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2014 reading diary, #3

I took a break from my Hugo reading to get up to date with some SF Mistressworks reading and then, for some reason, when it came to choosing books by male authors I picked old sf ones (because I’m still alternating my reading between women and men writers). Still, at least now I’ve read those crappy old sf novels and they can go to the charity shop…

Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984). I read this to review for SF Mistressworks – see here.

renaissanceRenaissance, Raymond F Jones (1951). Many years ago I had an idea for a story inspired by the plot of the film This Island Earth, so I decided to read the novel as research. It was years before I tracked down a copy and a few years more I finally got around to reading it – see here. Meanwhile, I’d decided to read more Raymond F Jones – even though I had yet to read This Island Earth at the time. I’d already bought Jones’ Beacon novel The Deviates (because Beacon novel; see here) and a copy of The Alien (I loved the cover art; see here). So I picked up a copy of his first novel, Renaissance, and recently pulled it from the shelf to read. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – I hadn’t been impressed by This Island Earth and that is Jones’ best-known novel. Well, Renaissance is very much a novel of its time, and it makes very little sense. It opens with a giant computer, which seems to run a small colony of scientifically-minded people, but it’s all sort of B-movie weird with a giant curtain of nothingness bordering the colony on one side and a DESERT OF FIRE on the other, and everyone wears togas or something and no one appears to have sex as babies magically appear at some sort of temple… The hero gets into trouble with the authorities for daring to research a taboo subject, biology. He uncovers a conspiracy, so he infiltrates the temple… which requires him to disguise himself as a woman – but given that they wear little in the way of clothing, he uses some sort of plastic material to effect his disguise. No one sees through it, although you wouldn’t know from the text that he was pretending to be a woman for much of the story. Anyway, it turns out the colony is in an alternate universe and was an experiment by Earth, which is now ruled by some sort of secretive cabal, and there’s a historical repository of knowledge safeguarded an AI which wants to overthrow the cabal… And it’s all complete tosh, about as rigorous as blancmange and as plausible as a unicorn pasty. I’ve still got those two other Jones’ books to read – well, three if you include The Secret People, the book on which The Deviates is based – but I doubt I’ll be going any further into his oeuvre.

marvel2Captain Marvel 2: Down, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dexter Soy & Filipe Andrade (2013). I was never really a big comics fan, and I went off superhero comics completely a number of years ago. And even when I did read comics, Captain Marvel was not a title I bothered following. But when I discovered that the first half of this miniseries by Kelly Sue DeConnick featured the Mercury 13, I decided to give it a go (see here). I wasn’t that impressed so wasn’t going to bother with the second volume… until I learnt it took place at the bottom of the sea. It was just too close to Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now I’ve read it, er, it isn’t. At all. Captain Marvel – Carol Danvers – helps a friend recover something from the sea bottom off the coast of New Orleans. Down there it’s a ship and plane graveyard… and then some alien energy leaks into the wrecks and creates a giant monster out of them which Danvers and her friend must battle. The story then moves to New York and Danver’s private life, trouble with her neighbours, a possible medical condition preventing her from flying, and random attacks by an old nemesis… Like the first book, there’s a smart script there, so it’s a shame the art is routinely awful. You’d think, given that comics are a visual medium, they’d put more effort into it.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990). This is the sequel to The Children of Anthi; I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks – see here.

charismaCharisma, Michael G Coney (1975). During the 1970s, there were a number of male British sf writers all working (mostly) down the same line in the genre. They’d come out of the New Wave – although some had been around prior to that – and, in direct contrast to the big-selling US sf authors, they kept their visions low-key and their focus more literary. Writers such as Richard Cowper, DG Compton, Michael G Coney, Keith Roberts, Robert Holdstock, perhaps even JG Ballard. Their novels were often set in a near-future UK, with light extrapolation, and only a small number of “ideas” – which were there solely to drive the plot. There was no “movement” as such, and several of the writers went on to write completely different genre fiction – Holdstock and his Mythago Wood, Ballard left the genre all together, Coney moved into pure heartland territory with his Hello Summer, Goodbye… Coney’s Charisma, however, very much fits the pattern. It could almost have been written by Compton, in fact. The narrator, John Maine, is the manager of a hotel in the small Cornwall fishing port of Falcombe. He’s also involved with a local boatyard which sells “houseyachts” (hovercraft houseboats, as far as I can make out). Near Falcombe is a Research Station which has been experimenting with a device that gives access to parallel worlds. And Maine discovers by accident that he can travel to these parallel worlds – because the John Maine in those worlds has died, so there aren’t two of them existing in the same world at the same time. And then the owner of the hotel, a lying and cheating businessman, a Tory in other words, is murdered… and Maine travels back and forth to various parallel worlds trying to change events, solve the murder and track down the woman he loves, Susanna. The plotting in Charisma is quite clever, with its multiple parallel takes on the same group of people and their  actions. The world-building is light – it’s pretty much 1975, but with hovercars and 3D television. Unfortunately, Maine, the narrator, is… I hate to say “a product of his time”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more male-gazey novel than this – in fact, Maine is an unreconstructed sexist pig. And it leaves a nasty taste in what would otherwise be an interesting and accomplished 1970s British sf novel.

lotswifeWhat Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (2013). The last of my Hugo reading. I do have at least one more novel on the book-shelves that qualifies – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman – and I did have time to buy and read a couple more, but I decided to call it a day after What Lot’s Wife Saw. Possibly because I’d heard so much praise for it that I thought it likely to take the final slot on my ballot. Except, well, I didn’t really like it at all. It’s the near-future and the Dead Sea has somehow inundated much of Southern Europe, and coincidentally revealed a rift which contains “salt”, a powerful drug to which much of the world is now addicted. Phileas Book lives in Paris and compiles “Epistlewords” for The Times. These are three-dimensional crosswords whose clues depend on extracts from letters published alongside. Despite numerous descriptions of the Epistleword, and its “meandros” shape, nothing in the novel indicates the Epistleword is either plausible or solvable. The salt mentioned earlier is mined at the Colony, a small company town on the shore of the Dead Sea – which is now completely gelid. How the Dead Sea has a shore after flooding the surrounding area for thousands of square kilometres  is not explained, but the shore is an inhospitable desert populated by “Suez Mamelukes”.  Recently, the governor of the Colony died in mysterious circumstances, and within a fortnight riots tore the town apart. His six closest advisers have all written letters explaining what happened. The mysterious Seventy-Five, the company which mines the salt, asks Book to analyse the letters – because of his Epistleword special talent thing – to discover the truth of the events they relate… A lot of people praised  What Lot’s Wife Saw so I think it’s fair to say my expectations were pretty high. But. It just didn’t work for me. The sections in the Colony felt like they were set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which made a nonsense of it being near-future – assuming you swallowed the whole Flood thing, which made no sense anyway. The letter structure was interesting, but the voices of the six were so similar it was often hard to tell them apart. And they were really unlikeable. The writing was mostly good but often drifted into over-writing. And the ending, the solution to the mystery Book is asked to unravel, is… well, it’s banal. I’d been expecting something with much more impact, and not just a quick Scooby Doo scene which explained clues that were so obscure no reader would have spotted them – I mean, EREMOI? Disappointing.

demonsThe Demons at Rainbow Bridge, Jack L Chalker (1989). This is the first book of a trilogy, the Quintara Marathon. Chalker used to bang out trilogies and series as if science fiction were on the brink of extinction. And it showed. In this one, the writing barely reaches competent, the setting is cobbled together from used furniture, and the text is riddled with continuity errors. In this series, the galaxy is split into three mutually antagonistic power blocs, the Exchange, the religious nutters of the Mizlaplanian Empire, and the evil dog-eat-dog empire of the Mycohlians. Humanity went out into the stars and found itself just another alien race among the many claimed by these three polities. The Exchange is ruled by the mysterious never-seen Guardians, and is pure Rand-like capitalism from top to bottom. The Mizlaplanians have hugely powerful mental powers and have convinced everyone they’re gods and those of their subject races with “normal” mental powers are angels and saints. The Mycohlians are parasites and they pretty much leave their anarchic empire to run itself, assuming that the cream – the most ruthless and violent cream, that is – will rise to the top and keep everything together. An Exchange scout ship finds a pair of the eponymous demons on a remote world, and sends out a mayday before being slaughtered. The novel then spends a third of its pages describing the formation of an Exchange team to investigate, then a third on a Mizlaplanian team to do the same, and the final third on the Mycohlian team. All three head for the remote world, where they find a butchered research team, the demons have escaped and… continued in the next book of the trilogy. Chalker was a crap writer and this is far from his best work.

Ark Baby, Liz Jensen (1997). Every time I start a Liz Jensen novel, I tell myself I should read more of her books. I’ll be reviewing this on SF Mistressworks, since it qualifies as science fiction.


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.

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