I’ve been very good recently – not only have I not added greatly to the To Be Read pile, but I have also pruned my collection of a few hundred paperbacks. Well, they were just sitting there, taking up shelf-space. I was never going to read them again; and some of them are readily available in charity shops and the like, so should I want to reread them I can easily pick up copies. So now I have a bit more room on the book-shelves. Which, of course, shall soon fill up. But only with deserving books…
Anyway, since the last one of these posts I have bought only the following books:
The new Banks, Surface Detail, which I plan to read soon-ish; the latest in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Field Grey; and an omnibus edition of The Secret History Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Pécau, Igor Kordey and Leo Pilipovic, a graphic novel detailing the exploits through human history of four immortals each gifted with a powerful magic rune.
Two non-fiction books: the title of the first pretty much describes its contents: Convair Advanced Designs. It’s about planes. The second, MoonFire, is a re-issue of Norman Mailer’s 1971 book about the Moon landings, Of A Fire on the Moon, but as a coffee-table tome by Taschen, with many, many excellent photographs. There’s a signed limited edition which costs around £600, and a “Lunar Rock Edition” priced from 60,000 to 480,000 Euros (because each of the 12 copies includes a piece of Moon rock). Mine is the bog-standard £27.99 edition. If you buy only one coffee-table book about Apollo, this looks to be the one you should get.
Here’s a pair of 1960s novels by a pair of forgotten British science fiction writers: Implosion by DF Jones, and 98.4 by Christopher Hodder-Williams. Look at the awful cover art. They don’t do cover-art like that anymore. I’ll be posting reviews of them here, just as I did for No Man Friday (here) and A Man of Double Deed (here).
Finally, a trio of first editions: The Insider by Christopher Evans; Johnnie Sahib, Paul Scott’s debut novel; and Twice Ten Thousand Miles by Frances Lynch. Yes, that last one is a romance historical novel, and the reason I purchased it is because Frances Lynch is a pseudonym of DG Compton. I’m quite looking forward to finding out how the perennially pessimistic and sardonic Compton handles romance historical fiction.
I had this really good idea for a post, a sort of companion piece to my British sf Masterworks. Films… Science fiction films… British science fiction films. How about a list of the best twenty-five sf films from the UK? Everyone likes lists.
Except… I couldn’t find twenty-five good British sf films – either that I’d seen or that I’d would be willing to hold up as good cinema. So I picked twenty. And, to be honest, there are a few on the list that stretch the definition of “good” somewhat. There are also a few that do the same with “British”… Kubrick was American, as are Gilliam and Hyams; and Truffaut is French. And some of the films were made with US money, requiring US actors in the starring roles – but they were British productions, so they count for this list.
No doubt I’ve forgotten lots of really good sf films from the UK, so feel free to leave a comment and suggest some. But here is my list, in order of year of release:
1 – Things To Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936) – there’s not much you can say about this. It’s an astonishing piece of cinema, especially given when it was made.
2 – The Quatermass Xperiment, dir. Val Guest (1955) – Quatermass had a powerful impact on British sf, so one of the three films featuring him deserves to make this list.
3 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest (1961) – not only a disaster film, caused by testing nuclear weapons, but also a post-apocalypse film. The shots of empty cities remain creepy even today.
4 – First Men In The Moon, dir. Nathan H Juran (1964) – the recent Gatiss adaptation on BBC4 was entertaining, but there’s a bonkers charm to Lionel Jeffries’ portrayal of Professor Cavor.
5 – Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD, dir. Gordon Flemyng (1966) – back when Daleks were cool, they drilled a hole to the centre of the Earth so they could replace it with an engine and turn the whole planet into a spaceship. And they did it in Britain. Until Bernard Cribbins stopped them. With a bit of help from Dr Who.
6 – Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966). The book is rubbish, but the film is excellent. Casting Julie Christie in two roles was inspired. And the monorail is really cool too.
7 – Frozen Alive, dir. Bernard Knowles (1966) – an Anglo-German production, set in Germany, in which a scientist, well, he freezes himself. But his wife is murdered while he is frozen, and he’s the chief suspect. It sounds daft, but it works.
8 – They Came From Beyond Space, dir. Freddie Francis (1967) – and the plot of this one seems even dafter: meteorites land throughout the UK and take over people, who subsequently build an armed camp in southern England. This is so they can send rockets to the Moon, launched from underneath a lake, to help repair the alien spaceship marooned there.
9 – A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968) – Kubrick may have been an American but this film was as British as you can get – from Anthony Burgess’s source novel through to the cast and crew.
10 – Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun, dir. Robert Parrish (1969) – Gerry Anderson’s only live-action feature film, although some of the cast were as wooden as his puppets. The central conceit – a copy of the Earth on the other side of the Sun, where everything is reversed – is complete nonsense, but all those Meddings model shots make up for it.
11 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971) – Kubrick gets two films on this list because A Clockwork Orange is too British to leave off, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is too damn good to ignore.
12 – The Man Who Fell To Earth, dir. Nicolas Roeg (1976) – Bowie was perfectly cast. Any film that can say that deserves to be on this list.
13 – Flash Gordon, dir. Mike Hodges (1980) – it’s like a panto. In space. With Brian Blessed. Three reasons why it belongs on this list.
14 – Outland, dir. Peter Hyams (1981) – there’s not much that’s British about High Noon set on a moon of Jupiter (although without Grace Kelly). This was actually a British production, however.
15 – 1984, dir. Michael Radford (1984) – qualifies in the same way A Clockwork Orange does. It’s also an excellent adaptation of Orwell’s novel.
16 – Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam (1985) – could be 1984 from an alternate Britain. It’s as British as Orwell’s novel, but… funny. Absurd, in fact. Which is the only other sane response to Nineteen Eighty-four.
17 – Sliding Doors, dir. Peter Hewitt (1997) – it’s about the Many Worlds Hypothesis… Well, sort of. It’s a romance, a fluffy version of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, in which catching a train or not causes the story to split into two separate narratives.
18 – 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002) – zombies that can run. Enough said.
19 – Code 46, dir. Michael Winterbottom (2003) – is one of those films which seems to inhabit a near-future which already exists. It also asks some difficult questions about biotechnology.
20 – Moon, dir. Duncan Jones (2009) – I wrote about this here.
So, what films have I missed off?
If DG Compton’s other novels are as good as Ascendancies, I shall continue to track them down and read them. Of course, I’m not saying this from a sample of one. Ascendancies is the sixth book by Compton I’ve read (see here and here for two of them) . But it is the most confounding. It is an odd book. Beautifully written, well observed, tightly plotted, but… odd. Its central conceit remains a mystery, and its title seems like an afterthought. Nonetheless…
Ascendancies is, like The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and The Electric Crocodile, a two-hander. The two in Ascendancies are Caroline Trenchard and Richard Wallingford. Caroline’s husband has recently passed away, and Wallingford is the insurance agent tasked with ensuring the death is as reported. Because in the 1986 of the novel (which was published in 1980), the UK is experiencing a number of unexplained phenomena. One of these is “Disappearances”. First there is “Singing”, a sound as of heavenly choirs, seemingly coming from all directions. This is accompanied by a cloying smell of synthetic roses. And after every Singing, people are found to have vanished. No one knows what happens to them, or where they go.
The other phenomenon is “Moondrift”, which falls from… somewhere, at irregular but frequent intervals. It can be burnt as fuel, or used as plant food. As a result, the UK is prospering – so much so that people now legally work only three days a week.
Wallingford is employed by the Accident and General Insurance Company, who have insured the life of Caroline’s husband, Havelock. But they won’t pay out if Havelock has simply Disappeared. Hence Wallingford’s visit to Caroline’s house… where he discovers that a body has been substituted for the allegedly deceased. However, instead of reporting the matter, he agrees to defraud the AGIC, taking forty percent of the £100,000 policy. Which act draws the stolidly lower middle-class Wallingford and the bohemian upper middle-class Caroline together in a relationship that is not quite a relationship, and which is never entirely suitable (as Compton is fond of telling us).
Ascendancies charts the progress of the two’s affair, and that is all. When the story is over, neither Moondrift nor the Disappearances have been explained. All we’ve done is watch Wallingford and Caroline overcome their prejudices and draw close together, and then split apart as the final hurdle proves insurmountable. And “watch” seems an apposite verb as there’s much in Ascendancies which smacks of a BBC drama. Without consciously doing so, the story becomes for the reader an early 1980s Play for Today on BBC1, not unlike The Flipside Of Dominick Hide.
Partly this is because Compton’s dialogue is amazingly sharp. But it’s also there in the way he draws his characters, which is chiefly through that sharp dialogue. And also, some of his characters feel dated – especially Havelock’s circle of bohemian friends and hangers-on. As a result, the story itself seems far more 1980 than 1986. But it is beautifully-written, and those two central characters are drawn with superlative skill.
And the title? It is referenced twice in the novel. It apparently refers to a game of oneupmanship which two of the characters admit to playing. Caroline admits to playing it, although it’s hard to know exactly how it is played. Nor what playing it actually achieves. It is, like the Disappearances and Moondrift, just another part of the world of Ascendancies that Compton refuses to explain.
The first issue of Alt Hist, the Magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History, is now available. It contains many excellent stories, including one by – ahem – Yours Truly. And just look at the cool cover:
Apparently there was a discussion at the Cheltenham Literary Festival between John Mullan and China Miéville about the Man Booker, literary fiction and science fiction – as reported by Niall Harrison here and Gav here.
I’ve said before that consigning science fiction to the dustbin because much of it is written by semi-literate hacks is a foolish argument. The genre contains some very good writers indeed, and it shouldn’t be characterised by its lowest common denominators. After all, no one ignores John Le Carré because most spy fiction novels are disposable potboilers. Having said that, I suspect it’s an argument we can never win because detractors only have to point at any list of sf “favourites” or “classics”…
Another discussion, according to Niall, “strayed into what-next territory”. Which, to my mind, is related to the above. Science fiction is becoming increasingly constrained by the economic pressures of publishing. Only books which are likely to make a profit are being published, and the best yardstick is: is this new novel like an existing successful novel? It’s not that writers are not individual or producing individual works, nor that there aren’t surprise hits. But series and subgenres seem to be becoming more dominant. As a result, some of the most interesting sf of recent years has been written by non-genre writers. They’re bringing fresh eyes, and new techniques, to genre writing.
And one of those techniques – which, perversely, you’d have expected to have been in sf’s toolbox since the genre’s beginnings – is “rigour”. Literary fiction writers do not wave their hands around as much as science fiction writers. Partly, it’s the nature of the beast – to maintain the same level of rigour in a sf novel that is built into the real world is impossible. However, sf readers have also traditionally been willing to accept all manner of implausible bollocks in a story. Calling some of it “science” would be doing science a great disservice. The genre is now more rigorous than ever before, but there is still room for improvement.
And that’s where I think the Next Big Thing in sf is. I’m ignoring, of course, the hordes of adventure fiction in sf clothing which forms the bulk of the genre. That’ll continue to do what it’s doing, probably until the heat death of the universe. The potboilers are never going to go away. But the “good stuff”, that’s going to move away from the sort of science fiction where the author’s hands are a continual blur. It’s going to focus on the real things: the characters, a rigorously-applied central conceit, a universe in which we occupy an infinitesimally small place and which is not at all designed for us to exploit…
I see a more realistic slant to the best science fiction over the next few years, stories that distance themselves from the space operatics of the rest of the genre, that will in many respects resemble literary fiction as much as it resembles science fiction. It’s a form of assimilation, and the process has already begun. The lines between sf and everything else will never blur, but the area between them will become more permeable and amorphous. Because of the introduction of realism, because of cross-pollination from literary fiction.
And I think I’ve mixed up far too many metaphors there. So I shall stop now.
If you have a week or so free, there’s an excellent discussion worth reading on Torque Control here regarding women sf writers and the Clarke Award. It spilled out of its topic somewhat to cover women sf writers in the UK, and the paucity of them. Which resulted in a lot of comments.
Following on from the discussion, Niall Harrison has asked here for people to email him their “top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010)”. I thought I would post them here instead:
Destroyer, CJ Cherryh
Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp
Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, Mary Gentle
The Rapture, Liz Jensen (my review here)
Life, Gwyneth Jones
Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (my review here)
Lavinia, Ursula K LeGuin
Warring States, Susan R Matthews
Natural History, Justina Robson
… and that’s only nine. And even then I had to cheat a little.
Annoyingly, the specified years means Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History doesn’t make it. It’s an excellent novel, and everyone should read it. But, while I own but have yet to read Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, I have read Under the Penitence, the novella on which it was based. Likewise, I’m a fan of LeGuin’s fiction but haven’t read Lavinia yet. The same is true of CJ Cherryh. And I had to add two titles by Gwyneth Jones because both are excellent and should be read. I’d also like to have added all five books of the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, of which Alanya to Alanya is the first, but that would have been silly.
Matthews has not been published since the book listed above, although according to her website (which has not been updated for two years) she had at least another two planned. A shame. I really liked her Jurisdiction universe, and would happily pay for more novels set in it.
I should point out that I have read and admire a large number of books by women sf writers. Unfortunately, most of them were published before 2001. Which is, I suppose, the whole point of the list, and the discussion which generated it. I’ve also read a few of those mentioned in the lists posted on Torque Control here, but didn’t like them enough to put them in my own list.
Today’s Mind Meld feature on SF Signal is “If you could publish a short fiction anthology containing up to 25 previously-published sf/f/h stories, which stories would it include and why?”.
You can see my answer to the question here. I could have gone for a themed table of contents for my dream anthology, but I chose to simply pick twenty-five of my favourite genre short stories (and a couple of novellas). Quite what my choices say about me I wouldn’t like to speculate…