It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on blogger.com but on wordpress.com for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


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What I’m Pointing To…

Science fiction was born in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories. The first attempt at defining science fiction occurred several days later. In more than eighty years, no one has satisfactorily defined the genre – the most often quoted “definition” is Damon Knight’s, science fiction “means what we point to when we say it”, from 1956. However, it often seems people chiefly define science fiction by its readers. So PD James, Maggie Gee, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy – for example – can all write novels that are not science fiction, despite featuring tropes common to the genre. Or so they would have you believe…

I’ve yet to see anyone claim Jed Mercurio’s Ascent as science fiction. And yet… It’s set in the past, true: the book ends in 1969. It is also chiefly a fictionalisation of real events. But the final third of the novel certainly never took place. Which arguably makes Ascent alternate history, which is often considered a sub-genre of science fiction – sf author Stephen Baxter did something similar with NASA and a trip to Mars in Voyage. But there’s more to Ascent‘s science-fictional credentials than just that.

Yefgenii Yeremin is orphaned during the Siege of Stalingrad. Each year, a boy from the orphanage to which he is sent is awarded a cadetship in the air force. Yeremin wins that cadetship – by partially blinding his chief rival. During the Korean War, he becomes Ace of Aces. Known as “Ivan the Terrible”, he kills more enemy pilots than anyone else – despite not “officially” being in Korea. Unfortunately, his masters back in Moscow are not happy with his final escapade, and he is assigned to an air base in Franz Josef Land (an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, north of Novaya Zemlya). Most Soviet pilots spend a year or two in Franz Josef Land, but Yeremin and his family spend nearly a decade there. Yeremin is then recruited for the Soviet space programme… and the last third of Ascent describes his one-man mission to beat the Americans to the Moon in 1969.

The technology that Mercurio describes for this fictional mission is real. There really was a LK Lunar landing module and a LOK Lunar orbital craft. The project, however, was abandoned following the death of Chief Designer Korolev and a series of catastrophic failures of the N1 booster. As is clear from the attention to detail (and the bilbiography at the end of the novel), Mercurio has not stinted on his research.

Reviews of the book in the national press made much of its heavy use of unglossed aeronautical jargon and the near-obsessive attention to detail. This, some critics decided, was a reflection of the protagonist’s own self-absorption and aloofness. Yeremin was so driven, they argued, that he was defined by his immersion in the technology he used and the ways in which he used it. The fact that Yeremin’s wife is referred to throughout as “the widow”, they saw as indicative of a protagonist who was so focused on his own ambitions that he could not relate to people – especially those closest to him. But Yeremin’s fellow pilots in Korea are all named, as are the cosmonauts he joins in Star City (Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, Vladimir Komarov). The only US pilots named during the Korean War dogfights, however, are those who later become astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra

To my mind, Mercurio’s jargon-heavy prose, and lack of a glossary, has much in common with a science fiction narrative. To aeronautical and astronautical buffs, Mercurio’s prose is detailed and accurate… but not baffling. To a science fiction reader, a story which references androids, FTL, Dyson Spheres, AIs, etc., is not impenetrable. In fiction, settings are defined by what they contain – in mainstream fiction, those objects are shared with the real world. We all know what a television set is, a mobile phone (or cell phone), Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, turnip, casserole, marmoset, etc… In science fiction, the objects within the setting are either unique to the story or to the genre. In the latter case, no glossing is usually necessary (and is, incidentally, where mainstream authors writing sf usually fall flat on their faces). In the former, the better writers allow meaning to come from context, and so avoid the dreaded info-dump. True, some sf novels do use glossaries – Frank Herbert’s Dune is perhaps the premier example. Mercurio does not gloss (the amount of jargon understood depends on the reader’s familiarity with the technology described), but he also makes terms comprehensible through context and through info-dumps.

Reviewers unfamiliar with the language of science fiction found the privileging of technology in Ascent worthy of comment. They interpreted this as an aspect of Mercurio’s characterisation of Yeremin. Narrow, or flat, characterisation is often perceived as a defining characteristic of science fiction. In a literature where the idea, often in the form of technology or science, is foregrounded, then characterisation is often going to appear subservient. Because Mercurio does this in Ascent, I started thinking about what it was that made the novel science fiction, and what it is that makes any sf novel science fiction…

Let’s say that science fiction can be distinguished by its settings, or by its readers. To many, if a story is set in the future or in outer space, then it is science fiction. But Apollo 13 is not considered to be sf. Any book labelled by the publisher as science fiction is sf. But not all sf books are marketed as sf – William Gibson’s Spook Country or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance. Any book written by an author who identifies themselves as a sf writer, or identifies themselves as a member of the community of sf writers and readers, is science fiction. Again, not all sf books are written by sf writers – Orwell’s 1984, or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. So neither of these characteristics are distinguishing or useful.

Science fiction, unlike fantasy, is a modernist form of literature because it takes as axiomatic that the human condition and/or the human environment can be controlled – from cybernetic implants to genetic engineering, from colonies on Mars to re-engineering whole galaxies. Even the “unknown” can be subjected to reasoning and control, although it may not produce answers. Science fiction differs from mainstream modernist literature in that the tools used for control of the human condition and/or environment are figments. They either do not exist, do not operate in the real world as described in the text, or rely on science and/or technology which does not exist. Or their use presupposes, or leads to, a condition or situation which cannot or does not currently exist – such as a landing on Mars, or the Germans winning World War II. Or, in the case of Ascent, the Soviets sending a cosmonaut to the Moon.

So science fiction is more than just an invented setting. It is more than just squids in space. It is the process by which the figments are used, and it is the intent of that process. Not the intent of the author – we can’t know that from the text alone. But if the figments are instrumental in the control of the human condition and/or environment, and that is the intent of the figments in the text, then the text must be science fiction.

It’s a theory, anyway…

After all that, I should probably point out that I did enjoy Ascent. I’ve been fascinated by the Space Race since I was a child – The Right Stuff is both a favourite book and a favourite film – and I’m enough of a geek to find the technology fascinating. However, I do think Mercurio missed one trick in his book. One of the Apollo missions allegedly reported strange lights on the Moon’s surface during one of their orbits. Perhaps Mercurio should have tied this in – so Yeremin’s landing becomes a UFO myth of the Apollo programme. It would have provided an amusing link to the real world.

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