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2014 reading diary, #2

I spent much of February catching up with 2013 novels for my Hugo ballot. While this included a number of books by authors I usually read and enjoy, I also chose a number of edge cases that had looked interesting. I also didn’t have a computer at home during two weeks of February, which is why I was uncharacteristically quiet during the latter half of the month… It also meant I got a lot of reading done – nine books in four days at one point – so I’ll keep my comments on each book short as there’s more than the usual number of them. Incidentally, I’m still sticking to alternating genders in my fiction reading.

proxima-ukProxima, Stephen Baxter (2013). Not sure what I was expecting this to be like – the publicity suggested I might like it… but I found it more like Exultant (see here) than Coalescent (see here). In other words, I thought it juvenile and thick with indigestible lumps of exposition; and while there was plenty of invention on display, no single idea was neat enough to make the book stand out. Criminals are transported to an inhabitable exoplanet in the titular star system, and what a surprise they prove completely unsuitable as pioneer colonist material. We’ve got rape and violence and warlordism in a century that has settlements throughout the Solar System and can even send spacecraft to another planetary system. But those criminal types do stumble across an enigmatic alien device which links the exoplanet with Mercury. This novel won’t be going on my Hugo ballot.

reddocRed Doc>, Anne Carson (2013). This was shortlisted for the Kitschies earlier this year, which is why I bought a copy and read it. It’s a poem, told in a mix of styles, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. While I find its genre aspects all a bit wishy-washy, there are moments of great beauty in it, and the dialogue in the told sections reads truer than anything you might find in a category genre novel. Since it’s not a novel, novella or short story, but a poem, I’m going to put it on my Hugo ballot as a related work. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the rules which says a related work has to be non-fiction.

On-the-Steel-BreezeOn the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds (2013). This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth and the middle book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Much of it concerns a covert war prosecuted by Arachne, an AI built to monitor a huge space-based telescopic array, because of course all machine intelligences are completely fixated on destroying non-machine life. There’s also a convoy of “holoships” – hollowed-out asteroids – en route to an exoplanet, on whose surface is an enormous enigmatic alien feature, the Mandala. The story focuses on three “clones” of Chiku Akinya, labelled Red, Yellow and Green – it’s a bit more complicated than cloning, something called “Quorum Binding”, which allows them to update each other’s memories, as is helpfully explained to one of the Chikus early in the novel by another character, even though, of course, she already knows how it works. One of the Chikus stayed on Earth; one set off in pursuit of Eunice Akinya’s space craft, Winter Queen (from Blue Remembered Earth); and one joined the  fleet of holoships heading for the exoplanet Crucible. There are some nice set-pieces – I liked, for example, the one set on the surface of Venus, even if it didn’t seem to add much to the plot. The societies in the holoships turn totalitarian because, of course, totalitarianism is the default setting of any society in a science fiction novel – much as I disagree that hard sf is inherently right wing, the preponderance of right-wing societies in it is tiresome. There are also some uplifted elephants, a genius scientist who has a set of pronouns all of “vir” own, more about the mer people from the first book, and even some giant enigmatic alien machines orbiting Crucible, the presence of which had been hidden from humanity by Arachne. It’s certainly a polished novel,and what Reynolds does he does well, but it doesn’t quite meet the promise suggested by the first book of the trilogy. Of course, there’s still a final book to come, so perhaps that will do the trick. This book is not going on my Hugo ballot.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013). I’d never heard of Atkinson until her Jackson Brody books were adapted for television – even though her debut novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and she’s a pretty big-selling author in the UK. However, it was hard not to be aware of Life After Life, her latest book, as it’s already won the Costa Novel Award, is arguably genre, and has been talked about by a number of my online friends and acquaintances. A young woman born in 1910 dies at various times during her life, each time being reborn back in 1910 and somehow – sometimes only through some subconscious prompting – each time managing to avoid her fate from the previous time around. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a pleasantly engaging protagonist, nicely witty prose, and a very smooth read without being as bland as commercial fiction. Recommended. I’ll be putting this one on my Hugo ballot.

themachineThe Machine, James Smythe (2013). Smythe is banging out books like they’re an endangered species, but if the two I’ve read are any indication he’s no hack. The machine of the title of this novel is used to remove troublesome memories, but it’s later discovered that prolonged use puts the patients into a persistent vegetative state. Like Vic, Beth’s husband, a soldier who returned from the war with severe PTSD, turned increasingly violent and so opted for treatment with the Machine, but is now in a nursing hostel, oblivious to everything. So Beth buys a black market Machine, “kidnaps” her husband, and uses her Machine to restore his memories and so restore him. The name “Ballard” has been thrown around a lot in reference to The Machine, and certainly the setting – a sink estate on a post-global-warming Isle of Wight – feels very Ballardian, although the story itself doesn’t feel much like a Ballardian commentary on society. The prose is good, written in present tense with no quotation marks – which, obviously, is a style I’m all for… but why does it feel like everyone is doing it these days, eh? The ending may not come as much of a surprise, although perhaps reading Smythe’s The Explorer I’d been primed to expect a twist. Good stuff – and I have one spot left on my Hugo novel ballot and this is the current front-runner for it.

22.-The-Shining-GirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (2013). After Beukes’ Clarke Award-winning Zoo City, we have a high-concept commercial thriller, though the concept is enough to make it genre: a time-travelling serial killer. There’s a house in Chicago, and the killer can use it to access any time from the 1930s, when he discovers the house, to the 1990s. He jumps back and forth through the decades, stalking and killing young women, often ones he has previously visited while they were kids. They are the “shining girls”, so called by him because they have some quality which would have led them to live remarkable lives had he not murdered them. The Shining Girls is a fast, pacey read with a good sense of time and place, but the plot feels a bit too choppy to gel in places and the whole never feels quite complete somehow. This one will not be going on my Hugo ballot.

DofPThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (2013). I’m a fan of Mann’s science fiction – I have all of his novels in hardback. So I was particularly happy to discover he had something new out, seventeen years after his last novel, 1996′s The Burning Forest. But, oh dear. The Disestablishment of Paradise refers to the final months of the Earth colony on the exoplanet called Paradise – this is what disestablishment is, the removal of a colony from a world – and the scientist, and her “assistant”, who remain behind and learn something more about the planet and its flora (it has no fauna). Particularly the Peripatetic Dendron, which is a sort of giant animated three-legged tree, and the Michelangelo-Reaper, which is a plant with psychic powers of some sort. There’s no denying that Paradise is a fascinating place, and that Mann draws a beguiling picture of it; but the human dynamics in The Disestablishment of Paradise are woefully old-fashioned (especially in regard to the female characters) and the dialogue is stilted at best. The story is framed as the novelisation of the reminiscences of the scientist, as told to a writer best-known for dark and edgy children’s books; and I’m not entirely sure what that conceit adds. There are occasional asides to the reader – and several appendices of supplementary material, which are referenced in the narrative – but it’s not enough to jolly along the somewhat plodding pace. One of the longest set-pieces is the “saving of the Dendron”, which seems to go on and on and on, with an excess of detail into Dendron physiology. After reading The Disestablishment of Paradise, I’m going to have to reread Mann’s earlier novels, as I don’t remember them being as dull or stodgy as this one. The Disestablishment of Paradise will not be appearing on my Hugo ballot.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) I read this for review on SF Mistressworks.

martian-sandsMartian Sands, Lavie Tidhar (2013). Or Tidhar does Dick. Again. I am not much of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work – there are a couple I like, but the only reason I own so many of his damn books is because almost half of the SF Masterworks series consisted of works by him. Martian Sands reads like a pastiche of Dick – and for me, that’s its biggest problem. It’s as if the plots and settings of a dozen of PKD’s novels were glommed together, and then roughly stitched into a single narrative using a magic chest full of sf references and in-jokes.  I know some preferred this to The Violent Century, but I thought the other book much the better of the two. I won’t be putting Martian Sands on my Hugo ballot

countdownforcindyCountdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962). I couldn’t resist this when I saw it on eBay, chiefly because it offered a 1960s take on women in space – which is something I’d covered in Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The “MOON NURSE!” on the back was just a bonus. Interestingly, according to a foreword the author interviewed both Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, both of whom appear in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (actually, Cobb is one of my novella’s two protagonists). I’m working on a full review of Countdown For Cindy, to be posted here soon-ish.

aftermackenzieAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (1930). It was M John Harrison who recommended Jean Rhys on Twitter – some time last year, I seem to recall – during a conversation about women writers. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across this book in a charity shop, and decided to give it a go. Julia has left her husband after the death of their baby, and is now living hand-to-mouth in a Parisian fleapit hotel. Desperate for money, she returns to London, hoping to sponge off relatives and/or past lovers. There’s a distant tone to this short novel, a weird lack of affect, as if Julia didn’t quite fully inhabit her life or the story – and, as a consequence, it’s hard to really care if Julia is successful or not. There’s an admirable clarity to the prose, and some nice turns of phrases in the descriptions – like “Behind the curtains was a green and optimistic sun-blind, faintly irritating, like a stupid joke” – and it all adds up to a curiously timeless prose-style. The sensibilities and lifestyles being described might be from the Thirties, but the language feels like it could belong to any decade of the Twentieth Century. That’s pretty impressive. If I see any more books by Rhys in charity shops, I’ll probably take a punt on them, but this one feels a little too languid for my tastes so I’ll not be in any rush to track down her work.

relevant_jonathan1The Man from Charisma, Ted Mark (1970). I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, or one of its sequels, Rip It Off, Relevant!. Perhaps I read something somewhere that suggested it might be amusing. It wasn’t. Jonathan Relevant is discovered naked on an iceberg after test missiles launched by a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine accidentally collide and explode above it. Relevant appears different to different people – to Soviet scientist Dr Ludmilla Skivar, he’s a studly Gagarin; to US Paper Clipped scientist Professor Von Schweindrek, he’s a model of Aryan masculinity; to African-American student activist G-for-George Pullman Porter, he’s Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver… The Soviets lay claim to Relevant, but the CIA steals him from them, and hides him in a CIA-sponsored research institute at Hartnell University… whose admin building has just been occupied by radical students protesting a number of different things. Relevant gets dropped into the middle of this, and tries to resolve it – which shouldn’t be that difficult given how everyone sees him as what they want to see. But this is the late 1960s, so… “Every man sees him as his hero. Every woman sees him as her lustful dream.” Sigh. We’re strictly in right-on “comedy” territory from the Swinging Sixties, with all the bad and borderline offensive jokes that entails – not to mention some outright offensive characterisations of various groups of people. I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, and now I’ve read it I wished I hadn’t bought it. We’ll have to see if the sequel is any better – but I’m not holding my breath….


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Readings catch-up

And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.

exultantExultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science  fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.

Betel-thumb-300x413Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes:  La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.

unexplodedUnexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel - a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.

timebeingA Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself  - including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.

redstationOn a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.

orbital5Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s  a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.

krishnapurThe Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.

a-possible-life-jacket-faulksA Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.

GoodbyeRobinsonCrusoeGood-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.


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Books to look forward to in 2014

I did something similar to this back in early 2013, though looking at that earlier post – see here – I note that I only managed to purchase 5 of the 15 books I mentioned, and only actually read one of them. And one of the books was postponed until 2014… This year I’ve managed to track down a few more titles that I’m looking forward to, though we’ll seen this time next year how many I’ve bought and/or read…

January
Ings, Simon: Wolves (Gollancz)
Roberts, Adam & Mahendra Singh: Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (Gollancz)
Smythe, James: The Echo (Harper Voyager) – the sequel to The Explorer, and the second book of what I see is now called the Anomaly Quartet.

Wolves-tpb

February
Hutchinson, Dave: Europe in Autumn (Solaris)

March
MacLeod, Ken: Descent (Orbit)

DESCENT-ken-macleod

April
Beckett, Chris: Mother of Eden (Corvus) – the sequel to the Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden.
Watson, Ian: The Uncollected Ian Watson (PS Publishing) – must admit I’m slightly puzzled by the title of this: “uncollected” – can there really be such a thing for a man who’s had thirteen collections published…

June
Roberts, Adam: Bête (Gollancz)
Shepard, Lucius: Beautiful Blood (Subterranean Press)

July
Baxter, Stephen: Ultima (Gollancz)- the sequel to Proxima.
Park, Paul: All Those Vanished Engines  (Tor US) – a new novel from Park, is it possible to describe how much this excites me?

August

Park, Paul: Other Stories (PS Publishing)
Varley, John: Dark Lightning (Ace) – the final book of the quartet comprising Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder.

John-Varley-Dark-Lightning-677x1024

September
Cobley, Michael: Ancestral Machines (Orbit) – a new set in the universe of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy.
Gibson, Gary: Extinction Game (Tor UK)
Mitchell, David: The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)

October
Leckie, Ann: Ancillary Sword (Orbit) – the second book of the trilogy, following on from Ancillary Justice.
Robson, Justina: The Glorious Angels (Gollancz)

Late in the year, date to be revealed
McFarlane, Alex Dally, ed.: The Mammoth Book of SF Stories By Women (Constable & Robinson)

Yes, there are no debuts there. Though there are several due out this year, I don’t know enough about them as yet to decide if they’re worth reading. Perhaps nearer their publication dates, some buzz will start to form among my online friends and acquaintances, and that may persuade be they’re worth a punt. That was, after all, how I came to read Ancillary Justice in 2013. Also, as the year progresses I will no doubt discover other new books I really want, much as I did in 2013. While new titles from major genre imprints are relatively easy to find, those from small presses aren’t; and I’ve no doubt missed out quite a few literary fiction novels by authors I really like, too.

ETA: I meant to add this before the post went live but forgot – the new Paul Park novel, All Those Vanished Engines, shares its title with an installation by sound artist Stephen Vitello, which includes “a commissioned text by local novelist Paul Park”. I don’t know what the link is between the novel and Vitello’s installation.


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The books wot I read, part the first

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then reading what someone has written about books is like looking at pictures of someone’s holiday. Sort of. So here are some snaps of my last holiday in the world of reading. Like most holidays, it had its high points and its low points. I travelled great distances but never left my armchair. I saw amazing sights but only in my mind’s eye. And I met some fascinating, and some very strange, people, some of whom I may get to meet again. Reading is the most fun you can have sitting in an armchair, and you can even do it in public. It is made of win.

TPMurdersThe Prophet Murders, Mehmet Murat Somer (2003) Since I’d got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red (and I really do need to finish it off one of these days), I grabbed a copy of this as light alternative piece of Turkish fiction. The narrator is the drag queen owner of a nightclub in Istanbul, and when she hears of other transvestites and transsexuals dying in mysterious circumstances, she decides to investigate. Novels like this – and it’s a series, with four volumes so far translated into English – depend more on voice than they do plot. There’s nothing complicated about the murders or the investigation – the former are staged to echo the deaths of various Islamic prophets, the latter involves the narrator travelling about Istanbul and its environs talking to people. But the story is written in a relentlessly chatty style, some of the characterisation is a little mean, and the narrator is occasionally a little too good to be true. It’s fluff, but I didn’t find it appealing enough fluff to bother with the rest of the series.

TimeMachine_lg_largeThe Time Machine, Nikesh Shukla (2013) Cheryl Morgan tweeted that she’d just added this novella to her online shop, Wizard’s Tower Books, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. Ashok’s mother has just died and as a way to deal with his grief he tries to recreate some of the meals she cooked and which he ate as a child. The novella includes the actual recipes. It’s a poignant piece, and well-written, and I really did like the idea of making a feature of the recipes – they’re of various Gujarati dishes and don’t appear all that difficult to make (though I’ve yet to actually try any of them).

coalescentCoalescent, Stephen Baxter (2003) Many years ago, I remember Mark Plummer declaring that Stephen Baxter would be a good author to collect. What Mark clearly had not taken into account was the need for a very large room to hold such a collection. It’s not just that Baxter is prolific – 39 novels and 9 collections in 22 years – but also that most of his books are also huge. Coalescent – the first in a trilogy, natch, called Destiny’s Children – is one of these huge novels: the Gollancz hardback is 473 pages long. There are two main narratives, one set in Ancient Britain after the Romans have left, and one in the present-day. The former provides the historical context for the climax of the latter. George Poole’s father has died, and he has sort out the estate. He discovers that his father regularly sent money to a religious order in Rome, and that he has a sister in that order. So he travels to Rome to learn more. In fifth-century Britain, a young girl, Regina, is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall to stay with her grandfather after the death of her wealthy father. As it becomes clear that Rome has no interest in, or is incapable of, returning to Britain, things start to fall apart. Regina’s narrative shows how she grows up and survives in a Britain falling apart, before she eventually takes ship for Rome and forms the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. Poole, meanwhile, through an old school friend who is now a conspiracy nut, discovers that there is more to the Order than appears. It is, in fact, an all-female Hellstrom’s Hive living in an ancient labyrinth under the streets of Rome. The novel abruptly jumps into the far future and describes an attack on a human hive by members of another human civilisation. Baxter has done this before, notably in Titan, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s a useful technique. Mind you, Coalescent is the first book of a trilogy, so perhaps it suits better here. Having said that, I enjoyed the book more than I’d expected to – the two narratives didn’t seem to sit well together but were individually interesting, and once the connection had become obvious things picked up. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

rehearsalThe Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton (2008) This was described by David Hebblethwaite as the best book he’d read in the past five years. I’d been intrigued by Catton’s The Luminaries – I bought a copy of it before it won the Booker, I hasten to add – so was quite chuffed when I stumbled across a copy of The Rehearsal in a charity shop. And… It’s very good. But it’s not as good as Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which for me would be the best book I’d read in the past five years. The Rehearsal is a very artificial book – it’s mimetic fiction but it’s self-aware in as much as its story is a told artefact. The events of the plot are used as the basis for a play, and it’s the actors and their rehearsals which reveal what has happened. But Catton also uses the lives of the actors – they’re at a drama school – as a mirror to reflect the events the play they’re in is actually dramatising. There’s an artificiality to the prose and its structure – this is not the pure immersiveness you’d find in contemporary genre fiction, but a series of levels of story the reader must navigate. There’s a cleverness to it all that’s very appealing, even if on occasion it feels a little repetitive and draggy in places. The prose is generally very good throughout, though it rarely shines – but then The Rehearsal is not a novel which relies purely on prose style to impress. I do like stories with interesting structures, and Catton’s debut certainly qualifies. It’s a book that will need rereading… and on the strength of it, I’m glad I bought The Luminaries and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

slamSlam, Lewis Shiner (1990) The title is a skateboarding term, although the protagonist, Dave, is not a skateboarder. But it’s also a pun, see, because Dave is an ex-con and has just been released from the slammer. A lawyer friend has arranged a caretaker job for Dave, looking after the house, and twenty-three cats, which belonged to a recently deceased eccentric old lady – her property can only be sold once all the cats have died. It all seems relatively straightforward, but then where would be the story in that? There are people who want the old lady’s house – the head of a UFO cult, and a pair of old and slightly batty treasure hunters. One of Dave’s friends from prison escapes and comes to stay – and while he’s there he arranges a large drug deal. Dave’s parole officer has taken against him, and seems to be looking for an excuse to send him back (he was in prison, incidentally, for tax evasion). And Dave gets involved, via an eighteen-year-old barmaid, with a bunch of slackers and skateboards who are squatting in a nearby eccentric house, which is built entirely of concrete, including the furniture. Slam is equal parts paean to slacker culture and lonely white male identity crisis. In places, it feels a little heavy-handed, the central relationship is a little too much like authorial wish-fulfilment, and in parts the prose feels like it’s reaching for Dhalgren without actually getting there… but there’s also well-handled cast of eccentrics, the description of place is good, and it’s all very readable. Not Shiner’s best book by any means, but he’s still an author well worth reading.

WSADF-cover-3We See a Different Frontier, Djibril al-Ayad & Fábio Fernandes (2013) This is an anthology of, as the back-cover blurb puts it, “speculative fiction stories on the themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism”. It was financed by a kickstarter campaign, to which I contributed. The editors are online friends, as indeed are a few of the authors whose stories appear in the anthology. We See a Different Frontier contains sixteen stories, plus a preface by Aliette de Bodard and an afterword by Ekaterina Sedia. Its contents are, unsurprisingly, variable, with some stories working better than others. There’s just as great a variety in style and setting – some stories are set on Earth, some on alien worlds; some are post-apocalypse, some are not. There’s an admirable consistency of theme, however, which is something not all themed anthologies manage. I liked Ernest Hogan’s gonzo steampunk ‘Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus’, and the strangeness of Dinesh Rao’s ‘A Bridge of Words’. By contrast, the straightforwardness of Rahul Kanakia’s ‘Droplet’ also worked really well. Lavie Tidhar provides one of his alternate history speculations, ‘Dark Continents’, and Sandra McDonald’s ‘Fleet’ rings an interesting variation on a post-apocalypse story. There are no bad stories in We See a Different Frontier, although not all were to my taste – but they’re all worth reading, and I did like what they said and am certain it needs to be said.

outsiderThe Outsider, Albert Camus (1942) This is apparently one of the great novels of French literature. But then On the Road is apparently one of the great novels of US literature.I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. A disaffected young man, more or less estranged from his mother, drifts through his life in Algeria, and eventually – more for shits and giggles than any particular reason – stabs a man to death. He is caught, confesses, is tried and convicted. And he doesn’t much care. Incidents mentioned earlier in the novel – and it’s a very short novel – are used by the prosecution to show he is precisely the sort of person who would stab someone to death: his mother dies, for example, in the first chapter, and he attends the funeral but shows no real grief. I gather this is one of those novels, like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (which I studied for O Level oh so many years ago), which became something of a symbol for disaffected youth. Perhaps that means you have to read it when young, perhaps only then does it feel like it has any real meaning. Because it didn’t to me when I read it last month. There are no great insights in it, and the protagonist is more annoying than sympathetic. This doesn’t mean I think the book’s age tells against it, not at all. If I want real psychology in fiction, then I’ll read DH Lawrence… and his fiction is a further two to three decades older than The Outsider. I’m told Camus’s The Plague is his best novel. I have that on the TBR, so we shall see…

dayofthescorpionThe Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968) The second book of the Raj Quartet, which I am getting round to reading much more slowly than I had expected. But then these are not books to read quickly. The Day Of The Scorpion is not a direct sequel to The Jewel In The Crown, although it story does follow on from the first book of the quartet – but with a different cast. This book is set in the garrison town of Pankot and the independent satrapy of Mirat. It opens with a link to The Jewel In The Crown when Sarah Layton meets Lady Manners, mother of Daphne Manners – whose alleged rape catalysed the plot of The Jewel In The Crown - while staying on a houseboat with her family in Kashmir. Hari Kumar, Daphne’s lover and the man charged with the rape, makes a brief appearance, but this is no longer his story. Superintendent Ronald Merrick, now a captain in the army, enters the Laytons’ social circle through being billetted with the fiancé of Sarah’s sister, Susan. It is, in fact, almost impossible to summarise the plot of The Day Of The Scorpion – it’s clearly a part of a bigger narrative, and those narrative threads which do appear in the book cleverly interlock and influence each other. None of the cast is admirable, and the British understandably come out of it all quite badly. The writing is excellent, Scott draws proper three-dimensional characters and he draws them deeply, and he evokes sense of place beautifully. My admiration of Scott’s prose remains undimmed. The rather naff cover art above is the first edition; and yes, that’s the edition I own (plus a paperback reading copy too, of course).


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The floorboards are creaking

Time for another book haul post, and it’s been a good month or so book-wise. Some new books from authors whose books I like, some good bargains picked up in charity shops, and some books that look really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading… Having said that, I’m going to have to purge my collection some time soon as it’s getting a little out of hand…

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Some heartland science fiction: Evening’s Empires, On the Steel Breeze and Proxima are all new this year. Navigator is from 2007, I found it cheap on eBay.

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A few collections and an anthology. Jagannath: Stories I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm, Getting Out of There is from Nightjar Press (it’s signed and numbered and a bargain at £3.50; get yourself a copy), and both the women-only anthology Space of Her Own and Cliff Burns’ extremely rare first collection, Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination, were from Cold Tonnage.

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The Luminaries, of course, won the Man Booker this year. The Kills and Unexploded were on the long list but didn’t make the short list. But these three seemed the most interesting to me of the listed books.

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A few for the collection. The jacket-less book is Too Many Murders, and is DG Compton’s debut novel – a crime novel as by Guy Compton. These are almost impossible to find in good condition. Escape from Kathmandu is signed. The Violent Century and Prayer are both new this year.

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A Tale for the Time Being was also short-listed for the Booker, I found this copy in a charity shop. Sea of Ghosts I bought new after reading Martin Petto’s review on Strange Horizons (plus it has a deep sea diver on the cover); and Ancillary Justice I bought because it’s been getting extensive positive buzz of late – deservedly so: I reviewed it here.

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These three books I bought on a recent visit to Harrogate. I’ve always fancied trying Nabokov and I’m told Pale Fire is his best. Jensen and Houellebecq I pick up whenever I see copies.

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Five books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series. I bought these at Fantastika. To be honest, they’re not great sf – I reviewed the first two books on SF Mistressworks here and here – but I’ll read them and review them anyway.

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Finally, a 1970s sf novel by a woman writer I’d never heard of (bought at Fantastika) and a humungous book on writing genre I have to review for Interzone. I shall be approaching Wonderbook with a healthy scepticism, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it.

Incidentally, I make this haul 15 books by men and 13 by women, which is pretty close to parity.


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Weekend meme-y thing

… in lieu of intelligent content. This meme appeared earlier today on SF Signal, with instructions to leave answers to the questions in the comments. But I’m doing it here instead because.

The last sf/f book I finished reading:
… was The Maker’s Mask by Ankaret Wells. This was a self-published novel and I forget where I first came across Wells’ name. Anyway, the description made the book seem like it might be fun so I bought a copy. And it is fun. It’s also a bit rough, and the ending somewhat abrupt – it’s the first book of a duology. Looks like I’ll have to get the second one so I can find out what happens.

The last sf/f book I did NOT finish:
I tend to finish books that I start and rarely bale on them. I remember giving up on The Windup Girl about fifty pages in, after finding its racism and its use of the sex slave trope offensive. But that was a while ago. More recently, I gave up on Spitfire Girls by Carol Gould, which is not genre. It was so badly written, with arbitrary head-hopping, inconsistent internal chronology, and frequent references to things and events which were neither described nor foreshadowed.

The last sf/f book(s) I bought:
I bought a bunch of new books by favourite authors recently from a certain online retailer. These were: Marauder, Gary Gibson; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson; Proxima, Stephen Baxter; On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds; and Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley. On order but yet to arrive are Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie, and Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, which Martin Petto persuaded me is worth reading (even though I don’t like epic fantasy).

The last sf/f book I bought that I already owned:
That would be The The Book of Being by Ian Watson. It’s the third book of a trilogy, and I had all three in paperback. I replaced the first two with first edition hardbacks a while ago, but only recently found a copy of the third book. More recently, I purchased a signed first edition of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu even though I have it in paperback, but that has yet to arrive.

The last sf/f book I shared with someone:
I’m taking this to mean the last book I wrote about on my blog or something… which makes it A Spaceship Built of Stone, an excellent collection by Lisa Tuttle which I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here.

The last sf/f book I raved about:
I can’t remember the last time I was really evangelical about a genre book. Back in April, I remember being complimentary about Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman’s Road, as I’d just read the second part of it (it’s an omnibus), The Outskirter’s Secret, to review on SF Mistressworks – see here. And in January, I was very impressed by Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden – see here; so much so that I mentioned it in a Locus Roundtable – see here. But I’ve not really been blown away by a genre novel since Katie Ward’s Girl Reading last year, and that was published as literary fiction anyway…

The last sf/f book I did not enjoy at all:
Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear. Which, astoundingly, was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Was not impressed at all. Before that, The Silkie by AE van Vogt, for which I had low expectations but it failed to meet even those. See here for my comments on both.


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Triple-stacked

Last weekend, I spent a couple of hours re-shelving my hardback books so that my purchases since the last re-shelving were in their proper place – alphabetical by author, and chronological within author, of course. As is always the case, as soon as I’d finished I found a couple of books I’d missed… By double-stacking the books on the shelves – I’m slightly worried a single shelf may not be able to take the weight of all my Alastair Reynolds hardbacks and my Kim Stanley Robinson ones – I actually had a two shelves left free. And then I realised I’d not done my most recent book haul post, so I was going to have to unstack some of the shelves to dig the new books out to photograph. Oh well.

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Some non-fiction, two of which are research material for Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The Thresher Disaster is the second book I have on the incident. Tethered Mercury I only learnt of when I visited the Mercury 13 website, so I immediately tracked down a copy on abebooks.co.uk and ordered it. The Art of Malcolm Lowry is a series of essays on the author and his works.

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New paperbacks: I’ve had The Call of Cthulhu for a while, and I decided it was time to complete the set – hence, The Dreams in the Witch House and The Thing on the Doorstep. A couple of months ago, I read The Warlord of the Air and was mostly impressed – at least enough to buy a new copy of it plus The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar in these nice new editions.

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Just two graphic novels this month – number 16 in the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, The Secret of the Swordfish, part 2. This is early Edgar P Jacobs and nowhere near as good as later ones. Goddamn This War! is Jacques Tardi telling frontline horror stories about World War I. Grim stuff.

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Some for the collection… A first edition of Prospero’s Cell popped up on eBay so I snapped it up. There’s only a handful of Durrell’s books now that I don’t have in first edition. Disguise For A Dead Gentleman is DG Compton in an earlier guise – under the impenetrable pseudonym of Guy Compton – as a crime fiction writer. This is a Mystery Books Guild edition, which is all I can find. The Book of Being completes the Yaleen trilogy – I have the first two books already as Gollancz first editions. Three Corvettes is not a first edition, but it’s an early reprint, in relatively good condition, and was cheap. Nor is The Collector a first edition, but a late 1970s reprint. But it is signed.

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Some new hardbacks. I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading his short stories in Interzone back in the 1980s, but he’s not been especially prolific: three novels and two collections, the first collection back in 1990 and What The Doctor Ordered published only this year. Needless to say, I got quite excited when I stumbled across this new collection from Centipede Press, and ordered it immediately. Marauder is Gary Gibson’s latest novel and I believe is set in the same universe as the Shoal Sequence. Shaman is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, and I really must get around to reading The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dream one of these days. And finally, Iron Winter is the final book in Steve Baxter’s Northlands trilogy.

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Lastly, some charity shop finds. Lightborn was on both the Clarke and BSFA award shortlists in 2011. The Cruel Sea I bought as a reading copy, as the signed hardback I have is a bit tatty. Of course, as soon as I got home I discovered I already had a reading copy. Oh well. I have both Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light in hardback, but Orthe was cheap so I bought it as a reading copy as I’d like to reread the books one day. I read American Tabloid years ago and I have The Cold Six Thousand on the TBR, so Blood’s A Rover will complete the trilogy. Selected Poems by TS Eliot, er, does what it says on the tin. And last of all, I went back to the charity shop and picked up the other Mailer 1970s paperbacks, The Deer Park and American Dream. So we’ll see what they’re like…

Incidentally, since swapping from Amazon’s to Foyles’ affiliate scheme a couple of months ago, I’ve not made a single penny. Meanwhile, my Amazon links have made me £7.40 over the same period. So I’m having a little difficulty understanding why no one else can manage an affiliate scheme that’s as easy to use, and as effective, as Amazon’s…

Oh, and there’s no way I can physically triple-stack my book-shelves – not that I think they’d stand the weight anyway. But the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to do something. I’ve already got some books up for sale on the Whippleshield Books online shop here, but it’s not like people are rushing to buy them…


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Sunday meme

Okay, so SF Signal posted this last Sunday, but I was in Berlin then, with no access to a computer. And yes, I had an excellent time, despite the weekend’s inauspicious start: getting up at 2:30 am, wandering down to the kitchen to make breakfast and stepping on a slug; and then getting to the airport and realising I’d left my credit and debit cards at home (fortunately, I had plenty of cash). Anyway, the meme…

alanya_coverMy favorite alien invasion book or series is…?
Probably the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, although Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy runs a close second. Duchamp’s five novels – Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto – document the arrival on a near-future Earth of an alien mission which will only talk to women. Supporting character turned chief villain Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s best creations. Jones’ White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café cover similar ground, but from a more global perspective. It also features, like Duchamp’s quintet, an extremely well-drawn antagonist in Braemar Wilson. Both series are intensely political and among the smartest books in science fiction.

ascentMy favorite alternate history book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: I’d say Ascent by Jed Mercurio, but naming it as alternate history might constitute a spoiler. It could also be argued that the superb Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is alternate history. I think I’ve read my fair share of Hitler-victorious alternate histories, and I suspect there are very few changes remaining to be rung on that particular trope. Not being American, I’ve little interest in their civil war and how it might have ended differently. Stephen Baxter’s alternate take on the US space programme, Voyage, appeals for obvious reasons. And many sf novels of the past written about exploring Mars and the Moon may not have been written as alternate history, but they pretty much qualify as it now. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century sf novels about twenty-first space travel, such as those by Steele or Bova, suffer from being, well, not very good. Sadly, early and alternate space travel doesn’t seem to be an area of the genre that has attracted writers with much in the way of writing chops. Which is a shame.

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey, the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. Everything that came after is just the twitchings of a dead subgenre.

redplentyMy favorite Dystopian book or series is…?
Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. If you read Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty, you’ll see that not everyone thought the USSR was a dystopia. And for all the UK’s fabled streets of gold, it’s starting to look more and more like a dystopia each day to those of us living here. As for reading about dystopias… I don’t think it’s been done especially well in science fiction – but then Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow. Some of DG Compton’s works from the 1970s might be considered dystopian, such as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and in Ascendancies, he manages to find a dystopian story in a near-utopian society. JG Ballard wrote plenty of novels and short stories which might qualify, but no specific title springs to mind – it’s probably best to consider his entire oeuvre as dystopian fiction. And you can’t really go wrong by reading them all.

equator3My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?
AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens), which mixes California noir and pulp sf and just about manages to get away with it, is one of my favourite sf novels. It’s completely bonkers, of course; but it’s one of van Vogt’s more coherent works. Which isn’t saying much. Recently, I’ve read some early sf by women writers and found it much better than the so-called classics I read as a kid – these days, I find EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov near-unreadable. There’s also an early Brian Aldiss novel, Equator, which I really like, though it’s more like spy fiction with added aliens than science fiction per se. Which may be one reason why I find it so appealing.

My favorite hard sf book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: it’s probably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I don’t read that much hard sf as such. When I need my real science kicks, I read books about space or deep sea exploration. There are very, very few hard sf novels which come even remotely close to emulating the authenticity those books possess.

nature-beast-richard-fawkesMy favorite military sf book or series is…?
I don’t have much time for military science fiction, though in the past I’ve read my fair share – including David Weber, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Jack Campbell, David Feintuch, John Steakley, and probably a few others. The only such books left on my book-shelves, and which may well get purged should I ever get around to rereading them, are Richard Fawkes’ Face of the Enemy and Nature of the Beast, which I remember as quite interesting. Also worth a go is Shariann Lewitt’s debut novel, Angel at Apogee, and her two Collegium novels, Cyberstealth and Dancing Vac. And if any of CJ Cherryh’s books qualify, then they’re certainly worth reading.

kairosMy favorite near-future book or series is…?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve always been a fan of John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels and short stories, but do they count as near-future? Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, a favourite novel, was near-future when it was published, but that was back in 1988 – and these days it reads more like alternate history. The same might well prove true of Ken MacLeod’s excellent Intrusion a decade from now. Another excellent near-future novel is Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, though despite being two decades old it has yet to become alternate history – perhaps because it doesn’t feel like it’s set in a near-future which might well happen.

The_Caryatids_Bruce_SterlingMy favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?
To be honest, I’m not interested in how Americans would react should their society collapse, nor do I believe that every single person on the planet would react in that way. Which pretty much discounts ninety-nine percent of post-apocalyptic novels. The only one that springs to mind as different is Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which shows the world – all of it – coping with the aftermath of climate crash and nation-state failures. Perhaps the best of the more traditional post-apocalyptic novels is Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, in which mysterious aliens save isolated pockets of humanity. It reads like a masterclass in sf and deserves to be back in print.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…?
Science fiction’s treatment of robots has always been silly. They’re either human in all but name and yet treated like slaves, or blatant signifiers for slaves. In remarkably few sf stories do they actually resemble real robots.

ceres-storm-david-herter-paperback-cover-artMy favorite space opera book or series is…?
I’ve always enjoyed Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though I think the individual parts are not as impressive as the sum of them. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty has always been a favourite space opera too, and I remember being impressed by Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire when I read it many years ago. Likewise David Herter’s Ceres Storm, which I read back when it was published in 2000. I really must reread it one of these days…

My favorite steampunk book or series is…?
I don’t read steampunk. There’s nothing in it that appeals to me. Airships? Pfft. Give me supersonic jets every time. Brass? Useless metal. And anyway, steel is more emblematic of the British Empire than brass. Difference engines? NASA didn’t put twelve men on the Moon using clockwork computers, did they?

My favorite superhero book or series is…?
I used to read superhero comics by the likes of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, but went off the whole genre several years ago. I can no longer think of anything nice to say about the genre.

Millennium(1stEd)My favorite time travel book or series is…?
I’m more likely to read and enjoy an historical novel than I am a time travel one. I can’t off the top of my head think of any time travel novels that I hold in especially high regard. I remember enjoying Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, which is set in 1940s Hollywood. And Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships takes Wells’ The Time Machine and runs with it… and runs… and runs… I’m a big fan of John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’, and I still have a soft spot for the film adaptation Millennium, despite its godawful production design… which does mean I really like the novel written by Varley of the film adapted by Varley of the short story written by Varley…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?
I don’t read YA books. I am no longer sixteen, and haven’t been for a few decades.

My favorite zombie book or series is…?
I don’t read zombie books. I don’t even like zombie films. Maybe one day somebody will do something interesting with the trope, but I’m not holding my breath.

foss_foundation-coversThe 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?
Last month, I foolishly agreed to read and blog about half a dozen classic sf novels, so I have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation to look forward to over the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I have some reading for SF Mistressworks, and I hope to sneak in a few more recent genre novels as well, but I’ve yet to decide which ones. In fact, when you have a TBR of around 700 books, it’s often difficult to pick what to read next and I can sometimes spend ten or twenty minutes feeling really indecisive as I wander from one bookcase to the next…

And now I’ve finished this I’ll no doubt think of books I should have mentioned. Oh well. The more observant among you might also have noticed that all the links on this post go to Foyles using their affiliate scheme (except for the one link to a DVD). I found it relatively easy to use – a little fiddlier than Amazon’s, but not unworkably so. We’ll see how it works out.


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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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Books to look forward to

There have been a few posts on anticipated genre 2013 releases around and about the internet, but most have either been uncritically exclusive, or squeeing fannishly over volume umpteen in various piss-poor epic fantasy series. Which is not to say the outlook for 2013 is entirely glum. Yes, there will be the usual badly-written tomes of badly-mangled mediaevalish adventure, all of which are interchangeable: swords! rape! magic! feisty princesses! rape! war! rape! But there are one or two books upon which I have my beady eye…

January
ROBOTSAdam Robots, Adam Roberts
A collection of Mr Robot’s stories. Who could not want this? I’ve appeared in a couple of anthologies alongside Adam, which has sort of forced me to read his stories. But what I’ve read I have liked and thought very good, so I’d like to read more of them. I seem to react better to his short fiction than his novels. And, it has to be said, that is a pretty damn cool cover.

the-explorer-by-james-smytheThe Explorer, James Smythe
Astronauts are definitely in – what with Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine (see here) and Christian Kiefer’s The Infinite Tides last year. The Explorer looks pretty much like genre heartland, although it seems to be marketed on the edges of science fiction. Given my own fascination with astronauts – Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, ‘Faith’ (PDF), etc –  it’s certainly a book I plan to read.

February
bestofallpossibleworldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord
This has been getting lots of good press and looks like one of the year’s more interesting sf releases. I’m not sure the précis on Amazon makes it sound wholly appealing – remnants of the galaxy’s once ruling elite is short on women, and a civil servant must accompany one such male on his search for a mate – but it all depends who’s writing it…

disestablishmentThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann
I’ve been a big fan of Mann’s fiction for decades (oof, that makes me feel old) – see here – so I’ll buying this one in hardback the moment it is released. It will be Mann’s first book since 1996′s The Burning Forest, the final book in his A Land Fit for Heroes alternate history quartet. That’s quite a long silence – seventeen years. Alexander Jablokov spent a decade not writing before Brain Thief was published. I thought it very good, but it didn’t seem to do very well. Let’s hope Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise does better…

March
Life-after-life-cover-194x300Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I’ve not read any Atkinson, though I understand she’s quite good. I did watch the television series with Jason Isaacs, however (though, to be honest, it clashed with Scott & Bailey, which I thought much the better series). This book, about a person who serially reincarnates, sounds like it might be worth a go. I’ll wait for the paperback, though.

NecessaryIll-cvr-low-resNecessary Ill, Deb Taber
According to Suzy McKee Charnas, this novel “offers hopeful glimpses of alternatives to the current cultural barrage of post-Apocalyptic savagery and regression to warlordism”. Am sick to bloody death of post-apocalypse novels in which people turn into animals and only some warped version of right-wing US society offers hope or a way forward. So, want.

April
sereneinvasionThe Serene Invasion, Eric Brown
Eric has been churning out quality sf for more than two decades, and his novels and short fiction are always worth reading. It’s a shame his books seem to cause few, if any, ripples. Except, of course, he’s been shortlisted this year for the Philip K Dick – albeit bafflingly for Helix Wars, rather than the year before for The Kings of Eternity, which is by far the better book.

prophetofbonesProphet of Bones, Ted Kosmatka
To be honest, I’d sooner see a collection from Kosmatka. I’ve only read a handful of his short fiction, but what I’ve read I’ve thought very good – I even picked his ‘Divining Light’ for the Locus All-Centuries Short Fiction Poll. I’ve been meaning to pick up Kosmatka’s first novel, last year’s The Games, in paperback, and whether or not I get Prophet of Bones will depend on my reaction to that book.

June
shininggirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
I really liked Zoo City (see here), so I’m keen to read this one, even if the plot has been described as “The Time Traveler’s Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“. Ugh. But I trust Lauren to produce something good despite that. (Incidentally, it really annoys me they never bothered correcting the spelling mistake in the title of The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, it’s the american spelling; but I don’t live in the US, and we use British English here).)

The AdjacentThe Adjacent, Christopher Priest
I’m always late reading Priest’s novels, though I usually get there in the end. It’s useless speculating what it might be about, because Priest’s novels generally defy summary. This one is allegedly his “most complex yet”, although if anyone knows of a simple Priest novel I’ve yet to hear it. Santa brought me The Islanders for Christmas, so I’ll be reading that soon… two years after everyone else and a year after it won the BSFA Award…

July
Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley
The fourth book in McAuley’s hard sf nearish-future series. I really must read Gardens of the Sun

August
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
The second book of Poseidon’s Children and the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I liked the first book, I liked its optimism and its avoidance of sf’s usual panoply of magic bullshit technology. This one I will certainly be buying in hardback on its release.

September
Proxima, Stephen Baxter
There’d be something wrong if there wasn’t at least one Stephen Baxter novel out each year. It’s deep future sf, with humans living on a dead world orbiting Proxima Centauri, and all sounds very Baxterian.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts
A sequel to The Asylum’s “mockbuster” of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Sea by Adam Roberts has to be worth a go. Though, to be fair, I did think the ending to the film was pretty unequivocal – the Nautilus was destroyed by the nuclear warheads Nemo had planned to launch against the US, and everyone aboard, including Nemo, was killed. But I’m sure Adam will come up with some cunning trick to show how Nemo escaped death in a nuclear explosion at the very last second.

December
Equilateral-Kalfus-Ken-9781620400067Equilateral, Ken Kalfus
I saw mention of this on io9, and its description sounded interesting: British scientists at the turn of the century have come to believe there’s life on Mars, so they propose to build a massive triangle in the Egyptian desert. Yup, I’d read that. (io9 gives the publication date as April, but according to Amazon it’s December in the UK. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer than them, then.)

No doubt there will be more titles I want to read appearing throughout the year, but these are the only ones that have been announced so far that appeal to me. I’ll also probably end up reading other new books recommended to me but which, at first glance, I hadn’t thought worth trying, or hadn’t known about. So it goes.

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