It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Ooh look…

… an all-time best science fiction / fantasy contest. Let me guess: the most popular book will win – the one that has sold the most copies. So that would be… The Lord of the Rings? Jennings Goes to Wizard School?

And look at the match-ups: Ghormenghast versus Dune? The Gunslinger versus Hyperion? The Shadow of the Torturer versus The Colour of Magic?


It’s bad enough the sf / fantasy community handing out awards in popularity contests*. Choosing a “best” book is such a subjective process, anyway – and that’s assuming a representative sample actually bothers to vote. On a shortlist which is itself unanimously agreed to contain the “best” works of the year…

(* judging by this year’s Nebula Award shortlists, it seems you can’t trust jury awards either…)


Seconds Away…

Stephen E Andrews, one of the authors of 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, has written a long comment to my earlier post on his book. My replies to his points proved just as long, so I’ve posted it all up here. His comments are in italics.

25 titles of our 100 were published in the last 27 years. 12 of these were published in the last 17 years. I think both proportions are generous when you consider our book spans 1818 to the present day in terms of its main entries.

That’s a little disingenuous – you have an entire century (the Nineteenth) represented by five books. But…

I’ll also mention that part of our aim was to cover all the major themes that recur in SF and we felt these were best represented by some of the seminal books that pioneered these ideas.

I can’t argue with that. Themes have their moments in time like everything else, and a restriction by chronology would probably result in a restriction of themes. For example, swords & planet (AKA planetary romance) seems to be making something of a comeback – Chris Roberson’s Paragaea, Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns, Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Kings of Mars in the Fantasy Masterworks series, a film of ERB’s A Princess of Mars in development…

In my thirty years plus of reading SF and talking with other devotees, one thing I’ve noticed is that the more committed, active fans are always keen to emphasise what is happening currently in the genre – which is admirable as they are working hard to keep SF alive and kicking.

I’ve never questioned the motives of sf fans in promoting books. On the whole, I think that they do so is a Good Thing. But I have seen, particularly on on-line forums, fans reel out lists of pre-1960 science fiction when asked to recommend genre books. Typically, such lists are presented as “good” sf, not “classic” sf. I think this is wrong.

Nick and I put a greater emphasis on the 1950s-1970s as this is when we believe the greatest steps forward were taken by writers of genre SF: it is no coincidence that the rise of SF is closely related to Modernism in the arts.

Ah, now this is where you and I part company a little. My own personal theory has it that science fiction is indeed a modernist art-form. But it has always been one. Ever since it began in 1926. Gernsback not only coined the term, he also created the community which defines the genre, and his insistence on scientific accuracy (or plausibility) is what differentiates sf as modernist from early prototypes by Wells, Verne, Poe or Shelley, or indeed from fantasy.

This modernist spirit of innovation is especially relevant to the very nature of SF; the ‘sense of wonder’ at the new, conceptual breakthrough, paradigm shift, whatever you want to call the shock of fresh vistas opening up before our consciousness is the mark of important SF.

The Turkey City Lexicon trivialises these as “eyeball kicks”, but I think that de-emphasis is actually necessary – the term has become linked with visual spectacle, rather than paradigm shift. A foregrounding of “sense of wonder” leads to the lack of a central science-fictional conceit – as I mentioned in an earlier post.

But as we were aiming in part at a historical overview rather than a snapshot of the genre now, ‘classic’ texts have to be considered as valid even today.

Perhaps that’s the problem – mis-labelling. Calling the book 100 Must-Read Classic Science Fiction Novels might have been better.

Readers often need to be pointed toward innovators so they can discover how radical such writers were for their time – many contemporary writers cannot claim to be anywhere near as groundbreaking as many classic authors who first tackled the ideas today’s writers build on.

When Kirk first kissed Uhura on national American television, it was controversial and ground-breaking. Imagine how viewers of the time felt when they saw it. We can’t, of course. Not now. So how are we able to judge the “radical” credentials of a piece of fiction that was written before we were born? Ralph 124C 41+ was no doubt a radical piece of fiction in 1911… but it is by all accounts near unreadable these days.

SF has always been as much about the present as the future. My view is that most really good SF is about the present.

Exactly! Was it John Clute who said every sf novel has two dates: the date on which it was written, and the date on which it is set? After all, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in 1992.

With this in mind, reading classic texts in order to put today’s SF into some kind of objective social context is supremely relevant.

Most readers won’t have that social context. And not only because they’re young. But perhaps also because the context is relevant to another country – any novel which uses McCarthyism as a theme is going to be wasted on me because I’m British. Even Anthony Burgess’ 1985 means little to me since I spent my childhood in the Middle East and missed the Winter of Discontent… On the non-genre front, there’s not much point in reading a translation of Kitab al-Hayawan, without some understanding of when and where its author, Jahiz, lived.

I’m willing to bet that lots of quite hardened fans haven’t read much by Leigh Kennedy, Barrington J. Bayley or Barry N. Malzberg (to name just three).

I’ll not be taking that bet… I consider myself reasonably well-read in the genre, but there are still well-known authors whose books I’ve never read.

Not only that, there is no objective argument that today’s SF is better simply because there is more of it: quality rarely equals quantity. Referring to The Reality Dysfunction, one of the two 21st century books we selected, yes, the writing is arguably better than that to be endured in Foundation, but I personally wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece…

I never said that more equals better. Although, by Sturgeon’s Law, there has to be more in that 1% if there’s more to begin with. I only pointed out that a lot of sf novels have been published recently, which your approach to the genre by definition ignored. And I second your feelings on Hamilton.

…(though I would make that claim for Ballard’s Super-Cannes, a book that some would argue isn’t SF, possibly proving that this writer at least is not totally ‘hung up on idea’).

I didn’t like Super-Cannes all that much. Some parts of it struck me as implausible – as if the story were subservient to the point Ballard was trying to make. As Brian Aldiss put it: yuppa ga

I have consistently found that giving a reader new to the genre a contemporary book full of hi-concept material is quite likely to put them off SF for good.

My experience of non-sf readers currently in their twenties and thirties is that they’re familiar enough with many of the tropes and concepts to cope quite easily with contemporary sf. Admittedly, I’m not a book-seller, and I work in information technology… which means my sample is likely skewed…

Most readers over a certain age unfamiliar with genre SF are baffled by (for example) some of the ideas they encounter in a book like Altered Carbon (probably because they haven’t read something seminal like Neuromancer), though I will admit that younger readers who have grown up in the post-modern era can manage such books as early attempts to ‘get into’ SF.

This does sort of beg the question: what is your intended readership for 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels? Not myself, obviously, since I’m a sf fan.

Samuel R. Delany is just one prominent literary figure whose viewpoint sides with my own on the difficulties some general readers have with the terminology of SF.

Isn’t Delany’s point that non-sf readers can mistake a literal phrase for metaphor because they don’t recognise that a literal meaning is possible – cf “her world exploded”?

As for ‘current day narrative techniques’, ‘Styles’ and ‘attitudes and sensibilities’ of today’s novels compared to older works, I don’t see a lot of genre SF writers (Hamilton for example) using approaches that different to those of the fifties, as experimental and Modernist techniques used heavily in the 1960s are only utilized by some contemporary writers.

The attitudes and sensibilites embedded in texts certainly differ between twenty-first century texts and 1960s ones. And that’s not just the repeated references to breasts in EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space. It’s even true of mainstream fiction. There’s a casual low-level racism in much fiction written in the first half of the Twentieth Century that is unacceptable today. The narrative techniques… I was referring to lower-level techniques, such as the prevalence of tightly-coupled third person point-of-view, or the general dislike of the omniscient voice.

Whether Now really is the Golden Age of SF that can confidently be recommended to all kinds of readers is something equally as debatable as which novels are representative must reads in the history of the genre as a whole.

It’s not that sf now is superior to older sf and so should be recommended, but that sf now is Now. And that’s why it should be read.

Thanks for your comments, Stephen.


Super Sexed Up Sci-Fi

One of my favourite science fiction novels is AE van Vogt’s The Undercover Aliens, first published in 1950. There’s something about its mix of Californian noir and Thrilling Wonder Stories science fiction I find strangely appealing. The writing is no better and no worse than much of van Vogt’s output – and this is a writer who built his career on the advice given by a how-to-write book. The plot is much the same.

Allison Stephens, ex-GI, is the lawyer managing the Tannahill estate in Almirante, California, sometime shortly after World War II. The Tannahills are the richest and most powerful family in the town, but their family home, the Grand House, is currently empty. The previous occupant has just died, and Almirante is waiting for nephew Arthur Tannahill to arrive. He had apparently been in an accident back east, and is now suffering from amnesia. The story begins when Stephens rescues a woman from a group of Mexican cultists. She gives her name as Mistra Lanett, tells Stephens not to get involved, and disappears. Later that night, she appears at his house, having been shot by a “needle-beam”…

The Grand House is apparently thousands of years old and, as Stephens later learns, was built atop a crashed alien spaceship by early inhabitants of the region. They subsequently became immortal – and have controlled Almirante ever since, while hiding their true nature. Mistra Lanett is one of this group; as is Arthur Tannahill. A nuclear war is brewing between the US and Lorillia. Some of the immortals, led by Lanett, want to secretly attack Lorillia and scare it into backing down – the immortals have the technology to do this (where they get it from is never explained). The rest of the group want to move the Grand House to Mars, and sit out the holocaust. Lanett had caused Tannahill’s amnesia as a delaying tactic, and she uses Stephens to force a compromise solution.

There are clearly no aliens in The Undercover Aliens, undercover or otherwise. The novel was first published under the title The House That Stood Still, which may not be as catchy but is at least relevant to the plot. Recently, however, I discovered a third title for this book – The Mating Cry. Not only a different title, but apparently a “revised” version.

Compiling a bibliography for van Vogt is not an easy task. Many of his novels were fix-ups of short stories, some were republished under different titles, and revised versions of stories sometimes ended up as entirely new novels. Nevertheless, I did a little research on van Vogt and discovered that…

From 1950 to 1959, Galaxy magazine published a series of digest-sized reprint science fiction novels, offered as companions to the magazine. In 1959, they sold the series to Beacon Books, a company known for publishing novels with “mild sexual content”. Beacon subsequently published eleven sf novels, each accordingly “sexed up” and retitled. The Mating Cry is Beacon Book’s revised version of The Undercover Aliens.

I chanced across a copy of The Mating Cry on eBay a few months ago, and bought it. I wanted to see how it differed from the original. And, having read it, it’s… an odd experience. You wouldn’t have thought the addition of a couple of sex scenes could change a novel so much. And yet the character of Mistra Lanett changes completely. In The Undercover Aliens, she comes across as a maiden-in-distress, despite being clearly manipulative and determined to have her own way. But in The Mating Cry… The incident mentioned earlier where she turns up at Stephens’ house: after having her wound treated, she climbs into bed with the lawyer. In fact, every time they meet after that, they have sex. Yet she remains the Hitchcockian blonde of The Undercover Aliens. There’s nothing overly shocking about her behaviour in today’s climate, but the fact that these sex scenes have been slotted into the narrative makes Lanett appear callous and quick to use her body to twist Stephens into doing her bidding.

I’ve always thought The Undercover Aliens would make an excellent film. Perhaps you’d have to drop some of the sillier science-fictional aspects (the move to Mars, for example), but the house-of-immortals central premise would work really well. Allison Stephens is a good solid hero. And Mistra Lanett makes a classic femme fatale. You’d have to keep the story set in the years immediately following World War II, of course. That’s a big part of the story’s charm. But…

In The Undercover Aliens, you want the hero to get the girl. In The Mating Cry, you don’t.