“The world is well-built and the story flows naturally … I loved the story…”
To be fair, she loved the other stories in the issue too.
But that’s not true. The voted awards are given to the shortlisted book which has the most votes. The most popular book, in other words. The juried awards are given to the book which the jury – no doubt after much argument and compromise – feels is the best of their shortlist. The same is true of the shortlists themselves. The process itself simply isn’t capable of picking the best book of the year.
If every reader of science fiction and fantasy voted for the Hugo Award, the winner would always be the latest Harry Potter book. Because so many more people read JK Rowling than Michael Chabon (whose The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – which is actually very good – won the Hugo for 2008). But then, of course, they’d have to call it the Hugo Award for Most Popular Novel.
It could be argued that shortlists provide a good reading list, a snapshot of the “state of the genre”, if you will. For juried awards such as the Clarke, that’s possibly true. Although given the Clarke’s predilection for picking non-sf novels for its shortlist, you’re not going to get much idea from it of what’s happening in the genre in any given year.
As far as I can determine, the only conceivable purpose for the various awards which are handed out is… to celebrate the genre. It’s a reminder to the general public that science fiction and fantasy still exist as a separate, functioning ecology; that there are writers, readers, artists and commentators working in the genre; that there are people who feel strongly enough about the genre to do the whole award shenanigans.
So let’s drop the word “best” from all the awards. Let’s call it the Hugo Award for Novel, the BSFA Award for Novel, and so on. Remove all references to any kind of value judgment. Let’s stop pretending the winners are better books than every other genre book published during the same year. The same for short stories, magazines, writers, editors, artists, etc.
Let’s be honest.
Let’s focus on what the awards really are: annual celebrations of the genre.
It’s that time of year again. The shortlists for the 2008 BSFA Awards have been announced. And they go something like this:
I’ve not read any of the four, although I do have The Night Sessions and plan to read it soon. I’m a bit behind on my Baxter reading, although eventually I would have got to Flood. The Harkaway I’ve heard good-ish things about, but not enough to make me want to shell out for a new hardback by an author I’ve never read before. Anathem…. Well, I hated the Baroque Cycle, so I’m certainly not going to buy Stephenson’s latest brick in hardback.
And yes, I know there are such things as libraries. But I already have enough unread books of my own to keep me reading for several years, so why would I join a library?
Um, it seems The Gone-Away World is available in A-format paperback already. I might well get a copy, then…
Best Short Fiction
A new Chiang. Nuff said. I hope they make it available online. The others are already available to read on the tinterweb. I don’t read enough short fiction each year to judge how the above stack up against everything else published. Annoyingly, you have to sign up for a 7-day trial for some online business information service to access the Rickert. Which requires you to enter a credit card number. Dumb move, F&SF.
I have Paul Kincaid’s book, and I plan to read it. I am less interested in fantasy, or superheroes. Clute’s piece, as it is online, I will read.
Judge for yourself…
All week the Guardian has been running 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Not 1000 Novels Everyone Should Read. Must read. And these 1000 novels have been arbitrarily – and weirdly – split into seven categories: love, crime, comedy, family & self, state of the nation, science fiction & fantasy, and war & travel. To date, I’ve averaged between one and two dozen read in each category.
But today it’s science fiction & fantasy and, unsurprisingly, I make a much better showing.
Here is the list:
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
JG Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
JG Ballard: Crash (1973)
JG Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- )
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)
I make that 63 read of 149 – they’re the ones in bold. Plus a further 10 I own but have yet to read (in italics).
It’s a bloody odd list, that much is for sure. No Mars trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson, but The Years of Rice and Salt instead. Banks’ Consider Phlebas rather than Use of Weapons. Memoirs of a Survivor but not the Canopus in Argos Archives for Lessing. Michael G Coney manages to sneak one on there – I suspect a fondness for his work on the part of one of the compilers. There’s a few I’d never recommend to people – Orlando might have its fans, but I hated it. Nor was I that impressed by Michael Faber’s Under The Skin. Several titles I’d never heard of – especially the old Gothic ones. And… Toni Morrison? Sarah Waters? Ben Okri? Still, there’s a few there I wouldn’t mind giving a go. I might even stick them on the wants list…
EDIT: Thanks to Martin Lewis for posting the list on his blog.
I forget when I last read this book. I seem to recall reading it several times during my early teens, but I’ve avoided it since. I’m not sure why – perhaps I was afraid it would disappoint. I’ve learnt to my cost that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. Few books I loved as a teenager have survived a reread now that I’m just over halfway through my three score years and ten.
Having said that, I may well have not reread it simply because my To Be Read pile is big enough already. And continues to grow…
The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1971. It’s also No 60 in the SF Masterworks series. So it’s safe to say it’s highly regarded by sf fans. But I’m not convinced sf novels stand the test of time as well as most fans would have us believe, and Ringworld is now 39 years old.
Everyone knows that the first edition had Earth rotating the wrong way – but this was corrected in subsequent editions. But there are other mistakes (in my 1981 Sphere paperback). On page 22, there is a description of the Long Shot: “The ship would carry practically no cargo, though it was over a mile in diameter.” Yet when they finally see the ship: “The Long Shot was a transparent bubble over a thousand feet in diameter” (pg 46). The last time I looked, a mile was 5,280 feet. There’s also a strange mix of metric and Imperial units: “The ring masses two times ten to the thirtieth power in grams, measures .95 times ten to the eighth power miles in radius, and something less than ten to the sixth power miles across.” (pg 70). These are minor complaints, however.
Louis Wu is a 200-year-old adventurer in the 29th Century. He is recruited by Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer, for a mysterious mission. Also recruited are Speaker-to-Animals, a kzin, which is a large feline war-like alien; and Teela Brown, a young woman descended from five generations of winners of the Birthright Lotteries and so supposed to be very lucky. The mission requires a trip to an unspecified destination 200 light years from Earth. This would normally take several decades, but Nessus has use of a ship fitted with a secret “quantum II hyperdrive shunt”, which travels orders of magnitude faster. This ship, the Long Shot, and the secret of its drive, will be Louis Wu and his team-mates’ payment for the mission.
The team head for the home world of the Pierson Puppeteers… which proves to be a fleet of five worlds travelling through space at 80% of the speed of light. The puppeteers are a cowardly race and are fleeing the explosion of the galactic core, whose wavefront won’t reach Known Space for another 20,000 years. Recently, they had discovered an artefact a couple of light years from their present position. A ringworld – a single band of material approximately one million miles in width and 600 million miles in circumference, orbiting one AU from its primary, and comprising the surface area of three million Earths. The puppeteers do not know who built the ringworld, and want Louis and the others to investigate it.
In a second ship provided by the puppeteers, Louis, Teela, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals travel to the ringworld. While investigating one of the “shadow squares”, which orbit nearer the sun and provde night and day on the ringworld, they are attacked by automated defences and crash on the ringworld’s surface. They must then trek some 250,000 miles to the rim to seek help…
Niven’s ringworld is one of the most famous Big Dumb Objects in science fiction. And justifiably so. It’s huge. And Niven mostly succeeds in getting across its size to the reader. From the crash-site, for example, Louis can see for thousands of miles, but still can’t make out the rim to either side. Compare that with Earth – on flat ground the horizon would be around three miles away for someone six feet tall.
And, I suppose, that if I’d forgotten anything about Ringworld, it was that sense of vast scale. Louis Wu is a protagonist very much in the mould of a US 1970s Competent Man. Teela Brown is decorative, screams a lot, and occasionally manages to surprise Louis with her perceptiveness and intelligence. He still refers to her as “my woman”, however. The kzin is war-like, and the puppeteer is cowardly. Much of the universe of the novel, Known Space, was worked out in earlier novels and short stories. The prose is efficient at best, neither impeding the reading experience nor enhancing it.
The ringworld casts a huge shadow. It’s the ringworld you remember when you close the book. It’s the ringworld you remember decades later when you pick up the book to reread it. The rest is, well, just a story. The ringworld is sense of wonder. And if that’s all you want in a science fiction novel, then you’ll get it in Ringworld. If you’re looking for more, you’ll perhaps come away disappointed. Niven makes no attempt to explain the origin of the ringworld. The book’s plot is little more than a trek to find a way off it. There are, I admit, one or two interesting sub-plots: for example, the puppeteers’ meddling in both human history and kzin, the first to breed a “lucky” human and the second to make the kzin more docile; and the various speculations these revelations generate. Niven also manages to create a human but slightly off-kilter civilisation-in-ruins on the ringworld, although the name of one of its city, Zignamuclickclick, generates a wince.
I enjoyed my reread, but it did leave me somewhat dissatisfied. Not from the book’s shortcomings – but because I’d forgotten how glibly sf writers of the 1970s used to make stuff up. They made very little effort to convince, they just waved their hands a little more vigorously. That’s a style which is no longer in fashion. Science fiction in the 21st century is a far more rigorous genre, and it’s better for it.
There are more novels following on from this one – The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, and Ringworld’s Children – and these explain who built the ringworld, and why. I vaguely recall reading The Ringworld Engineers back in my teens, but I’ll not bother this time. Nor have I any desire to read more of the series.
That’s not, I hasten to add, because this first book in my 2009 Reading Challenge was a failure. On the contrary, it achieved pretty much what I expected it to achieve. I enjoyed the book, was reminded of some of the reasons why I’d liked it in the first place, and will someday no doubt read it again. But it’s no great work of literature, and there are many science fiction novels I’d consider better than it.
I’m not sure what the collective term for books by Anthony Burgess would be, but Burgessery seems to fit – even if it does sound a little rude. Still, it was Burgess who felt science fiction would be better called “futfic” – which sounds just as unwholesome – so I’m sticking with Burgessery.
I’ve been a fan of Burgess’ writing since reading A Dead Man in Deptford in the early 1990s. He was another author I discovered via the Daly Community Library in Abu Dhabi. After A Dead Man in Deptford, it was A Mouthful of Air, The Devil’s Mode, The Kingdom of the Wicked, Enderby’s Dark Lady, Wanting Seed and Any Old Iron – and that was just within six months.
Whenever I returned to the UK on leave, I’d hunt out Burgess paperbacks. At some point, I decided I wanted the books in hardback. And that included all the non-fiction he had written. My collection is by no means complete, and only one book – Any Old Iron – is a signed copy. Burgess was a good deal more prolific than Lawrence Durrell or Nicholas Monsarrat.
Burgess has been described as a great writer who never wrote a great novel. Which is a bit unfair. Earthly Powers is definitely a great novel. I prefer to think of him as a writer who made a career out of self-indulgence – much as Frank Zappa did in music. Both were extremely talented, so even their most self-indulgent works are interesting. But both also had a tendency to privilege displays of cleverness over accessibility. Who but Burgess, for example, would write a novel in three parts: the libretto of a Broadway musical about Trotsky visiting New York in 1917, the home life of Sigmund Freud, and a science fiction story about an asteroid called Lynx smashing into the earth and ending everything. The book is The End of the World News.
Most people believe Lawrence Durrell’s first novel to be The Black Book, published in 1938 by the Obelisk Press in Paris (it was considered obscene by UK publishers, and not published in this country until 1977). In fact, Durrell’s first novel had been published three years earlier by Cassell. It was titled Pied Piper of Lovers. Unfortunately, it sold badly, was savaged in a review in Janus magazine by John Mair, and few copies survived the Blitz. Durrell himself also refused to allow the book to be reprinted – perhaps because it was a little too autobiographical. As a result, copies are very hard to find – in fact, “barely a dozen copies survive in libraries around the world”.
But now the Canadian University of Victoria’s ELS Editions has, after 73 years, finally published a new edition of Pied Piper of Lovers. And a very nice edition it is too. There is an excellent introduction by editor James Gifford – from which the above quote about “barely a dozen copies” is taken. The text itself is copiously footnoted – perhaps too copiously in places: I should have thought it unnecessary to point out, for example, that “Portsmouth, England, is a coastal city in Hampshire”, as only the dimmest of readers is going to blithely ignore context and confuse it with the many Portsmouths in the USA.
After the text of the novel is an essay, ‘An Unacknowledged Trilogy’, by James A Brigham, which argues that Pied Piper of Lovers, Durrell’s second novel Panic Spring (published in 1937 under the pseudonym Charles Norden), and The Black Book are a thematic trilogy. Pied Piper of Lovers also features a “Works Cited & Selected Bibliography”.
Some books are plainly written by young men, and Pied Piper of Lovers is one of them. The prose seems to foreground the senses, more so than plot or structure or characterisation. Every raindrop is lovingly described, every emotion takes on supreme importance. Durrell’s prose was always lush, but it was in service to the story. In Pied Piper of Lovers, Durrell appeared to be intent primarily on making a point with his novel – in as rich a language as he could manage – and only secondarily in actually constructing a narrative. Perhaps this was because he was at the time chiefly a poet.
Clifton Walsh is born in India of an English father and an Indian mother who dies in childbirth. He is raised by his father, a civil engineer, and his aunt, Brenda. His schooling is haphazard, and eventually his father determines he should be sent to school in England. While Clifton is at boarding-school, Brenda settles down in London. When his father dies – Clifton has not been back to India since being sent to England – Clifton leaves school. He has no fixed ambition, just a need to get away. He stays at a sea-side cottage near Hangar, on the border between Devon and Dorset, and meets Ruth. They fall immediately in love. Meanwhile, Clifton has discovered he has a gift for music – specifically, for writing it. He sells a piece to a music publisher, although the publisher is more interested in the “tune” in Clifton’s music and turns it into a piece of popular jazz. Clifton goes to live in Fitzrovia, an area of London, where he meets and interacts with a variety of bohemian types. He stumbles across Ruth, and the two settle down together. She, however, is terminally ill. They move back to the south coast, and he supports them by writing popular tunes. The final chapter of the book is a letter from Clifton to his best friend from boarding-school.
It’s perhaps the language of Pied Pipers of Lovers which is most interesting, and most appealing. The prose was clearly written with a poet’s eye. Perhaps it’s not always successful, and there are no passages which grab the eye as there are in Durrell’s later works. Perhaps even, the rich language occasionally works against the story, obscuring what should be clear. Especially in the Prologue, thirteen pages of which describe the arrival of the doctor at the bedside of Clifton’s mother, his birth, and her subsequent death. In other parts of the novel, the narrative seems to enter a literary “bullet-time”, and emotional events which transpire over almost no time are dissected in lush prose over several pages. And yet Durrell’s writing is often at his best when his focus pulls back and he moves the story forward.
One of the aspects of The Alexandria Quartet which appeals most to me is that it is a series of novels about British expatriates in the Middle East. Pied Piper of Lovers turns this on its head – Clifton doesn’t feel himself to be English, but he is in England. But neither is he not English. In fact, the major theme of the novel is Clifton’s feelings of being torn between two homelands, yet not fully part of either. Durrell, like Clifton, was born and brought up in India, then sent to England to be educated. Durrell also lived briefly in Fitzrovia, and was as much a “Bohemian” as those he describes in the novel.
There is also – and this further indicates to me that Pied Piper of Lovers is a young man’s novel – an uncritical reflection of the attitudes of that set at that time, as if they were adopted unthinkingly. There are a number of anti-semitic comments in the book, a stereotyping of Jews as grasping merchants – a not-uncommon attitude in 1930s Britain, but at odds with Durrell’s later pro-Zionism in The Alexandria Quartet. But there is also an open tolerance of homosexuality – something which seems to me was a peculiarity of the Bohemian set (cf Oscar Wilde, Charles Scott-Moncrieff, Robert Ross, Wilfred Owen and others a decade or two earlier).
The book’s structure displays Durrell’s frequent inability to stick to his intended narrative plan. The timescale is uneven, events are not properly placed, and Clifton’s age is occasionally hard to calculate. And yet the book is carefully split into five parts: Prologue (birth), Part I (childhood in India), Part II (boarding school in England), Part III (Fitzrovia), and Epilogue. I’m reminded of The Avignon Quintet, in which each of the five books begins clearly on track but seems to soon drift from it… until the central mystery of the quintet, Templar treasure hidden somewhere in Provence, is solved almost in passing near the end of the fifth book, Quinx. It’s strange that while Durrell showed a poet’s careful control over his language, he never seemed to have as much control over his plots.
So, how grateful should we be to ELS Editions for publishing Pied Pier of Lovers? Personally, I’m very glad indeed. I love Durrell’s work and, while I found Pied Piper of Lovers less satisfying than his later works, I’m very glad I read it. I’ll probably even read it again. It’s always interesting seeing how favourite writers develop, and Pied Piper of Lovers is an important novel in that regard. Anyone with an interest in Durrell should read it.