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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

structure-axo-q-theatre

While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.


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17,500 words or more

A few weeks ago in a review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ – see here – sf critic Paul Kincaid mentioned it was one of his favourite novellas. He also provided a link to an earlier post on another blog giving his favourite science fiction novellas – see here. So, of course, I started thinking about a list of my own… and immediately hit a couple of snags…

I like the novella, I think it’s an interesting length. It gives you the freedom to experiment you don’t have in a novel, and the room to experiment you don’t have in a short story. The four books of the Apollo Quartet are novellas, and I plan to write further at that length. But. Novellas are not as common as short stories – because they’re harder to write and harder to sell – and, as I tried putting together a list of ten favourite novellas, I discovered that few of them are all that memorable. It’s likely down to pure numbers: I’ve read so many short stories that I can quite easily think of ten which have stayed with me over the years. But ten novellas? Have I read enough for a critical mass of favourites to form?

The first few choices were easy. But then I had to resort to various collections and anthologies to prompt my memory. I also discovered that some of my choices were actually novelettes…

I hate the novelette.

It is a completely useless category. According to the Hugo Awards, a short story is up to 7,499 words, a novelette between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and a novella between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Anything over that is a novel. Back in the day, magazines apparently offered different pay rates for short stories, novelettes and novellas, and some magazines – well, Asimov’s and Analog – still list stories by category in their table of contents. But the novelette as a category serves no useful function for readers. There are short stories and there are novellas. Why do we need something in between? So the Hugo and Nebula Awards can hand out more awards to the voters’ friends? Most genre awards only have a short fiction category, they don’t even make a distinction between short story and novella…

But, as I said earlier, I like novellas, and I think it’s important to recognise them in the annual awards merry-go-round. But, please, kill the novelette. Expunge it, exterminate it, marmelize it, remove it from every ballot and magazine TOC.

Anyway, my favourite novellas… After some research, I managed a list of ten, all of which were categorised as novellas by isfdb.org. But restricting myself to stories of 17,500 to 39,999 words meant I’d been forced to chose some novellas I would be hard-pressed to call favourites. So I thought, sod it. I don’t care if some of them are novelettes. I reject the bloody category anyway. Which is how I ended up with the following ten novella/ettes…

‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1959)
One of the things about a favourite piece of short fiction is that you can remember where you first read it. This was in an anthology called The Future Makers which I was given as a present one Christmas or birthday back in my early teens. The story itself is a piece of spy fiction with added aliens, and there’s something about its 1950s thriller template that makes it more memorable than it would be otherwise. It was also published separately as a novel under the same title.

‘Empire Star’, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Delany was one of my favourite writers during my teens and twenties, and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. Dhalgren remains a favourite novel. But I remember being really impressed by the Moebius strip-like structure of this novella when I first read it. And it still impresses me on rereads. I first read it as one half of a Sphere double with ‘The Ballad of Beta-2′, and I’m pretty sure it was while on holiday in Paris with the family in the early 1980s.

‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading one of his Eight Worlds short stories, but I can’t actually remember when I first read him. Having said that, ‘The Barbie Murders’ is not an Eight Worlds story but an Anna-Louise Bach one – although like many of the former, it’s set on the Moon. There is something very creepy about the story’s central premise – a cult in which all the members have had themselves surgically remade to resemble Barbie; and Varley uses this idea to ask questions about identity. I also think this is one of those stories which exists in that Schrödinger’s-Cat-like area between utopia and dystopia.

‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
I read this is The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection, and it’s probably the premier work of time paradox fiction in the genre. It originally appeared in an author collection, Novelty: Four Stories, and has even been published as a standalone novella.

‘Identifying the Object’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
This story (it’s one of ones on this list that’s actually a novelette) first appeared in Interzone #42, December 1990, under the title ‘Forward Echoes’. It’s the story that turned me into a collector of Gwyneth Jones’ fiction, Later, she amended it and it was published under its new title as the title story in a chapbook by Swan Press of Austin, Texas. The story takes place in the same world as Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, Buonarotti stories and Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
I first read this in the collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, and of the four novellas in that collection, it’s the one that stood out the most for me. There are a lot of stories set in the Ekumen which could have made it onto this list, but most of them aren’t really long enough to qualify as novellas.

‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
I read this in the issue of Asimov’s in which it appeared, March 1996. In my contribution to the Acnestis APA a couple of months later, I described it as “brilliant” and wrote that “if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, then there’s no justice”. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Hugo as a novelette and the World Fantasy Award as a novella (which proves my point above), and shortlisted for the Tiptree.

‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
Science fiction is full of Big Dumb Objects, from Niven’s ringworld to Clarke’s Rama, but most are associated with quite dull pieces of fiction. Reed’s ‘Marrow’ is told with a very clinical, detached voice, which only heightens the impact of the BDOs which furnish this novella. There’s the Great Ship, a slower-than-light starship the size and shape of a gas giant, and there’s the title world itself, which exists at the core of the Great Ship. This novellas was later fixed up into a novel of the same title.

‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
When I first read this in Interzone #124, October 1997, I characterised it as one of Watson’s occasional completely-off-the-wall stories, the ones he churns out every now and again that are even more bonkers than his usual output. It’s about jigsaws, Vidkun Quisling, Nazi occultism, and getting naked in an Oslo park. I liked it a lot, and it was certainly memorable. And then it re-appeared as the first section of the novel Mockymen, and it seemed even more mad, and I liked it even more. It reads like fantasy, and to use it as the opener for a sf novel (about aliens invading Earth) demonstrates such an insane view of genre that it’s hard not to admire its brazenness.

‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
I read this as a standalone chapbook published by Phoenix Pick, which I’d purchased after being mightily impressed by Gilman’s fantasy Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social world-building Gilman does in the novel that, I think, most impressed me. It is certainly a novella that has haunted me since I read it.

So there you have it, ten pieces of long short fiction of novella-ish-type length. I suspect if I were to try the same exercise a couple of years from now I might come up with a slightly different list. But this will do for now. And I’m serious about getting rid of the novelette.


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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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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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

I like stories that play around with the structure of their narrative. I like reading them, I like writing them. I particularly like the way they allow you to hide things, so you can drop them all on the reader at the end and blow their mind. I call that the B-52 Effect – not after the bomber but after the drink, which you knock back and it sort of goes whoommppfff when it hits your stomach. If I can do that in my fiction, then job done.

While I was thinking about interesting narrative structures, it occurred to me it’s not something genre fiction does often, but when it does it generally does it quite well. And I tried to think of ten excellent novels that boasted interesting narrative structures. But I could only think of five:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), has perhaps the most common form of non-linear structure used in genre fiction, comprising two separate narratives – one of Byron’s fictional novel, which is also glossed with historical notes; and the second narrative is an email exchange set in the present about Byron’s life and his novel. One narrative informs the other and is in turn informed by it. I like that.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000), shares a similar structure to Crowley’s novel, in that the main narrative is – perhaps – a fictional work about the title character, and this is wrapped within another narrative which comments on Ash’s narrative and is in turn changed by her narrative.

Use Of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1991), famously has two narratives intertwined and chronologically opposed – one moves forward in time, like your average normal linear plot; but the other alternates with it and moves backwards in time. It makes for a mind-blowing climax, but sadly it’s a single shot: once you know the ending, you’re not going to get that B-52 Effect again.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974), equally famously has a non-linear structure narrative, with alternating chapters set on each of the story’s two worlds, Anarres and Uras, but not in chronological order. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, the chapters if re-ordered chronologically would go: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968) is, given that I’ve only read eight of Compton’s seventeen sf novels, the only one I’ve read so far that isn’t a two-hander. Most have a pair of protagonists, typically one male and one female, and the viewpoint alternates between them. Interestingly, in The Steel Crocodile the sections overlap so the reader sees events from both viewpoints. Synthajoy, however, has a single POV. At the start of the book, the protagonist is in an institution being “cured” after committing a crime. The narrative then starts to seamlessly slide into the past and describes the events that led up to the crime, and throughout the novel drifts back and forth between the two narratives. It is very cleverly done.

There are surely other genre novels with narrative structures other than the bog-standard linear beginning-to-end plot, but I’m having trouble thinking of good ones. There are fix-up novels, of course, though there’s nothing especially interesting in that as a structure. And both The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Icehenge comprise three loosely-linked novellas, and are both very good and cleverly done. Literary fiction is much more adventurous in this regard and two examples leap immediately to mind: Cloud Atlas and Girl Reading. Anyone else have any examples worth mentioning?


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A critical bookshelf

Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:


First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).

On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.

These three books do exactly what it says on the tin: annotated lists of the top one hundred genre books, as chosen by the editors. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and Fantasy: The 100 Best Books are sister-works; I’m guessing Pringle wanted to do both but ended up approaching another publisher for his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels . Interesting books, but I can’t say I agree with the majority of their choices.

Two important critical works, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis and Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and a couple of general guides to sf, David Wingrove’s The Science Fiction Source Book and David Pringle’s The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction.

I’m not sure what use is The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, but never mind. Likewise, the Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Zool is actually the Oxford SF Group). Essential SF is, well, just that – at least according to the authors. Who’s Who in Science Fiction lists the pseudonyms used by genre writers.

Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.

I seem to recall Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder causing something of a fuss when it was published in the late 1990s. I enjoyed it and, like Westfahl, I’ve always felt science fiction began in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories. The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology is just that, and the title of British Science Fiction and Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys pretty accurately describes its contents too.

A pair of British critics: Paul Kincaid’s A Very British Genre and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction; and Gwyneth Jones’ Deconstructing the Starships and Imagination / Space.

Some books about writers: Snake’s Hands is a study of the fiction of John Crowley; The Cherryh Odyssey covers CJ Cherryh’s works; Parietal Games is criticism about, and by, M John Harrison; Heinlein in Dimension is about Robert Heinlein; and The Universes of EE Smith is about the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Some books about one writer: Gene Wolfe. The Long and the Short of It does not cover any specific work of Wolfe’s, unlike Solar Labyrinth, Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition and Attending Daedalus, all of which are about The Book Of The New Sun. I reviewed Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition for Interzone.

I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.

The Delany Intersection and the Starmont Reader’s Guide are both about Delany’s fiction. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is Delany’s first and probably best-known work of criticism, though he’s written nearly a dozen such books. Jack Vance – Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography is just that.

Finally, two books about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master Of Adventure about his fiction and A Guide to Barsoom specific to his Mars books. Who Writes Science Fiction? and Wordsmiths of Wonder are both collections of interviews with genre writers.

As well as the above books, I also have a number of science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedias and reference works. But that’s a post for another day.


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Ten Greatest Authors

I can’t even remotely pretend the ten authors in this list are the “greatest” in any commonly-accepted sense. They’re not all favourites, but they’re certainly the authors whose writing I admire the most. Still, it’s a list. Everyone likes lists.

In no particular order…

  1. Lawrence Durrell – I love the way he uses the English language. At a sentence level, I think he writes the best prose of any writer I’ve ever read. The Alexandria Quartet is required reading.
  2. Anthony Burgess – because fiction should be clever – although, to be honest, Burgess was occasionally too clever for his own good. Once described as a great writer who never wrote a great novel… except Earthly Powers is a great novel.
  3. John Fowles – the sheer readability of his prose disguises the depth and insight of his fiction. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of the great works of post-war British literature.
  4. DH Lawrence – I came late to Lawrence, but I immediately fell in love with his prose – the level of detail, the insight, the poetry…
  5. John Crowley – the Ægypt Sequence remains one of the best works of American literature from the second half of the twentieth century. Often it seems the height of hubris to claim Crowley as a genre writer.
  6. M John Harrison – the finest British prose stylist who self-identifies as a genre fiction writer. Light is a touchstone work of science fiction.
  7. Paul Park – the finest American prose stylist who self-identifies as a genre fiction writer. His books are less challenging than M John Harrison’s, but they also make more original use of genre tropes.
  8. Gwyneth Jones – her prose is an order of magnitude better than is typical for science fiction; and her science fiction is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than is typical for the genre.
  9. WG Sebald – because he’s such a resolutely interesting writer in the way he frames and presents narratives.
  10. Kim Stanley Robinson – the most thoughtful science fiction writer of his generation, and extremely readable with it. The Mars trilogy is a touchstone work of science fiction.

Honourable mentions: Mary Gentle, Paul Scott, Joseph Conrad, Frank Herbert, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Also: my Ten Greatest Film Directors post.

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