It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Books from my collection: Park and Robson

Back in the 1990s I was in a BSFA Orbiter with Justina Robson, so when her first novel was published I bought it. I’d already seen some of its chapters, so I knew it was good. I continued to buy Justina’s novels because I know she’s an excellent writer and she rarely disappoints.

Paul Park became one of my favourite authors after I read Coelestis – which remains a favourite sf novel to this day (see here). I subsequently tracked down copies of his debut trilogy, The Starbridge Chronicles, and then his small press novels. When the Princess of Roumania quartet was announced, I was a little disappointed that he had turned to fantasy, and what appeared to be YA fantasy at that. But I bought the books, read them – and they’re not YA, they’re actually one of the best fantasy series of this century.

Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi. Both were shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is a pretty damn impressive achievement.

Natural History and its loose sequel Living Next Door to the God of Love. Though I’d have said Natural History was a better novel than Silver Screen or Mappa Mundi, it wasn’t shortlisted for the Clarke. It did make the shortlist for the BSFA Award, however; as did Living Next Door to the God of Love.

The Quantum Gravity, or Lila Black, quintet – Keeping It Real, Selling Out, Down to the Bone, Going Under and Chasing the Dragon. I plan to read all five some time this summer as a reading project. Watch this space.

Justina’s only collection to date, Heliotrope, was published by Australian small press Ticonderoga to celebrate her appearance as GoH at the Australian National SF Convention in Perth this year. It’s a shame that one of the UK’s best sf writer’s only collection has to be published on the other side of the planet. My edition is the signed and numbered edition. Adam Roberts wrote the introduction.

The Starbridge Chronicles: Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness. There is a SFBC omnibus edition of the first two books, The Sugar Festival, which I’ve not seen. The trilogy is set on a world which, like Aldiss’ Helliconia, has seasons which are generations long.

The US and UK editions of Coelestis. The UK edition predates the US one by two years. Not sure why I have both. As I recall, the only first edition I could initially find was the US one, so I bought it. But at the 2005 Worldcon I found a copy of the UK edition, which I bought so Paul Park could sign for me. Which he did.

No Traveller Returns is a novella from PS Publishing. Park has another due late this year, Ghost Doing the Orange Dance (originally published in F&SF in February last year). If Lions Could Speak is a short story collection. The Gospel of Corax describes the life of an alternate theosophical Jesus. Three Marys is also set in Biblical Palestine. Perversely, copies of these three small press books appear to be more readily available than those of the Starbridge Chronicles.

A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger and The Hidden World are one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in recent years.

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Read this book!

The first programme item I was on at Illustrious, the 2010 Eastercon last weekend, was “Read This Book”. It was, however, cancelled, perhaps because it was scheduled against the BSFA Awards. I can’t say I’m too upset about the cancellation – and the Award Ceremony is one of the few Eastercon programme items I make a point of attending. Also worth noting is that even by Saturday afternoon, right up to the point where I learnt the panel was cancelled, I had no real idea which novel I was going to urge the audience to read…

But right now, on this day of this year, with the benefit of hindsight and more thought than I was capable of during Illustrious, I am going to imagine that the novel I would have chosen for the panel, that the novel I would have chosen until another one comes along and completely blows me away, is actually, er, two novels. And, given what I have written about science fiction on this blog over the past couple of years, they are choices that may surprise people. (Having said that, people who know me also know how much I love these two novels.)

The first one is…

My absolute favourite science fiction novel is Coelestis by Paul Park. I demand rigour in my science fiction. If you can change the background, and the story remains unchanged, then it isn’t sf. Yet Coelestis is completely unconvincing as sf. It is defiantly not-sf science fiction. And that is one reason why it is so brilliant. It is also beautifully written, and extremely unsettling.

Simon Mayaram, a junior consular official, has recently arrived on a tide-locked colony world distant from Earth. At the orders of his boss, he reluctantly takes the consul’s place at a party thrown by the local colonial movers and shakers at Goldstone Lodge. Also present is Junius Styreme and his beautiful daughter, Katharine. The Styremes are aliens, members of one of the two races native to the planet. Prior to the arrival of humanity, they were enslaved by the planet’s other race, the Demons. The humans wiped out the Demons and freed the aliens. Now the aliens show their gratitude – the rich ones, at least – by using drugs and surgery to become human. But not everyone feels the same way. A group of rebels attacks Goldstone Lodge, killing all those present. Except Simon and Katharine. They escape but are quickly captured. The rebels take them across to the planet’s dark side, where they discover a surviving Demon holds the rebels in thrall. The Demon, and the loss of her drugs, slowly returns Katharine to her alien nature. As Simon, who loves her, watches in horror…

John Clute has described Coelestis as a “Third World” novel, but to me it is very definitely post-colonial sf. It is also anti-colonial. The world of the novel doesn’t map exactly onto India – or any other ex-Empire colony – but the parallels are clear. The life-style enjoyed by the humans is very like that of the British in the Raj. The desire of the aliens to mimic their masters bears some similarities with the way India has subsumed elements of British culture – such as the language (which remains the nearest the country has to an official language). Park makes these likenesses even starker by refusing to invent a society for his world. It is the twentieth century in all but name – although there are intriguing hints of a future Earth beyond the characters’ understanding. But for the aliens, the first section of Coelestis could be set in Mayapore.

But once Simon and Katharine find themselves on the dark side, the nature of the story changes. Whereas Park had initially used the colonials-in-situ, and their struggle to remain inappropriate, as commentary, he uses Katharine and Simon in captivity to first deconstruct the identity of the aliens, and then to deconstruct Simon’s identity. It makes for an discomfiting read. Coelestis uses its limited toolbox of science-fictional conceits to address only those areas Park wants to study. The rest is immaterial, and so no attempt at rigorous or plausible world-building is made. It’s not there because it doesn’t matter, because not having it there points up all the more the difference between the aliens and the humans, and humanity’s actions.

Coelestis is not a comfortable read. But it is one of those science fiction novels which can change the way you look at the world. And there are remarkably few of them.

My second choice could only be science fiction. Unlike Coelestis, it has rigour. But I also demand authenticity in my sf. Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland is proudly inauthentic, it glories in its lack of authenticity. Its story takes place in a Solar system that only ever existed in wildly unscientific pulp science fiction. It features canals on Mars, a Venus of impenetrable jungles, and a cast of colourful aliens. It is a clever postmodern space opera and a rollicking good read.

Tabitha Jute is captain of the space barge Alice Liddell. While on Mars, Tabitha inadvertently causes a near-riot, and is subsequently fined by the authorities. But she doesn’t have the money to pay the fine. Fortunately, she meets up with Marco Metz, leader of the cabaret act Contraband, and he contracts her to take him and his band to Titan. First, they stop off at Plenty, an alien artefact orbiting Earth. It had been built by the alien Frasque, but they’d been booted out of the Solar System by the Capellans – highly advanced aliens who’d bootstrapped humanity into space, but now kept everyone sealed within the orbit of Pluto.

Of course, Contraband isn’t really a cabaret act and Tabitha is forced to flee Plenty with the members of the band. They crash-land on Venus, are rescued by pirates, and then delivered to the Capellans.

To say anymore would give away the novel’s climax.

The story of Take Back Plenty is told by a mysterious, and not entirely reliable, narrator – complete with authorial interventions. Sections of the book are also interspersed with conversations between Tabitha and Alice, the space barge’s AI persona. These conversations round out Tabitha’s background and character. They also help explain the Solar system of the story. Tabitha Jute is one of the great female characters of science fiction. She is not feisty, she is not kick-ass. She is not strong because she was raped as a young woman; she is no one’s Perfect Girlfriend. In a book which revels in its inauthenticity, she is stunningly real.

When Take Back Plenty was published in 1990, I remember there being a lot of talk about it. It went onto win both the BSFA and Arthur C Clarke Awards. I’ve argued in the past that it kicked off the British New Space Opera movement. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not the case. Take Back Plenty re-appropriated the tropes of pulp space opera, but it used them in a knowing and postmodern way. It didn’t add hard science or “grit” to space opera. It added realness, yes, and dirt under science fiction’s fingernails; but its tropes were still the candy-coloured conceits of early space opera. By doing this, the novel privileged story, not setting –  yet another difference to New Space Opera. So much so, in fact, that Take Back Plenty even aped those old serials by giving poor Tabitha no actual control over the plot.

On its publication, Take Back Plenty promised a new and exciting trend in British science fiction. Sadly, that never materialised. Greenland’s novel was a one-off. He followed it with a pair of sequels, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty; but the vision had soured and neither matched the joy of Take Back Plenty. Greenland wrote one other sf novel, Harm’s Way, a steampunk space opera, but has written no novel-length science fiction since. Which is a shame.

So there you have it. Two science fiction novels I love and admire. (Science fiction novels I love but don’t admire would be a much longer list.) Sadly, both are currently out of print. Obviously I think they should be on the SF Masterworks list – assuming rights are available and all that. I urge everyone to seek out second-hand copies of these two books and read them. Or perhaps an enterprising ebook publisher might like to consider editions on Kindle (providing the authors are willing, of course).

Coelestis and Take Back Plenty are a pair of novels I am happy to champion. And I can even do that without feeling embarrassed they’re science fiction.


August and September Favourites

I’ve still been reading a favourite book each month. But I was a bit too busy in August to write up something on that month’s book, Metrophage by Richard Kadrey. So I decided to roll it into the write-up of September’s book, Paul Park’s Coelestis. And here they both are…

Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage has been described as “one of the quintessential 1980s cyberpunk novels”, and yet it seems to have slipped below the radar of most sf readers. It has neither the profile of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, nor Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and yet I believe it is better than both. Neuromancer was the seminal cyberpunk novel, and that can’t be taken away from it. But I’d argue that Metrophage did something just as important.

Jonny Qabbala is a drug pusher in Los Angeles. He is also an ex-member of the Committee for Public Safety. When Jonny’s connection, Raquin, is murdered, Jonny heads off to confront the killer, Easy Money… and promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for Los Angeles – between the Committee for Public Safety, drug lord Conover, and the anarchist Croakers. In this future, the US went bankrupt and was bought up by the Japanese. Who are now at war with the New Palestine Federation (shades of The Centauri Device).

Jonny spends time with each of the three factions – not always by choice – but is entirely powerless to prevent events from unfolding. There are puzzles embedded in the plot – the mysterious leprosy-like disease raging through the city, the Alpha Rats on the Moon… Metrophage resolves these by putting Jonny in position to have the truth explained to him. It helps that he has contacts in each of the three factions – and even more so that he is seen as important to the plans of at least two of the factions. Kadrey takes the reader on a wild ride through his Los Angeles – alternately wasteland and near-future neon-soaked wonderland. Clues dropped here and there help explain the resolution. There are a couple of points I couldn’t quite figure out – the game Conover plays with Jonny using a copy (or original) of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, for example. But plenty of other elements of the novel have been subsequently become well-known tropes in the language of science fiction.

Despite that, Metrophage reads as fresh today as it did twenty years ago. Few books – even cyberpunk ones – can claim to have avoided dating over two decades. But then, Metrophage is more than just a cyberpunk novel. If Neuromancer folded noir into science fiction, then Metrophage folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. I’ve always maintained that cyberpunk effectively ended with the publication of Metrophage, and after my recent reread I see no reason to change my mind. Metrophage is cyberpunk – although it features no cyberspace or hackers. Metrophage is science fiction.

I didn’t expect Metrophage to lose its place on my list of favourites, and my reread not only proved that but reminded me why it was a favourite. It’s a great book.

And after Kadrey, another book I didn’t expect to be dislodged from the list. However, its appeal is, perhaps, more personal. Paul Park first appeared with the Starbridge Chronicles – Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness – an ambitious science fiction trilogy set on a world with seasons which last centuries, much like Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. From the first page of that trilogy, it was clear that Park was a distinctive voice. And his follow-up, Coelestis, more than proved it. In some respects, Coelestis remains unique in the genre. And that’s not an easy accomplishment.

Simon Mayaram is attached to the British Consulate on the only colony world on which an alien race was discovered, homo coelestis. These aliens were actually two races – Demons, and the Aboriginals, who the Demons had telepathically enslaved. The humans hunted the Demons to extinction, and freed the Aboriginals. Who now ape humanity – the rich members of the race undergo comprehensive surgery, and require a strict regimen of drugs, in order to appear and behave human. Katharine Styreme is one such Aboriginal. To all intents and appearances, she is a beautiful young human woman.

Simon is invited to a party given by a prominent member of the human community. Katharine – whom he has admired from afar – is also there, with her father Junius, a wealthy merchant. During the party, Aboriginal rebels attack, kill almost everyone and kidnap Simon and Katharine. Without her drugs, Katharine begins to revert to her alien nature – a process that is exacerbated by the presence among the rebels of the last surviving Demon. When human vigilantes attack the rebels, Simon and Katharine are forced to flee… and Katharine’s meagre grip on humanity begins to erode even further.

Coelestis is one of those science fiction novels which follows a logic all its own. It is, in a sense, post-rational. Although the story is set an indeterminate time in the future, the community to which Simon belongs bears an uncanny, and deliberate, resemblance to early Twentieth Century colonial British and American. Even the Aboriginals themselves – particularly the Styremes, who are made to appear human, and show no alien side – are hardly convincing in any scientific sense. Earth is described as a dying planet, and the colony planet has been cut off from its nearest neighbour. If there is an interstellar federation or empire, then it bears no resemblance to any other in the genre.

John Clute described Coelestis as a “Third World SF novel”. It’s sheer hubris on my part, but I think this is wrong. Coelestis is a post-colonial sf novel. It is clearly inspired by Park’s own years in India. And to call India a member of the Third World is to ignore its long and deep cultural heritage – and the Aboriginals (or rather, the Demons) are implied to have an equally long cultural heritage in Coelestis. The novel is not about living in a Third World analogue, it is about the gentle wind-down from colonialism and its often bloody consequences. Park makes as much clear in events described in the book. Mayaram is of Indian extraction (although born in the UK), and during his abduction by the Aboriginals, he rapes Katharine. It’s perhaps a somewhat  blunt metaphor for John Company and the Raj, but it makes the point. Even the Aboriginals’ attempt to ape human ways is a reflection of the Indian adoption of some elements of British culture – and especially the English language. The Aboriginals’ ersatz humanity is little more than surface – Katharine may resemble a young human woman, but whatever gender she possesses is what’s attached to her mimicry (the Aboriginals are actually one-sexed). She is not a viewpoint on the alien – Coelestis is a description of her fall from humanity, not of her imitation of it.

Having grown up in the Middle East, I find a particular appeal in novels such as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Park’s Coelestis. To some extent, they remind me of my childhood. Both also have the added advantage of being novels which can be read many times – and there is always something new to find, or to think about, in them. I certainly plan to reread Coelestis again some time. Its place on my list of favourites is secure.


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