It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Science fiction and the madden heap

I was watching Smiley-seque BBC2 drama Page Eight last night, which bases its plot on the notion that the prime minister was aware of the US practice of covertly torturing people, and it occurred to me it was a story driven by moral outrage. This is not something that’s typically in short supply. Just look at the various responses to the recent riots. There is plenty of moral outrage in real life; there is also a lot of it in assorted entertainment media and modes of fiction.

But not, I realised, in science fiction.

Which is odd, because moral outrage is a characteristic of the middle classes, and science fiction is a middle class genre. (Fantasy, I think, was once higher, but was democratized by Tolkien.) It would be reasonable to expect moral outrage to be a common fuel in genre story-engines, but it is, in fact, surprisingly rare. Perhaps this is because science fiction is an inherently optimistic genre. It presupposes that problems have solutions, that mysteries can be explained; that the universe itself is open to explanation and eventual exploitation. Science fiction stories are about the things we can control, or they are about the process of gaining control over them.

This last may be why there is a preponderance of right-leaning science fiction. Admittedly, control can be democratic, egalitarian and universal; it does not need to be restricted to the privileged. It could be argued that dramatic tension necessitates the limiting of control to a select few – either to narrate their defence of it against an external threat, or watch as it’s wrested from them by some group better-suited to wield it. Such battles are usually driven by survival or jealousy. The rewards are typically limited to the privileged, but it’s everyone else who suffers. So the unprivileged, of course, have good reason to be fatalistic. But science fiction is not a fatalistic genre – and it would need to be to make effective use of moral outrage. The genre lionises the privileged far more than mimetic fiction does, and that is why it’s not a fatalistic genre.

True, science fiction is fond of playing Cassandra – and hindsight has always provided sharper vision than foresight – but all that doom-saying does admit of a solution. Something can be done. Or perhaps, something should be done. These are problems of the future – over-population, climate change, biosphere collapse, asteroid strike, etc. – they are not the crimes of today. They may have been created by the actions of the past and present, but as far as science fiction is concerned, the problem which requires fixing lies ahead of us. The message is: Act soon, because we can avert it. The message is: let us take control now, let us impose our will on the times ahead.

There are those who say science fiction’s only purpose is to entertain. Which is a bit like saying the purpose of economics is to reward greed, or the purpose of politics is to rationalise bad policies. Art, in any media, should always aspire to more than mere escapism. That it fails to do so does not invalidate that aspiration.

(Apologies for the bad pun in this rant’s title.)


Putting the science back in science fiction

Earlier this week, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and US publisher Tor/Forge issued a press release announcing they would work together to develop and publish “NASA-inspired works of fiction”. Or, as the release put it, they would work together on “a series of science based, commercial fiction books … around concepts pertinent to the current and future work of NASA”.

I should be excited about this. I like reading science fiction, I like reading about space exploration. But which is best? There’s only one way to find out…

But, seriously, any sf author worth his or her salt writing on such a topic will do the necessary research anyway. Perhaps they won’t have access to an actual NASA scientist, but they could probably find much of what they need to know on the Internet. And, if not, there’s always that old information-access tech known as “books”.

Of course, this assumes that the Goddard Space Flight Center is merely offering itself as a research resource to Tor/Forge authors, which may not be the case. It could be the reverse: authors acting as ghostwriters for NASA scientists. Or perhaps it’ll be a creative partnership between the two (or however many are involved in the book). The emphasis on “current and future work of NASA” does suggest this is as much a PR exercise for the agency as it is a desire to develop a series of novels which are intended to boost interest in careers in engineering and the sciences.

And yet… Look at science fiction now and its most visible face is that of the escapist space opera. There’s not a lot of science in it, and not much that might cause a reader to think of NASA and its works. While many scientists (and one prominent economist) have pointed to sf as the inspiration for their career choices, and a number of sf writers have been, and are, working scientists… I have to wonder how strong the link between the two is. After all, does historical fiction inspire people to become historians?

So what’s the likely effect of putting the science back in science fiction? It depends, of course, on the books the partnership produces. I suspect that, given the need to produce commercial fiction, we may get something closer to a techno-thriller set on the ISS than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital, or Mars, trilogies. I certainly hope not. I would dearly love to read authentic near-future high-concept science fiction which, as Wikipedia describes Goddard Space Flight Center’s role, is concerned with “increasing knowledge of the Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe via observations from space” and the “scientific investigation, development and operation of space systems, and development of related technologies”.

I recently read Heaven’s Shadow, a 2011 blockbuster sf novel by movie screenwriter David S Goyer (so, of course, the film rights have already been sold for a humungous sum) and television screenwriter (and genre mid-lister) Michael Cassutt. The novel boasts that it accurately describes a near-future space mission to a comet visiting the Solar System. While there are definitely no pointy rockets of yore, or magical anti-gravity spaceships, in the book, and it makes a better attempt at depicting state-of-the-art spacecraft than sf as a genre usually does… Heaven’s Shadow does initially read more like a techno-thriller set in space than an actual science fiction novel.

But I refuse to be pessimistic. Something good could come of this partnership. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to seeing what it produces.


Not the Hugo

You’ve seen the Hugo Award results, you’ve seen the Not the Booker Award the Guardian runs each year. Obviously, a Not the Hugo Award should be done before the Worldcon hands out its shiny pointy rockets, but… I refuse to accept that Blackout / All Clear is the best genre novel(s) published in the US or UK in 2010. So until the Hugo removes that misleading “best” from the names of its awards, we are obliged to point out where it got it wrong. Again.

And no, I didn’t nominate or vote. But the Hugo Awards do not belong to only those who voted for them. If they want them to be awards for the genre(s), then they need to be open to criticism from those who do not, or will not, involve themselves in the process.

Instead, I shall choose a more deserving winner for the Not the Hugo Award for Novel Most Liked By a Different Group of People to the Hugo Voters. Except I didn’t read every genre novel published in English in 2010. So I need people to nominate titles in the comments.

Off you go…


Awards! Huh, what are they good for?

So the Hugo results are in and… ho-hum. The Hugo Award for The Nicest Person Who Happened To Have A Novel Published In The Preceding Year went to Connie Willis for a novel so bloated it had to be published in two volumes. But that’s okay, because the nice people in charge of the award fixed it for both of them to be considered as one book on the ballot. We’ll not mention the fact that the book is riddled with historical inaccuracies – I mean, having the Jubilee Line open during World War II? Wtf? That’s an epic research fail.

On the good news front, the whale rape story didn’t win the best novelette category. But it still got shortlisted, which is shameful. Ted Chiang won the best novella because, well, he would, wouldn’t he? The only time he doesn’t get shortlisted is when he withdraws his stories from consideration. He’s good, but he doesn’t shit gold and it’s about time the Hugo voters recognised that. The short story category was especially weak this year, and the award went to the current VP of the SFWA. This may be a coincidence. It probably is.

As for the rest of categories… I don’t understand the purpose of the two editor awards, or the fan writer and fanzine ones. As for the dramatic presentation awards, well, both movies and televisions have their own awards and they spend a lot more money on them than the Hugo does. Best Related Book? Why not just have Best Work of Criticism? And drop the Best Graphic Story too. Most of the ones that get nominated aren’t science fiction anyway.

In fact, why not limit the Hugos to actual, well, science fiction? Fantasy has its own awards. Let them hand them out to their nice people. Keep the Hugos for sf only. Written sf, and writings about sf. And give it to works, not people – no matter how nice they are.

(With apologies to Edwin Starr.)

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Metal weekend

After missing the last two Bloodstock Open Air music festivals, we were determined to make it this year, and planned accordingly. Although ostensibly running from Friday 12 August to Sunday 14 August, the campsite opened the day before – as did one of the bars and one of the stages – so we decided to arrive on the Thursday. We booked days off work, I purchased a tent – the saga of its failure to be delivered kept the Internet enthralled in the week before Bloodstock – and after a marathon shop at Asda on the morning of the festival, we set off down the M1 to Catton Hall in Derbyshire…

The drive took less time than expected, but there was a fair trek from the designated parking area to the campsite. My two-man pop-up tent operated as advertised, so I was sitting down and enjoying a beer while Craig, Emma, Rowan and Roger were still busy erecting their tents. Once we were all done, we headed for the arena. Which was much bigger than it had been on our previous attendances in 2008 and 2007. There were now three stages – the main stage, the Ronnie James Dio Stage; the Sophie Lancaster Stage for lesser-known bands; and the New Blood Stage for unsigned acts. Each had bars. There were double the number of stalls and food outlets, and several fairground rides. Bloodstock claimed to have sold 10,000 tickets, which made the festival larger than previous years, but we saw little evidence of this until the Sunday (on which more later).

The Thursday night was more in the nature of an exploratory trip round the arena. We caught Revoker in action, though we had seen them a month earlier supporting Sylosis and Cavalera Conspiracy. Then it was back to the tent to drink the beer we’d brought with us – beer in the arena was £3.80 a pint; not especially expensive, though it was only Carlsberg or Hobgoblin, but not as cheap as the tins we’d bought in Asda.

Friday was the start of the festival proper, and we’d already picked those bands we wanted to see. To be honest, there weren’t a large number of bands playing Bloodstock 2011 that I was really keen to see. Morbid Angel, certainly; and Wintersun. But part of the appeal of the festival is discovering bands new to you. By which lights, Bloodstock 2011 started very well indeed: unsigned band Shreddertron proved not to live up to their name at all, but instead played some excellent post-metal.

In fact, the weekend seem to consist of being impressed by bands about which we knew nothing, but disappointed by those we had high hopes for. Byfrost, a Norwegian black metal trio, proved really good, but the Devin Townsend Project was more entertaining for the banter and jokes than the music. October File impressed – and I had another one of those moments when I discovered I knew the song they were playing but had no idea why. I must have heard it on a magazine cover CD (see, they do work).

On the Saturday, I listened to the first Finntroll song but left the others to it and went to watch French metallers Blake on the Sophie Lancaster Stage instead. The tent was deserted, I stood right up at front, and the band played a really good set. Back on the Ronnie James Dio Stage, Ihsahn was disappointing, but Wintersun weren’t. Therion proved as entertaining live as they are on their albums.

Throughout the weekend, several of the unsigned bands performed short acoustic sets to a smaller crowd on the “Jägermeister Stage” – basically a tent attached to the Jägermeister promotional truck. And that’s where Northern Oak performed a storming set, and even got the crowd dancing a jig during their last song. Back at the campsite that night, we continued drinking, and I went off and introduced myself to the people in the tents set up in the area near ours. We were kept awake by people talking – again – into the small hours, and by loud noises apparently generated by a bunch of people “bin jousting”.

We’d bought plenty of beer with us, but weren’t actually drinking that much. Unlike previous years, we were far more focused on the music. Bloodstock is a three-day party, of course; but we were being unaccountably sensible. Well, we weren’t eating as properly we should have done – despite the variety on offer – but we weren’t doing bad.

Musically, Sunday was less successful than Saturday. Primordial, on the main stage, started well, but then the vocalist lost his voice halfway through the set, so they finished it as entirely instrumental. Northern Oak managed to better their acoustic set with an electric one on the New Blood Stage – the tent was packed and they sold out all their merchandising within half an hour afterwards. But then Sunday was a much busier day than the previous day. We suspected this was because Motorhead were headlining that night. It seemed likely that the advertised 10,000 tickets sold had been mostly day tickets, rather than camping tickets. Even so, the arena never seemed stupidly over-full.

We caught Morbid Angel and, yes, they did play some tracks from their “controversial” new album Illud Divinum Insanus. But the set felt like it went on too long. Motorhead weren’t especially impressive either: Lemmy just stood there and sang – I later heard someone describe him as an animatronic – and the drummer played like Animal from the Muppets… But I’ve never been a fan of the band, and I saw and heard nothing to make me change my mind.

Sunday was planned to be a quiet night as we were heading home the next day. It was not to be, however, as a crowd of seventy or eighty descended on our section of the campsite and milled about for a while as if looking for a riot. Nothing actually happened, and security were on hand to prevent anything had it done so.

After an even colder night, we were up early, struck tents – mine proved less easy to pack than it had been to put up – hauled everything to the car park, and left. I was home by half past eleven. I’d not had a shower for four days. I’d had more beer than food during those days – although not to excess. I’d not had much sleep. But I’d seen a lot of bands perform and had been really impressed by some of them. Oh, and I bought a Nile hoodie. It was also good to catch up with Leon of Mithras and Zero Tolerance, who was there for the Sunday afternoon.

Of course, I have to mention the toilets. It wouldn’t be a music festival without chemical toilets. In fact, they’re the reason why you tend to eat less food – to minimise visits to them, you see. Yes, they got pretty bad on the Sunday night in the campsite. But the ones in the arena were kept clean throughout the entire weekend. At previous Bloodstocks it had always been better to return to the campsite to use the toilets, but this time I carried a roll of toilet paper with me into the arena.

But it’s the music, of course, that’s the reason you go. Band of the weekend, without a doubt, were Northern Oak, who played two brilliant sets. Top three sets were Shreddertron, Byfrost and Blake, none of whom I’d heard before but definitely want to hear again. On the strength of the one song Wintersun played from their much-delayed second album, I’m looking forward to its eventual appearance even more. I’m also looking forward to next year’s Bloodstock, no matter who’s on the bill.

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reading & watchings 6: the women-only month

As promised, during July I limited my reading to only books written by women. A dozen, in fact, which is about average for me; as are the subjects covered – science fiction, mainstream, crime, space, and autobiography.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004), was June’s book for my reading challenge, though I didn’t read it until July. I wrote about it here.

Hav, Jan Morris (2006), I’d been meaning to read for ages – ever since it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, in fact. But, well, I never got around to buying a copy. And that despite reading and very much enjoying Morris’ Fisher’s Face back in 2000. I found a copy of Hav on last year, and picked it up this month to read as the book is actually an omnibus of two books, and the first was originally published in 1985 and so could be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. The more recent section, ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, I found less successful. It takes place after the “Intervention”, in a state now booming under the control of a secretive council of Cathars. Quite what is driving the economy is never really revealed, though Morris suggests it may not be entirely legal. Morris visits old sights (almost all gone) and old friends (almost all changed). Progress has been good to Hav – it is now prosperous – but Morris mourns the old Hav, with its rich mélange of culture and history. Which does sort of make the piece read like a paean to nostalgia.

Bluebeard’s Egg , Margaret Atwood (1983), is a collection of short stories. Some I like more than others. The title story especially stood out. I also liked ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’ a great deal. One of my favourite mainstream short story writers is Helen Simpson, because her stories seem to capture real experiences. Her stories are about the quotidian, but they are written with intelligence and a lightness of touch which belies their content. Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg , by contrast, seems more focused on the emotional landscapes in her stories and that, perversely, often makes them seem less real. True, the stories in this collection are chiefly focused on relationships and sexual politics, but even so, some of them felt more like plays than attempts to depict slices of life. There was a studiedness to the situations they describe, and I found that a little distancing. I have yet to make up my mind about Atwood’s fiction, though I’ve only read three of her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is superb, and I remember enjoying The Blind Assassin. I still have plenty more by her on the TBR (for a while, it seemed every local charity shop had one of her books), so we shall see how it goes…

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s writing for many years, and have collected all of her books.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010), I bought because I’d heard good things about from several people. They were wrong. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh (1992), is al-Shaykh’s second novel. I thought her first, Women of Sand & Myrrh, very good indeed, but this one was, to be honest, a bit of a slog. It’s structured as a series of letters by a woman called Asmahan – to her childhood friend, to an ex-lover, to her mother, to Billie Holliday – in which she recounts incidents, and feelings, of life in war-torn Beirut. Some of the writing is lovely, some of the story is quite heart-breaking, and al-Shaykh is extremely good at getting across the realities of the life she describes. In that respect, Beirut Blues provides an excellent window on a place, its people and events that readers in the West probably know little about – and certainly very little about what it was actually like for those who suffered through those times. The format unfortunately does distance the reader somewhat and nothing has quite the impact it feels it ought to. Despite this, worth reading.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. The Goda War was, I think, the first book I read by Blakeney. I vaguely remember looking her up afterwards on The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which reccommended her The Children of Anthi / Requiem for Anthi duology. I hunted down copies of those two books, and they are indeed good. The Goda War, unfortunately, isn’t. She wrote a fourth novel, The Omcri Matrix, which I will no doubt reread and review for SF Mistressworks sometime.

Desert Governess, Phyllis Ellis (2000), is a slim autobiographical book about the one year spent in Saudi by the writer. Originally a dancer/actress, Ellis turned to TEFL as a career after the death of her husband. She spent a year in Hail, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, as English teacher – not really a governess – to the son and two daughters of HRH Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of ibn Saud. Ellis seems eager to learn and understand Arab/Muslim culture, but equally unwilling to accept some of its elements – resulting in incidents which caused offense and could have been avoided. She is homesick for much of the time and, unsurprisingly, finds the life too restricting. To some extent, Desert Governess provides an interesting insight into the lives of Saudi princesses – particularly the sections set in Jeddah. The writing is mostly acceptable, and there are some mistakes in the transliteration of the Arabic (though they might have been typos). The book is a quick easy read, spoiled somewhat by Ellis’ reluctance to either accept or respect the culture in which she found herself.

Resurrection Code, Lyda Morehouse (2011), is actually a prequel to Morehouse’s AngeLINK quartet, which I’ve not read. I think Amazon recommended it to me when I purchased Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (see here), and it looked sort of similar so I bought it. It’s an interesting mix of cyberpunk and, er, angels, set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo. Odd, but in a good way. I plan to write about it here soon-ish. Meanwhile, I plan to hunt down copies of the original AngeLINK books: Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node and Apocalypse Array..

City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris (2011), is her second crime novel set in Saudi, featuring the same two characters from her first, The Night of the Mi’raj: Nayir Sharqi, Palestinian desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, forensic scientist. I thought that first book interesting, though somewhat flawed – and I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. City of Veils is a much better book – perhaps because it has a larger cast and a much more satisfying central mystery (most of which proves to be a sub-plot, but never mind). A young woman’s body is found washed up on a Jeddah beach. She is later identified as Leila Nawar, a young film-maker who seemed determined to court controversy by filming subjects certain to offend the Saudi authorities. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker, an American, has returned to Jeddah after a month’s leave back home, and hours after she arrives home with her husband, he vanishes. Miriam doesn’t live on a camp, and can’t speak Arabic. Ferraris weaves the two incidents together into a mystery, one which drags in both Katya and Nayir. The characters seem better-drawn in this novel, but the plot does get wrapped a little two quickly. Still, I enjoyed it and I’ll read the next one when it’s published.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010), was July’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002), I found in a charity shop, though it’s a US paperback. I read and enjoyed Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, back in 2008, and Solitaire is a novel that had been much praised. I’m surprised I didn’t read it earlier. Because it is very good indeed. In a nearish-future in which Earth has finally acceded to a single global government, Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is a Hope – i.e., a child born in the first second of the EarthGov era, and trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. She works for Ko, the planet’s only nation-corporation, and so is under more pressure to succeed than other hopes. On a visit to Hong Kong, she inadvertently causes the deaths of a group of people – an elevator fails in the city’s tallest tower, killing all those in it – including a Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of friends or “web”. When a terrorist group claims responsibility for the sabotage, Jackal is arrested and charged. Her Hope status is revoked and, so that her parents are not fired by Ko, she does not contest the charges. She is put in experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement – eight months real-time, eight years VR elapsed time. Somehow, while in VR solitary, she discovers how to edit her environment, and creates a simulation of her home on Ko’s sovereign island. So when she finishes her sentence and comes out of “prison”, she is less damaged psychologically than others who had served sentences in the same fashion. The title of the book refers to a bar Jackal discovers some weeks after her release, which caters to “solos” – i.e., those who have served VR solitary confinement sentences. And is the events, and the people, there which lead to the story’s resolution. Solitaire is beautifully-written – this is not the prose you expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are a few hand-wavey moments here and there, but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even after a month of women-only writers my reading is only 32% female and 68% male. So I need to do more. From now on, I’m going to try and alternate with each book I read, though I’m not going to be obsessive about it.

Oh, and no watchings this time, I’m afraid. I’m saving them up for the next readings & watchings post.


The NPR 100

Lists, lists, lists, lists. Everyone likes lists. NPR are doing one here. They have cunningly called it a “Top-100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Titles”, which can mean either favourite or best. First they asked people to nominate titles. Then they asked Giant SF Brains Gary K Wolfe, Farah Mendlesohn and John Clute to whittle down those picked to a list of  “several hundred” titles on which people can vote. It is a… strange list. The usual suspects are there, of course. There are, happily, a number of women sf writers, though less than expected – I make it 22%.

Anyway, here is the list. Annotated. I’ve also put in bold those I’ve read, and in italics those I have on the TBR.

The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover – I’ve never even heard of these.
The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks – not his best book by a long shot, not even his best non-Culture novel either.
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan – that Morgan’s debut novel was chosen doesn’t surprise, though I’d have said Black Man is the better novel.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman – I don’t get the appeal of Gaiman.
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman – see above.
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson – I don’t much understand the appeal of Stephenson, either.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell – this is a bit, well, slight, isn’t it?
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers – I’d say this is a contender.
Armor, by John Steakley – really?
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson – I read first two and then gave up.
Battlefield Earth, by L Ron Hubbard – probably the worst sf book ever written, liked only by Scientologists and idiots.
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress – I’ve read the novella, but never the novels.
The Belgariad, by David Eddings – I read the first last year; I am thirty-five years too old to think these books are good.
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook – never read any of them.
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop – never heard of them.
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe – excellent, though The Fifth Head of Cerberus I think is better.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – I didn’t like it when I read, and I fail to understand why it is considered a classic.
Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart – never read it.
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson – I’ve read a few of these; one of my pet hates is the “stories told by regulars in a bar” type of story; plus, these are really quite rubbish.
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller – never read it.
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein – well, RAH on the list somewhere is no surprise: he casts a giant shadow across the genre – but isn’t this one of his later crap books?
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut – never read it.
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov – another giant of sf, but one I consider among the most over-rated writers in the genre. He is the McDonald’s of sf, and his books are all burgers.
The Change Series, by SM Stirling – I know nothing about this series.
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke – one of Clarke’s better ones, but not my first choice.
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell – not as good as The Sparrow, and that I thought was somewhat overrated.
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny – they started well enough, but they tailed off towards the end.
The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R Donaldson – I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy, and I suspect these would not survive a reread.
The City And The City, by China Miéville – a good novel, and a multi-award winner.
City And The Stars, by Arthur C Clarke – also one of Clarke’s better ones.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess – Burgess wrote several novels that were much better, though they weren’t genre.
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher – never read them.
The Coldfire Trilogy, by CS Friedman – have never read anything by Friedman.
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F Hamilton – I did read his Night’s Dawn trilogy –  it was enough.
The Company Wars, by CJ Cherryh – I like Cherryh’s fiction, but I’d sooner chose individual books.
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by Robert Howard – I’ve read loads of these but I’ve no idea how many; but… they’re pulp: the character has transcended his origin, the stories haven’t.
Contact, by Carl Sagan – I suspect the popularity of this rests more on its author than the book itself.
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson – I remember enjoying this; mostly.
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart – never read it.
The Culture Series, by Iain M Banks – an excellent series, but the individual books are variable; I’d sooner have voted for one of the books.
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King – never read it.
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham – never read it.
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison – anoterh sf giant I consider greatly overrated.
The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon – never read it.
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester – I hated this book when I read it.
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr – never read it.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany – one of my favourite sf novels, definitely a classic.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson – I seem to remember this being better than Snow Crash.
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling – individually, both have written better books.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K LeGuin – a bona fide sf classic.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K Dick – to be honest, I prefer the film.
Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee – never read it.
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis – it was okay, I guess; I don’t understand all this award-love Willis receives.
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey – never read any of them.
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre – never read it.
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert – the prose in Dune may not be very good, but it’s still the premier piece of world-building in the genre and Paul Atreides is the best teenage special snowflake in literature; the later books are better written; the sequels by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are about as literate as used toilet paper.
Earth, by David Brin – this is a bloated techno-thriller.
Earth Abides, by George R Stewart – it was okay, I guess; though it hasn’t aged well.
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett – these are Warhammer books, right?
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock – I’ve read some of these but I don’t recall which – like Conan, Elric has transcended his pulp origin but many of the books haven’t.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card – never read it, never will.
Eon, by Greg Bear – a neat central premise, I seem to recall, spoiled by clumsy geopolitics and a dull story.
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King – never read it.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde – I thought this was terrible: a neat idea, but really badly written.
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by CJ Cherryh – I loved this when I was a teenager, but I wouldn’t call it a favourite now.
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber – never read it.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury – hated it; the film is far superior.
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb – read the first one, and thought it readable but dull.
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ – another bona fide classic; a recent reread only increased my admiration of it.
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay – I caguely recall these as being interesting, if a bit bland, secondary world fantasies.
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge – a bit of an uneven work, but I think this qualifies.
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie – read the first book and was unimpressed.
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes – a classic, certainly.
The Foreigner Series, by CJ Cherryh – read the first one, and have the next eight on the TBR; solid work, but not worthy of a place on the Top 100.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman – another classic.
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov – I think my opinion on this is known: it is, in a word, shit.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley – never actually read it (though I have seen lots of films).
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley – I much prefer his Eight Worlds fiction.
The Gap Series, by Stephen R Donaldson – this is a superior space opera, though it is grim and not entirely successful.
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S Tepper – never read it.
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett – never read it.
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway – I started it, but gave upl one day I will return to it.
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake – one day I will read it.
Grass, by Sheri S Tepper – I can never remember what actually happens in this novel.
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon – is on the TBR.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood – another classic.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami – never read it.
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl – like many series, it’s diminishing returns with each additional book; Gateway is good, but the rest?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams – mildly amusing, I suppose.
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison – never heard of them; urban fantasy, is it?
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski – is on the TBR.
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons – these are very good, though I do need to reread them sometime.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson – was okay, I suppose.
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov – nope.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson – read the first, but gave up.
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury – never read it.
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony – have read a couple of these, though I forget which; I remember them as light, forgettable reads – hardly the qualities of a classic.
The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin – this trilogy isn’t even completed yet – how can it be a classic?
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – is on the TBR.
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne – seen the film, not read the book.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler – is on the TBR.
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss – another trilogy that has yet to be completed…
Kraken, by China Mieville – is on the TBR.
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey – never read it.
Last Call, by Tim Powers – I remember this as being entertaining, but I don’t think I’d call it Top 100 material.
The Last Coin, by James P Blaylock – never read it.
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey – never read it.
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle – never read it.
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K LeGuin – I wasn’t overly taken with this one when I read it.
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin – definitely a classic.
The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by RA Salvatore – never read it; but isn’t the bloke who wrote “‘You killed me,’ said the surprised man”?
The Lensman Series, by EE Smith – everyone who nominated this should be ashamed of themselves.
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller – I’ve read some of these but they’re, well, fluff.
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch – is on the TBR.
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler – never read it.
Little, Big, by John Crowley – a classic fantasy, though I think the Ægypt Sequence is much better.
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb – never read it.
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny – interesting, possibly borderline Top 100-worthy.
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by JRR Tolkien – not much you can say about this really, is there?
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg – entertaining fluff; Silverberg has written much better books.
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – never read it.
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees – is on the TBR.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman – never read it.
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson – read the first and gave up; I’m not into reading RPG campaigns.
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K Dick – one of Dick’s better ones, though I need to reread it.
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter – surprised by this choice: Baxter has written better.
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson – a classic of the genre.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury – didn’t like it when I read it; wishy-washy and twee.
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint – never read it.
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams – never read it.
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson – never read it.
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson – never read it and never will.
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley – never read it.
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein – is on the TBR (because it’s in the SF Masterworks series)
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson – I remember being better than the Thomas covenant books.
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon – is on the TBR.
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – is pretty much indicative of everything that was wrong with best-selling sf in the 1970s.
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov – and again, nope.
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer – never read it.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson – I’m told this has not aged well, but I plan to reread it soon
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman – never read it.
The Newsflesh Trilogy, by Mira Grant – never read it.
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton – if classic status were measured by weight, this would be a contender.
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker – never read it.
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith – to be honest, I can remember Smith’s short stories much better than his only novel; there may be a reason for that.
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein – perhaps the one novel that epitomises RAH’s late bloated crap novel phase.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi – never read it.
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber – mildly entertaining fluffy rip-off of Hornblower; top 100? I think not.
The Once And Future King, by TH White – I read it so long ago, I remember nothing of it.
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood – is on the TBR.
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams – never read it.
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan – never heard of it.
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler – never read it.
The Passage, by Justin Cronin – last year’s mega-hyped coming-to-a-cinema-near you blockbuster, which started well but then turned dull and derivative; oh, and it’s the first book an unfinished trilogy.
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson – never read it.
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville – this was something special when it first appeared, but has time been kind to it?
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest – good, but I wonder if it’s appearance here is more due to the film – because Priest has written better.
The Pride Of Chanur, by CJ Cherryh – it’s nice to see all this love for Cherryh, but a little more variety might have been preferable; there are, after all, other women writers of space opera and hard sf.
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R Scott Bakker – never read it.
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman – the film is better; this is a list of books.
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge – never read it.
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C Clarke – if I had to pick a Clarke, it would be this one – because the central BDO more than makes up for the cardboard characters and dated futurism.
Replay, by Ken Grimwood – a fun book and certainly worth reading… possibly top 100 worthy, I think.
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds – why not the series? Banks got his series on the list – because there are better books in the Revelation space series than this one.
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban – never read it.
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E Feist – I’m fairly sure I read one of these many, many years ago; I remember nothing about it.
Ringworld, by Larry Niven – unlike the Clarke, I don’t think the central BDO makes up for the novel’s other deficiencies – like a lack of a plot.
The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer – the central idea is a good one, though having reread the first book a couple of years ago, I’m less sure about the use to which Farmer puts it.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – certainly one of the best-written books on this list.
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May – I remember enjoying these in my teens; one day, perhaps, I will reread them.
The Saga Of Recluce, by LE Modesitt Jr – I have only ever read one Modesitt novel – I had to review it for Interzone: it was pants.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman – nope.
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay – never read it.
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick – Dick’s best novel, and a sure-fire classic.
The Scar, by China Miéville – never read it.
The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks – never read it, never will: they look horribly derivative and twee.
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley – never read it.
The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien – never read it.
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut – not a big Vonnegut fan, to be honest; it was okay.
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut – as above.
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett – never read it.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson – when this was published, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about; I still can’t.
The Snow Queen, by Joan D Vinge – I’m planning to reread this soon, though a recent quick dip into it demonstrated it was a lot more romancey than I’d remembered from my original read all those years ago.
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem – I suspect I read a bad translation, because this was surprisingly dull; Tarkovsky’s film is greatly superior.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury – is on the TBR (because it’s in the Fantasy Masterworks series).
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip – never read it.
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin – I read first three, but I will not be reading the rest – despite all the current hype; I might watch the television series, though.
The Space Trilogy, by CS Lewis – never read it.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell – I remember the fuss when this was first published; I didn’t get it.
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison – I loved these as a kid; I reread the first a year or two ago, and found it absolutely terrible – dreadful, dated, misogynistic crap.
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner – is on the TBR (SF Masterworks series, natch).
The Stand, by Stephen King – never read it.
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman – never read it; seen the film, though.
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester – if I had to pick and early-ish sf novel, it would be this – because its sheer verve more than compensates for its datedness.
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein – a crypto-fascist polemic thinly-disguised as a novel; the film is infinitely superior.
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick – a very good novel, though I was mildly disappointed when I reread a few years ago; but as the genre’s premier Southern Gothic sf novel, it is certainly top 100 worthy.
Steel Beach, by John Varley – I like the Eight Worlds, but I wouldn’t say this is the best novel – The Ophiuchi Hotline is.
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein – I reread this recently; it was awful.
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley – never read it.
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind – I read the first book many years ago; I thought it derivative and unimaginative; I’m told the series later turns very weird and offensive.
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner – never read it.
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card – never read it.
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik – never read it.
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn – aren’t these, like, shared world? Star Wars? Should they even be on this list?
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay – I remember this as being quite good.
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein – more late period bloated wankery from RAH; next, please.
The Time Machine, by HG Wells – it never ages.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger – never read it; but the film was creepy: he stalks her, folks; that is not good.
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis – never read it.
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell – never read it.
Ubik, by Philip K Dick – one of his trippier novels: I’m not sure if that makes it good or bad.
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin – if you distilled the story of this series down, it would be quite potent; as it is, it’s a good example of its sort, and perhaps belongs near the bottom of a top 100.
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey – never read it.
VALIS, by Philip K Dick – another good Dick, I seem to recall.
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer – wasn’t this just a silly joke/gimmick?
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust – never read it.
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold – I’ve read a couple, they were okay.
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon – I read the first one when it was published, but didn’t really get on with it.
The War Of The Worlds, by HG Wells – no one would have believed… yup, a classic.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore – a graphic novel, with superheroes, in a list of sf and fantasy books; it’s good but does it really belong here?
Watership Down, by Richard Adams – the best book about talking rabbits ever written.
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson – never read it and never will – why should I support someone who says they’re prejudiced but asks me to respect their prejudice?
Way Station, by Clifford D Simak – I used to be a big Simak fan, but this was never one of my favourites.
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin – never read it.
The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan – these are big, probably about four metres tall if you stacked them one on top of the other; that is the only notable thing about them.
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger – a possible contender for the top 100, though my memories of it are somewhat hazy.
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire – never read it.
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler – never read it.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi – is on the TBR.
World War Z, by Max Brooks – never read it.
The Worm Ouroboros, by ER Eddison – is on the TBR (Fantasy Masterworks series).
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony – you must be joking: these pervy books? bad puns and dodgy sexual politics? for shame.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – better-written than many other books of its ilk, and with an interesting alternate history… a possible contender.
1632, by Eric Flint – never read it.
1984, by George Orwell – still a classic.
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C Clarke – the film was better.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne – I think I read a bad translation of this because it was surprisingly dull.

So there you have it. I suspect that when Top 100 is revealed, I will end up grinding my teeth. Again. Oh well.


Women in sf reading challenge #7: Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

I had originally picked Beukes’ Moxyland as one of my twelve books for this year’s reading challenge, but then I met the author at the Eastercon back in April, and Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award… So I swapped one out for the other, even though the latter says on the back, “File Under URBAN FANTASY”. Although, of course, there was that Clarke Award win, which meant the jury at least felt Zoo City could be read as science fiction. Besides, last month’s book for my reading challenge was Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War (see here), and I failed to find a way to read that as sf…

Which is all pretty much beside the point, as I’ve now read Zoo City, and I’m happy to count it as one of the twelve books of my reading challenge – and also one of the twelve books by women writers I read during July, my women-only month.

While Zoo City may display the trappings of urban fantasy, it reads chiefly like a cyberpunk novel, a near-future dystopia told from the point of view of a have-not. Who, in this case, is Zinzi December, a recovering addict and ex-journalist who caused her brother’s death, served her sentence, and was “animalled”. In the world of Zoo City, those who have committed crimes find themselves lumbered with animal familiars as manifestations of their guilt. For Zinzi, it is a sloth. In the world of Zoo City, magic also exists – though it’s not the magic of Dungeons & Dragons or your standard identi-kit heroic fantasy. Mashavi feels more like some sort of extra-sensory talent than it does spell-casting or thaumaturgy (although African styles of magic do make several appearances in the book). Zinzi’s mashavi is finding lost things, and it’s what she now does for a living – because the animalled are the dregs of society, and forced to live in derelict buildings in slum areas of the city. The city in this instance is Johannesburg, and there is a very obvious South African flavour to the novel (Beukes is South African).

After her last client is murdered, Zinzi is forced into accepting a type of job she normally avoids: finding a lost person. The missing person is teenager Songweza Radebe, one half, with her brother S’busiso, of pop twins iJusi . The Spector/Cowley-like figure who controls iJusi, Odi Huron, wants Song back without anyone learning of her disappearance. Zinzi may be reluctant to take on the case, but it soon proves to be even more complicated and darker than she had imagined. The climax of the novel, however, is not Song’s re-appearance but the discovery of a heinous plot to which the disappearance was peripherally linked. While the clues were there, that final twist does come as a bit of a surprise. The plot which drives the story for much of its length ends on a positive note, only to kick off another related, and darker, end-game. This, or its reverse,  is a technique I’ve noticed in other crime novels of recent years.

Zoo City reads like noir. It’s a crime novel which happens to be set in an alternate South Africa in which felons have animal familiars and magical talents. Beukes does throw in the odd “found document” which attempts to put a science-fictional gloss on these aspects of her world, but their success is immaterial. The book doesn’t need to be read as sf, and can enjoyed for exactly what it is. Zinzi’s voice dominates the story and, despite Zinzi’s background and some of her more unsavoury activities, Beukes does an excellent job of making her sympathetic. Zoo City is a fast read, but it’s by no means fluffy. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to (I would normally run a mile, very quickly, from anything labelled “urban fantasy”).

On the front of the paperback edition of Zoo City I bought is a quote from William Gibson: “it feels effortless, utterly accomplished”. He’s right. Zoo City is a polished piece of fiction. For a second novel, it is astonishingly good. I can’t say whether it is better than the books it beat for the Clarke Award, as I’ve not read any of the others. (They were: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness; The Dervish House, Ian McDonald; Generosity, Richard Powers; Declare, Tim Powers; and Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan.) But certainly Zoo City is a very good book, and not at all an embarrassing winner – which is more than the Nebula Award can say this year…