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8-question meme from SF Signal

John DeNardo posts these regularly on SF Signal and I usually have a go at them. This week it’s the following eight questions:

1. The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
Technically, it would be Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, a novelisation of the TV series, which my parents gave me as a Christmas present in, I think, 1974. But the first category sf novel I read was Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, which was lent to me by a classmate in my first year at prep school – so that would be either late 1976 or early 1977.

Doctor_Who_and_the_Zarbi

2. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
I guard my Top 20 jealously and, sadly, it’s mostly not sf, fantasy or horror. No genre book has made it into the list during the last couple of years. However, if I were to run a category genre-only Top 20, then the last book I read which might make the grade would probably be… Extra(Ordinary) People, a 1984 collection by Joanna Russ, if only because it contains a story, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a new favourite. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here. If I were to restrict myself to novels, the last three genre reads with the most stars from me on GoodReads were, in no particular order: Europe in Autumn, The Violent Century, Rapture and Ancillary Justice.

3. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
That would be Palimpsest by Cathrynne M Valente. I’d heard a lot of positive things about it, and was quite chuffed to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. But the reading didn’t go very well at all. I baled around page 100, unable to put up any longer with the over-writing. I think it was something about a character being able to taste a snail’s foot in his mouth or something.

4. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
I have my favourites – who doesn’t? Paul Park has a new novel and a collection coming out this year, which has made me very happy – doubly so, in fact. Sadly, Gwyneth Jones doesn’t seem to have anything due out in the foreseeable future. A couple of years ago, I’d heard a US publisher had contracted for a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (as by Ann Halam), but I’ve yet to see it mentioned anywhere online. I’m also eagerly awaiting David Herter’s new sf novels/novellas from PS Publishing.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co

5. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
But I’ve read everyone! Ahem. Of course, I haven’t really, just rather a lot of them – but many of those I’ve not read have been a matter of choice. I don’t think there’s anyone I’m ashamed I’ve not read – because if I was, I’d have read them; or at the very least I’d have one of their books on my humungous TBR pile. PC Hodgell, for example; or Michael Cisco… I own books by both but have yet to read them. Which reminds me, I really must get around to purchasing a copy of Laurie J Marks’ Fire Logic, as I really want to read it. Um, in fact, now I think about it, there’s a whole bunch of authors I want to read but have yet to buy anything by…

6. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
Easy. The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here, and have been singing its praises ever since. Sadly, it’s currently out of print; but it really needs to be introduced to a new audience.

7. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
Where do I start? Many of my favourite genre novels were highly regarded when they were published, but they’ve never been reprinted since. One or two are now in the SF Masterworks series… so I can hardly claim they’re still under-rated. Instead, I will chose something completely out of my comfort zone – a fantasy novel: The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (1991). It was never published in the UK, had two reviews on publication (in Locus and amazing Stories), has zero reviews on GoodReads and two on Amazon (including a 5-star one by Katherine Kerr!), Kirkus called it a “formless hodgepodge of a book”, and the first five pages of Google are links to places to buy the book rather than online reviews… I think it qualifies as under-rated.

grailfohearts

8. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:
There’s a lot of recent sf I think is horribly over-rated – just look at the Hugo Award and Nebula Award shortlists for the past few years. But many of those books I’ve not actually read myself, so my opinion is chiefly the result of other stuff written by those authors. However, I have read Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, and it was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for 2012, and made it into the top 5 on the Locus Poll for that year. I thought it was terrible, and I refused to read its sequels. I now hear it’s been optioned for television. Sigh.


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Five genre books that should be back in print

A couple of times while reading books to review on SF Mistressworks, I’ve wondered why a book is no longer in print, especially given that many inferior ones still are. A recent such review – it will appear tomorrow – had me thinking about which out-of-print books I’d like to see available once again, books that only saw one or two editions a decade or more ago. It proved a harder list – even limited to five – than I expected. For one thing, the SF Gateway has been doing an admirable job in bringing a number of books back into “print” as ebooks; some of my favourite sf novels have appeared over the last few years in the SF Masterworks series; and many authors have made their back list available as print-on-demand books or on Kindle, such as Marta Randall or Gwyneth Jones. But there are still some books that I think should be re-introduced to a twenty-first century audience:

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Sloczewski (1989). I reviewed this for SF Mistressworks (see here) and thought the book a masterclass in science fiction writing. The last edition in print was from The Women’s Press in 1991. It really deserves to be made available once more.

The Complete Short Stories of Joanna Russ, Joanna Russ. This is a cheat – there’s no such book. But if assorted male authors have had their collected short fiction published, then why not Russ? Her last collection was in 1988, and by my count she had almost seventy pieces of short fiction published. It’s long past time for a collected works.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). Okay, so it’s one of my favourite sf novels and I also happen to think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written… But it saw only a single hardback and paperback release in the UK and US and has been out of print ever since.

The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). This was an omnibus of two earlier novels, published in 1989 and 1992 (neither of which were then reprinted), but the omnibus appeared only in a single edition and has never been reprinted since. It should be – the books are excellent. See my reviews on SF Mistressworks here and here.

The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992). This is a superior fantasy which has apparently never been reprinted since its paperback edition in 1993.

Anyone else have any genre books they’d like to see back in print?

ETA: By my count Russ had 56 stories published, plus six Alyx stories and two set in the Cthulhu mythos. All but fourteen have been collected.


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Come what May

A new month, a Bank Holiday weekend, and various doings of recentness in the weird and wacky world of science fiction. First up, of course, is Chris Beckett winning the Arthur C Clarke Award with Dark Eden. A win we can happy with, I think; though it was not my actual favourite on the shortlist. But congratulations to Chris, a genuinely nice guy and an excellent writer. Still, likely there will be much discussion on the win and what it means for science fiction in the UK over the next few weeks. Or perhaps not.

On the topic of not winning, right-wing nutjob Theodore Beale failed to conquer the SFWA and polled only a tenth of the votes of new SFWA president Stephen Gould. I’m not a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and have no desire to ever be one but, you know, it’s good to mock fascists, even if their politics are completely risible anyway. Speaking of which, a large number of plainly very stupid people in the UK gave a bunch of seats in local elections to UKIP. This is the party whose candidates believe exercise prevents homosexuality, claim the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, think it’s funny to photoshop their head onto a photograph of Hitler and some Nazi bigwigs, and give “imitating a pot plant” as a defence for throwing a Nazi salute… One of their candidates has apparently gone to live in Thailand for six months, leaving his (Thai) wife and kids in the UK; and another was forced to resign as a police officer after being caught working as a male escort in full uniform. The clowns are taking over the circus.

Earlier this week, Nook dropped the price of its Simple Touch ereader from £79 to £29. Since I’d spent £130 on four hardback books a couple days before, I decided £29 was cheap enough to order one. Which is where it all went horribly wrong. I placed an order… and moments after getting an email acknowledgement I received a second email saying my credit card had been declined. Because I hadn’t created an account on the website, there was no way I could view or amend my order. I tried contacting Nook support, but they were completely snowed under with, it seemed, queries from other people with the same problem. So I created an account, and ordered another Simple Touch, this time using a debit card. It went through fine. The next day, I get an email saying they’ve fixed the credit card problem, so I can re-order if I want. I don’t want. I already have one heading my way – or so an email tells me. And then I get yet another email, saying it’s out of stock so my order has been cancelled. But the website still says the order’s in progress. So, Nook: big fail there. You win this week’s award for Most Useless Business on the Planet.

Meanwhile, Adam Roberts has been working his way backwards through Banks’ Culture novels. Not reading them back-to-front, obviously, just in reverse order of publication. It perhaps comes as no great surprise to learn that the later novels are not as good as those that preceded it. That is the Way of Commercial Fiction. Go read the reviews – they are insightful and amusing. And they sort of make me want to reread the Culture novels, too. If only the TBR weren’t so damn big…

Fantasy Café’s Women in SF&F month hit a bump in the road recently with a bonkers post about sexism in fantasy – or rather, the poster’s claim that it does not exist. Read the post here, then read an excellent rebuttal here. And on the same topic, here’s a piece from 1982 which demonstrates that thirty years later not a fat lot has changed. Susan Shwartz, incidentally, is the author of one of the few heartland fantasy novels I’m happy to recommend to people, The Grail of Hearts.

One author I constantly recommend people read is Gwyneth Jones. She’s offering her Escape Plans free on Kindle on Monday 6 May and Tuesday 7 May. Go buy it. Best use the link under the title, rather than search for it on Amazon, as their search engine seems to be completely fucked. Here’s my review of it on SF Mistressworks, written back in 2001.

Despite reading for SF Mistressworks, so far this year women writers only account for around 36% of my reading. Which is not to say that reading for SF Mistressworks is a hardship. While Margaret St Clair’s collection might not have been very good, Marta Randall’s novels are certainly much better than most of her contemporaries. And I’ve also had the opportunity to revisit some books I remember with great fondness, such as those by Shariann Lewitt or Susan R Matthews. Perhaps they’ve not always fared especially well on reread, but I’m glad I took the time to do it.

Speaking of books, over the last few days I’ve tweeted photos of some recent arrivals of a bookish nature. I’ll do a proper book haul post in a few days, but let’s just say I now have more research material for Apollo Quartet books three and four, and the Paul Scott and Malcolm Lowry first edition collections have expanded somewhat (which is the £130 of books mentioned earlier). So, of course, I’ve been spending my time reading about… underwater habitats and saturation diving. For another writing project. Current read is Sealab by Ben Hellwarth, which is proving fascinating. The whole idea of living and working on the sea bed appears to have been driven by one man, Captain George F Bond, USN; and who reminds me much of Colonel John Paul Stapp, USAF, of rocket sled fame, and who I wrote about in my story, ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’, which should be appearing on The Orphan some time soonish.

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