It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.


I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.


This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)


I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.


Reading diary, #2

Most of the reading I’ve been doing over the past month or so has been dipping into research books as I wrangle Apollo Quartet 4 into shape. (Not long now. Honest.) So there’s not been that much of yer actual reading of fiction. Except for, well, the following…

The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977). I read this for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

darebioDan Dare: A Biography, Daniel Tatarsky (2010). Back in the late 1970s, my parents bought me a Hamlyn anthology of Dan Dare stories one Christmas, containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, both of which remain my favourite Dare stories. Several years ago, I collected the full set of Hawk Publishing Dan Dare reprints (see here). So when a “biography” of Dare was published a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy. And… it’s not very good. The book tells the story of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and how Eagle was begun. But the writing throughout is terrible, and I spotted several inaccuracies (on things not related to Eagle, to be fair). There are some nice colour plates, particularly of the mock-ups of the first issue, and a useful appendix giving plot summaries of all the Dan Dare stories published in Eagle. But there are better books about Hampson, and reading about Dan Dare is no substitute for reading the actual Dan Dare comic strips.

whatdoctororderedspread0What The Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading him in Interzone back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he has not been exactly prolific – three novels to date, and What The Doctor Ordered is only his second collection after 1990’s The Brains of Rats. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few stories still uncollected. What The Doctor Ordered collects fourteen stories, dating from 1997 to 2012, and originally appearing in a variety of venues, such as F&SF, Asimov’s, Flurb and a handful of original anthologies, mostly horror or dark fantasy. The one thing I’d forgotten during all the years I’d not read Blumlein was how bloody good he is. His three novels are all too different to really get a handle on him as a novel writer. But his short fiction really is very, very good. Best story in here is ‘Isostasy’, although ‘The Roberts’ is also excellent. Blumlein’s fiction is unsettling in ways that I think few authors manage to be. His prose is clinical and sharp, and he paints realistic pictures… into which he drops something fantastical that nonetheless manages to fit in. And then he twists it in ways that makes it seem all the more uncomfortable. One of the best collections I’ve read in recent years.

catseyeCat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988). The narrator of this novel is a middle-aged artist, Elaine, who has returned to Toronto to attend a retrospective of her career. This triggers a series of long extended flashback sequences, in which she remembers her childhood in the city, particularly her friendship with three schoolfriends, one of whom was a cruel bully; but she also remembers her college years and her early years as an artist. That bullying schoolfriend, Cordelia, haunts Elaine, even in the present – although the tables did eventually turn, and while Elaine never bullied Cordelia to the extent she was bullied herself, Elaine does recount how Cordelia unravelled over the years and eventually ended up in a sanatorium. If Cordelia’s decline is signposted throughout the novel, then I missed most of it, though her fall as an ironic mirror image of Elaine’s rise to success did seem a little too obvious. Cat’s Eye was a surprisingly easy read, and if the early chapters, detailing Elaine’s childhood, were a little grim and hard to take in places, there was plenty more in the novel to balance them. Worth reading.

Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978). Another book read for review on SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1974). The fourth book of the Raj Quartet, and the war is over in Europe, the Americans have dropped their atom bombs, but there is still Malaysia to be taken back from the Japanese. In India, demission of power from the UK is a certainty – the socialist government back home are focusing on domestic issues, and are not interested in Empire. This novel introduces Guy Perron, played by Charles Dance in the TV adaptation (and probably the character most remembered after Timothy Piggot-Smith’s Ronald Merrick), who despite his privileged background has managed to stay a sergeant throughout the war. He meets Merrick, who is now a major dealing with the Indian army deserters who joined the Germans and Japanese, and is detached to his staff. Through Merrick, he also meets Sarah Layton, whose narrative figured prominently in both The Day Of The Scorpion and The Towers Of Silence. Also prominent in the narrative is Nigel Rowan, who made a brief appearance in one of the earlier books. Rowan and Perron are old school-mates, as was Hari Kumar – whose false imprisonment as a political detenu by Merrick, who is wrongly convinced Kumar raped Daphne Manners (the events surrounding this form the core of the first book, The Jewel In The Crown). Through Rowan, Perron and the Laytons, Scott examines the route to independence and its effect on Britons living in India, weaving in and out of the plot of the preceding three books as they relate to Perron, Rowan and Sarah Layton (the TV adaptation went for a straight chronological structure, and misses a lot of the books’ arguments and subtleties). Scott is quite scathing in his critique of the Raj, and of the British who ruled India. It’s not hard to understand why these four books are considered classics, they’re certainly amongst the best post-war British literature I’ve read. I suspect I’ll be rereading them again one day.

screamingplanetAlexandro Jodorowsky’s Screaming Planet, Alexandro Jodorowsky & various artists (2013). I’m a fan of Jodorowsky’s films and bandes dessinée, but I knew nothing about this title when I bought it. Still, Jodorowsky… It proved to be a linked anthology of short pieces, written by Jodorowsk but drawn by a variety of artists, which featured in the relaunched Métal Hurlant. A sentient planet is mistreated by its natives so badly it somehow makes them build an enormous metal head, into which it decants its personality, and which is then blasted into space – this is the “screaming planet”. And as it journeys through the cosmos, it passes by other worlds and its presence affects one or more people on those worlds. The story themselves are linked only by the giant head passing in the sky. Some work better than others. This is minor Jodorowsky – although he does confess in an introduction that he is used to working at longer lengths and found writing these “short stories” challenging.

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Groupthink at SF Signal

Yesterday, SF signal posted one of its regular Mind Melds – see here – this time on the subject of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarianism and total war. And I contributed to it. I sort of riffed about dystopias, which wasn’t entirely on topic but never mind.

I mentioned several relevant sf novels, including Anthony Burgess’s 1985, Alastair Reynolds’s The Prefect, Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But I wish I’d remember to mention Adam Roberts’ multi-award-winning Jack Glass, which pretty much demonstrates one of the points I was trying to make. The second and third parts of the novel feature the daughters of one of the super-rich families which effectively run the Solar System, a situation not that far removed from our current situation. Everyone else, of course, gets to live in abject misery and poverty in order to fund the super-rich’s lifestyles. I’ve said before that our current lords and masters appear to be taking Dickens as a model rather than Orwell, and Jack Glass is a good illustration of that.

And in the comments to the Mind Meld, I also sort of got accused of being a Nazi. Apparently pointing out that Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t really map onto the current political climate is a form of Godwinism. Er, no. It’s not a way to stifle argument, it’s simply pointing that if you believe Orwell’s book is relevant to the twenty-first century then your argument is wrong. Which, of course, has nothing to do with Nazis.


The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…


New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.


These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…


Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.


Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.


These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.


Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.


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…


The best of the half-year: 2012

It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…

I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995’s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.

Honourable mentions go to Eastermodern by Herta Hurnaus, Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Weintraub and Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot, which are books of photographs of modernist and brutalist buildings. Niemeyer’s work perfectly encapsulates the future we could have had, and all cities should resemble Brasilia. Also worthy of note are How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which every writer and critic should read; Alias Grace, which is probably Margaret Atwood’s best novel; and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, a collection by an author new to me which contains some excellent novellas and some not so interesting short stories.

I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків), Sergei Parajanov (1965). I watched Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates last year. That film is perhaps the zenith of “poetical cinema”, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is definitely a way-station on the climb to it. It is, on the face of it, a simple story of one young man’s trials and tribulations. He is a member of Ukrainian Hutsul culture, and the film is rich with its costumes, music and traditions. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is by no means an easy film to watch, however, as it operates on so many levels – but it at least has a coherent plot, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Pomegranates.

On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed – much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.

John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.

Honourable mentions go to , Frederico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.

I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.

Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.

The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.

The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.

Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.

Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.

Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places  and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).

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30 words on 30 books

I shamelessly stole this idea from Pornokitsch, who did the same yesterday. Since I’m not doing my readings & watching posts this year, I thought thirty words on the last thirty novels I’ve read might be a good way of mentioning my recent reading. But 30 words is actually harder to do than it looks…

Final Days, Gary Gibson (2011)
Discovery on planet orbiting distant star reached by wormhole suggests future is fixed and immutable. World starts to fall apart. Nice Apollo re-enactment but otherwise not that much stands out.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946)
Tom Sawyer-ish Frankie daydreams of brother’s wedding. A GI mistakes her age, wants to get frisky. Lovely writing, though it’s hard not to suspect Frankie is wrong in the head.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, Jacques Tardi (2010)
Graphic novel adaption of French thriller set in the UK. Assassin like father like son. With guns. And gore. Not much more to be said. Tardi is definitely worth reading.

Bodies, Jed Mercurio (2002)
Incompetent doctors get away with murder on the NHS. New houseman is horrified. He learns to work with the system. A favourite writer but it will scare you off hospitals.

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss (2004)
First human colony disappears, rescue mission discovers aliens protecting them. Mix of hard sf and space opera. Nice heroine, not so interesting aliens. Oozes competence without suggesting more. Review here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963)
Should have been a film with Dirk Bogarde. 1960s wastrel goes begging for cash and sparks family crisis. Great wit, great writing, and an astonishing postmodern interlude. Recommended. Review here.

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
Freak alien resembles humans. They want to conquer her planet and fall in love with her. She scuppers their plans. Somewhat old-fashioned sf, though protagonist well-drawn. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar (2010)
Literary and pulp potage which stripmines steampunk tropes. Orphan adventures, starts cleverly in Victorian Lizard London but loses steam about halfway through before Bond-esque Vernian finish. The first of three.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008)
Man recovering from terrorist bomb explosion dreams himself into alternate self in a world where WWII never ended. Very cleverly done, alternate world very real, great writing. Recommended. Review here.

Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Princess pilot, a hot-shot of course, proves to be catalyst which rejoins three sundered races on three separate planets. Interesting debut, though perhaps a little over-egged. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (2009)
China prospers while rest of world in financial crisis. Interesting window on Chinese society, though unsatisfactory as a novel – the plot is explained in a final chapter info-dump. Review here.

The Fall, Albert Camus (1957)
Pompous ex-lawyer monologues at stranger in Amsterdam bar and over several days tells him of his somewhat boring fall from grace. Mercifully short, though there’s some insightful writing in it.

Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell (1956)
It’s a book of poems. And they were selected. By Lawrence Durrell. He did this several times. Except when he wasn’t collecting his poems for his Collected Poems. More here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994)
A story told through several stories – including a superb pisstake of Taggart, and a righteous skewering of Jeffrey Archer. Superbly done, though perhaps needed the stories tying together more. Recommended.

Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey (2011)
Solar system shenanigans as alien virus wreaks havoc for corporate profit. Who needs New Space Opera? Regressive: no diversity, old school sexism, implausible villainy. Mostly right physics. Avoid. Review here.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Men repeal rights of women, so they secretly develop women’s language. Interesting linguistics, good female characters, though characterisation of men not so convincing and world-building weak. Review on SF Mistressworks.

This Island Earth, Raymond F Jones (1952)
Manly engineer saves the galaxy by demonstrating good old US engineering know-how. Womanly PhD does his ironing and cooking. Happily they don’t write them like this any more. More here.

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler (1944)
Mixed-up femme fatales don’t fool Marlowe in hunt for rich man’s missing wife. Not the cunningest murder-mystery plot and Marlowe often gets away with murder. Strong on place and time.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987)
In Hungary, writer hires housekeeper, who proves to be old school peasant and a right character. Fascinating portrait of housekeeper, thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon to be major film. Review here.

The Unorthodox Engineers, Colin Kapp (1979)
Collection of sf shorts in which lateral thinking engineers solve seemingly intractable problems. Dated, problems not especially unsolvable, nor especially original. Entirely forgettable, in fact. Hard book to find, though.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
Story not as good as Nemo’s though text is more pleasingly detailed. Science horribly dated, of course, and often wrong. Characters bizarrely emphatic – except for phlegmatic Icelandic guide. Historical document.

Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
Novella set on human-colonised Europa-like planet with interesting socialist society. Woman and male tourist find themselves on unintended journey after seaquake. Promises more than it delivers but still worth reading.

Kamikaze l’Amour, Richard Kadrey (1995)
Kadrey channels Ballard and Shepard in rock star epiphany in California overrun by Amazonian jungle. Not sure how original was 17 years ago but is not now. After Metrophage, disappointing.

Smart-Aleck Kill, Raymond Chandler (1958)
Collection of four shorts. Simple direct prose, strong on place and time, though plotting something of a direct line and characterisation sketchy. More for noir fans than normal readers, possibly.

Embassytown, China Miéville (2011)
Truthful aliens get hooked on impossible Ambassador’s speech. World falls apart. Narrator teaches aliens to lie and saves planet. Interesting ideas but old-fashioned science fiction. Likely award-winner. Sigh. Review here.

Dr No, Ian Fleming (1958)
Bond in Jamica. Again. Racial stereotype has evil plan to do evil. Bond foils, with help of trusty local. He nearly dies in the process, but he gets girl. Again.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
Seminal bande dessinée allegedly cobbled together from failed Dune film project. Light and dark Incal combine to save galaxy from evil Darkness. Completely bonkers. Lovely art. Everyone should own copy.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1997)
Character study of true life murderess from 1840s. Clevery done – never quite determines innocence or guilt, though very detailed on life and crime. Lovely writing. Possibly Atwood’s best novel. Recommended.

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Hot flushes and giant aliens that live inside planets. Cartoon aliens that want to conquer galaxy. Hit and miss comedy, but too fantastical for sf. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.

The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett (1974)
By-the-numbers swords and planets. Manly hero brought up by animals battles way across barbarian planet to save mentor. Been there, done that. Yawn. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.


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