chronological order… leading to one of the most memorable revelations in science fiction. Probably the best of Banks’ Culture novels.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Alex loves a bit of the old ultra-violence, but the authorities aren’t so keen on it. One such incident gets a bit out of hand, and Alex is arrested, tried and convicted. While in jail, he volunteers for a brainwashing experiment, designed to remove his urge for violence. A novel that’s famous for several reasons – its story, its invented language Nadsat, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and Kubrick banning his own film from being shown in the UK…

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
In an alternate past in which the mediaeval nation of Burgundy did not disappear, female mercenary captain Ash is battling against invading Visigoths from North Africa. Meanwhile, a present-day academic is researching the biography of the fictional Ash… only to discover his own world slowly changing to be more like hers.

Life, Gwyneth Jones
Anna Senoz is a genetics researcher, and this is her, well, her life. And her career. SFSite said of Life: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

Light, M John Harrison
Back in 1975, Harrison reinvented space opera with The Centauri Device. Twenty-seven years later, he did it again with Light. Physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney is haunted by the Shrander. He is also on the verge of breakthrough in theoretical physics which will allow humanity to spread into space… and so populate the edges of the Kefahuchi Tract, a region of space that obeys no known laws of physics. Which is where, in 2400 AD, K-ship captain Seria Mau Genlicher and ex-space pilot Ed Chianese now live.

Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds
This is one of those novels which has three separate narratives which seem to have no connection to each other. But, of course, they’re linked. The world of Ararat has found itself dragged into a war between humanity and the Inhibitors. Rashmika Els is looking for her brother, who has joined one of the “cathedrals” which perpetually travel across the face of the frozen moon, Hela. And the crew of the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension are desperately searching for something to improve their fortunes… Of Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, this one shows the strangeness of his universe best.

Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock
Karl Glogauer travels back in time from Britain in 1970 to Judea in 28 AD. He is obsessed with meeting Jesus Christ… except the Jesus he meets is not the one described in the Bible. Britain in 1970 was a grim place, but Biblical Judea is little better. At least Glogauer finds the fate he was seeking, although it’s perhaps not the one he expected to find.

The Drowned World, JG Ballard
If we don’t get global warming sorted out soon, this might well turn not to be science fiction. Ballard’s second novel, and deservedly in the SF Masterworks series.

The Separation, Christopher Priest
The Second World War ended in 1941. Except it didn’t. It’s all because of identical twins Joe and Jack Sawyer. After competing in the 1936 Olympics, they fall out. One becomes a RAF bomber pilot, while the other is a conscientious objector. Priest rings the variations on their two lives, and the consequences of one or the other, or both, dying.

Somewhere East of Life, Brian W Aldiss
Someone has stolen ten years of Roy Burnell’s memories, and so he wanders about Central Asia hunting for the magic bullet which will restore them. This is one of those near-future sf novels which, now that its future has passed, bears an uncanny resemblance to mainstream fiction. And yet it’s still sf.

The Time Machine, HG Wells
A man invents a time machine and travels to the future. To the year 802,701 AD, in fact. But you probably knew that already.

The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter
This is the authorised sequel to The Time Machine – and in it the publication of Wells’ novel has changed the future. The Time Traveller can no longer rescue Weena from the Morlocks. So he goes back in time to prevent his earlier self from inventing the time machine. Only that changes the future yet again… Baxter manages to pull a happy ending out of his story, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out how.

1984, George Orwell
Some say this isn’t science fiction. I say that just because some governments are using techniques described in the book – left-wing doubleplusungood, right wing doubleplusgood; Christianity doubleplusgood, atheism doubleplusungood – that doesn’t mean 1984 isn’t science fiction. The UK might as well be Airstrip One, anyway. And not even George Orwell would have dared invent Gitmo and “extraordinary rendition” for his novel.

Pavane, Keith Roberts
Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, and England remains Catholic. The stories in this fix-up novel are set in a 1968 following on from this, but it’s not a 1968 we’d recognise. Pavane is still one of the best alternate history novels ever written, and Keith Roberts deserves to be better known than he is.

The Road to Corlay, Richard Cowper
A thousand years in the future, the ice-caps have melted and the UK is now a series of small islands (it’s that global warming thing again). Modern technology has been mostly forgotten, and a Church Militant rules everything. But the prophesied White Bird of Dawning could break their rule. It all depends on Tom, whose pipe-playing has the power to stir minds. While this novel may sound like fantasy, it’s very definitely science fiction. It’s also very English.

Chronocules, DG Compton
This novel has one of the all-time great opening sentences: “About twenty years before this story begins—give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate—the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.” But then it was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper sides of used Matchboxes, and something that might have been Castor Oil, so what do you expect?

Silver Screen, Justina Robson
Anjuli O’Connell is a psychologist working with the Artificial Intelligence 901. Just before his death, a colleague filed a petition with the World Court to emancipate the AI, but the company which built and owns it is resisting. Not many debut novels are shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, but Silver Screen was. And it also appeared on the shortlist for the BSFA Award.

Oracle, Ian Watson
A Roman centurion is dragged forward to the present day by an experiment and finds himself in, of all places, Milton Keynes (that’s the town with the concrete cows). He’s picked up by a British researcher… But then the security services get involved. And so do the IRA. And the book heads smartly into thriller territory.

The Star Fraction, Ken MacLeod
This was MacLeod’s debut novel, and takes place in a balkanised UK. Revolution is in the air, and three very different characters find themselves involved. And behind it all is the mysterious Star Fraction. And the rogue AI, the Watchmaker. An astonishing debut from MacLeod.

Now go and read them.

(Before you all start spluttering about various books I’ve missed off the list, I picked titles which are either set (mostly) in the UK, or at some point in the future at which nation states are irrelevant. So no Black Man or Brasyl. Or Rendezvous with Rama. They’re also books I’ve both read and enjoyed. So no John Wyndham (never read him). Nevertheless, I’ve probably missed an entire county’s worth of UK authors who deserve mention. If you can think of any, then feel free to name them in a comment.)

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