It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The 5 Most Influential Books in My Life

I saw Martin Lewis and Niall Harrison tweeting about this in response to, I think, this post from Aidan Moher. And since I love me a good book-related meme, I thought I’d have a go. It would have been too easy to pick the books I admire the most and claim they have influenced me in some fashion – which no doubt they have. But they’ve hardly directed my reading, or helped form my taste in literature, or shaped my conception of science fiction. Of the following five books, three I do indeed admire. But two are bad. They all, however, led to what I read and how I read it.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein
The first sf novel I recall reading was a novelisation of Doctor Who and the Zarbi, which my parents bought me for Christmas. For years afterward, I received Dr Who novelisations for Christmas and birthday. I’d also buy them with my pocket money. I think I had about two dozen by the time I eventually grew out of them. However, the first proper sf novel I read was by Robert Heinlein. I remember it quite clearly. It was 1976, I was in Form 3A at prep school. A lad in the same class pulled a book out of his desk and gave it to me because he thought I might like it (I think we’d been discussing Dr Who or something). It was Starman Jones. I loved it. Later, a second former introduced me to the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and from then on I was hooked on science fiction. And I’ve been reading it ever since – but not Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
Some time during the mid-1980s, the family went on holiday to Paris. We stayed in a flat belonging to a director of the company for which my father worked. I vaguely remember buying an English book in a book shop somewhere in the city. It was Driftglass, a collection by Samuel R Delany. I bought it because I was reading The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star, a Delany double, and I thought it was brilliant – especially ‘Empire Star’. Delany’s fiction showed me that sf wasn’t all Heinleinesque rational men heroes and Asimovian cardboard-cutouts characters, it didn’t have to privilege the central idea at the expense of everything else, it could be beautifully written. I was a big fan of Delany’s writing for many years, but nothing blew me away as much as ‘Empire Star’ had done… until I read Dhalgren. It was just so completely not everything I thought sf was – it was wilfully irrational, it was immediate and real and dirty, it wasn’t about manly, or intellectual, white men doing manly and intellectual things in space or on some alien planet… Dhalgren is still one of my favourite novels, and I’ve probably reread it more times than any other book I own – yes, even more times than Dune.

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams
I’ve never been a fan of Williams’ books, though I’ve read several of them over the years. I think Knight Moves might be the first book by him I read, however. It was published in 1985, and I’m fairly sure I read it in 1988. I’d joined the British Science Fiction Association that year, or perhaps the year before, and when Paperback Inferno – the BSFA’s paperback review magazine as was – put out a call for more reviewers, I volunteered. Andy Sawyer, the editor, asked me to send him a sample review, so I did a demolition job on Knight Moves. I can remember almost nothing of the book – except that I thought it was terrible – but as a result of my review of it I became book reviewer for the BSFA… and I’ve been reviewing books and commenting on science fiction ever since.

The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
As a teenager, my first choice of reading had always been science fiction, but I didn’t always have access to it. When I spent the holidays with my parents in the Middle East, my reading was often limited to the books they owned. Which meant I read some right crap – Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Nelson DeMille, Eric van Lustbader – and a few good books (though none of the titles immediately spring to mind). When I moved to Abu Dhabi in 1994, one of the first things I did was join the Daly Community Library. It had only a small number of science fiction titles, so I was forced to widen my reading. That’s how I discovered Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat, Rose Tremain, Lawrence Norfolk, Hanan al-Shaykh, Helen Simpson, Margaret Atwood, and several other authors I still read. One of the books I took out of the library was The Alexandria Quartet. But I didn’t actually get around to reading it, and eventually took it back unread. So I bought paperback copies of the books on a visit to Dubai. I read it, and immediately became a fan of Durrell’s writing… and subsequently a collector of his books. Durrell is not the first author I hunted down first editions of their books so I’d own them all – that would probably be Gwyneth Jones – but my book collecting certainly turned more serious as a result of reading Durrell. so much so, in fact, that I now own a first edition of Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, which is extremely rare…

Moondust, Andrew Smith
I was only three when the late Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon – in fact, the only Apollo mission I recall watching was ASTP in July 1975. But I was very much fascinated by space exploration as kid. I remember having a large poster of a Saturn V and an astronaut on my bedroom wall in Dubai. But then I become more involved in science fiction and lost my interest in science fact. Every now and again, I’d read something related to space exploration – one year as a Christmas present, I was given one of those big Octopus coffee table books on the topic; while I was living in Abu Dhabi, a local book shop stocked a number of Apogee Books’ NASA Mission Reports, and I bought several of them; I read At the Edge of Space by Milton O Thompson, about the X-15 programme, and found it surprisingly interesting. Then, five years ago I read Moondust. I no longer recall what prompted me to read it. But it re-ignited my interest in space exploration, and especially the Apollo programme. So I started buying books on the subject – often signed first editions. I created a blog, A Space About Books About Space, to review the books I bought. I built up quite a library – and it’s still growing – on human space exploration and spacecraft. And all those books have also come in really useful in my science fiction writing (just look at the bibliography in Adrift on the Sea of Rains).


100 Greatest Novels meme

I stumbled across mention of this list on LibraryThing. It apparently comes from The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time by Daniel S Burt, a specialist in Victorian literature at a US university. Burt’s book was published in 2004, but it seems like an almost stereotypical list of classic literature by Dead White Males – with a few women and POC for variety. Burt clearly has his favourites – I find it hard to believe that some authors, on matter how great, could contribute more than a single work to a Best 100. In effect, Burt is claiming that, for example, Dickens’ third best work is better than the best work of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other authors.

Anyway, it’s a list. Of books. Which means… book meme. As usual, bold them if you’ve read them, italicise them if they’re on the TBR.

1 Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1630)
2 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869)
3 Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
4 In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (1913-1927)
5 The Brothers Karamazov, Feodor Dostoevsky (1880)
6 Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (1851)
7 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1857)
8 Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-1872)
9 The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924)
10 The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (11th Century)
11 Emma, Jane Austen (1816)
12 Bleak House, Charles Dickens (1852-1853)
13 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1877)
14 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)
15 Tom Jones, Henry Fielding (1749)
16 Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1860-1861)
17 Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (1936)
18 The Ambassadors, Henry James (1903)
19 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
20 The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
21 To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1927)
22 Crime and Punishment, Feodor Dostoevsky (1866)
23 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)
24 Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1847-1848)
25 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)
26 Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1939)
27 The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1943)
28 Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (1973)
29 The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (1881)
30 Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920)
31 The Red and the Black, Stendhal (1830)
32 Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (1760-1767)
33 Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (1842)
34 Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy (1891)
35 Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann (1901)
36 Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac (1835)
37 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)
38 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)
39 The Tin Drum, Günter Grass (1959)
40 Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett (1951-1953)
41 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
42 The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
43 Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev (1862)
44 Nostromo, Joseph Conrad (1904)
45 Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
46 An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser (1925)
47 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
48 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962)
49 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson (1747-1748)
50 Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (1791)
51 The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925)
52 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)
53 The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1895)
54 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)
55 Petersburg, Andrey Bely (1916, 1922)
56 Things Fall Apart, Chinue Achebe (1958)
57 The Princess of Cleves, Madame de Lafayette (1678)
58 The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
59 My Antonia, Willa Cather (1918)
60 The Counterfeiters, André Gide (1926)
61 The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)
62 The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915)
63 The Awakening, Kate Chopin 1899
64 A Passage to India, EM Forster (1924)
65 Herzog, Saul Bellow (1964)
66 Germinal, Émile Zola (1855)
67 Call It Sleep, Henry Roth (1934)
68 USA Trilogy, John Dos Passos (1930-1938)
69 Hunger, Knut Hamsun 1890)
70 Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Doblin (1929)
71 Cities of Salt, Abd al-Rahman Munif (1984-1989)
72 The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentes (1962)
73 A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (1929)
74 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945)
75 The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope (1866-1867)
76 The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (1836-1867)
77 Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (1719)
78 The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
79 Candide, Voltaire (1759)
80 Native Son, Richard Wright (1940)
81 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947)
82 Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov (1859)
83 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
84 Waverley, Sir Walter Scott (1814)
85 Snow Country, Kawabata Yasunari (1937, 1948)
86 Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
87 The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni (1827, 1840)
88 The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
89 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
90 Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (1862)
91 On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)
92 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
93 The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
94 The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (1951)
95 The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1860)
96 The Good Soldier, Svejk Jaroslav Hasek (1921-1923)
97 Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
98 The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas (1844)
99 The Hound of Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
100 Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

Not an especially good showing – I’ve only read a dozen of them. And several of them I didn’t much like: The Catcher in the Rye, The Good Soldier, On The Road… But a number of them do look interesting  and not just the ones I already have on my TBR.


The future we used to have – special 2

After the last jetpunk special post on military aircraft, here’s one on cars. Again, they’re presented in a Top Trumps-like format, so you could print the page off, cut them out, laminate them and play very short games of Trumps with them…

Lamborghini Marzal
Concept car (Italy)
year 1967
bhp 175
max speed 225 kph
number produced 1

Lancia Stratos Stradale
Sports car (Italy)
year 1972
bhp 190
max speed 232 kph
number produced 492

Jensen FF
Coupé – four-wheel drive (GB)
year 1966
bhp 330
max speed 223 kph
number produced 320

Ferrari 512 S Berlinetta Speciale
Concept car (Italy)
year 1969
bhp 542
max speed 278 kph
number produced 1

Lamborghini Countach LP400
Supercar (Italy)
year 1974
bhp 370
max speed 309 kph
number produced 2,042

Citroën SM
Coupé (France)
year 1970
bhp 188
max speed 217 kph
number produced 12,920

Aston Martin Lagonda Series 2
Saloon (GB)
year 1976
bhp 310
max speed 239 kph
number produced 458

Mercedes-Benz C111 IID
Concept car (Germany)
year 1976
bhp 188
max speed 290 kph
number produced 1

BMW Turbo E25
Concept car (Germany)
year 1972
bhp 276
max speed 250 kph
number produced 2

Alfa Romeo Stradale P33 Sport Roadster
Concept car (Italy)
year 1968
bhp 230
max speed 260 kph
number produced 1

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Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr

Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr
(2010 Tor, $25.99, 352pp)

LE Modesitt, Jr is a bulwark of genre fiction in the US. He stands, legs apart, one hand against the wall of fantasy, the other hand pressed against science fiction. Like the man, his novels, which are often the size of small buildings, straddle both genres. It’s an appropriate conceit, since Modesitt’s latest, Empress of Eternity, has an architectural feature at its core. The Canal straddles an unnamed continent on a world the blurb calls “Earth” but the story itself does not. This Canal is made of some indestructible material. No one knows what it’s for, who built it, or why. Three narratives describe the events surrounding three groups of people from three different eras, each of which is researching the mysterious Canal. According to the blurb, these narratives are set hundreds of thousands of years apart, but there is no indication of this in the text as each uses a different calendar.

Lord Maertyn is a scientist and minor ministerial functionary in the Unity of Caelaarn. He and his wife Maarlyna, who is recovering from a near-fatal illness, are researching the Canal. But there is a power struggle occurring back in the capital, and Maertyn becomes embroiled in it when his minister asks him to fill in for an absent assistant minister. Faelyna and Eltyn are also researching the Canal, but they are doing so for the Ruche. However, a coup among the rulers of the Ruche – the Fifty becomes the Twenty – is followed by a brutal campaign of brainwashing. Faelyna and Eltyn resist. Duhlye and Helkyria are researching the Canal for the Vaniran Hegemony. But the Vanir are under attack by the Aesyr, also of the Hegemony, but racially different and possessing their own armed forces. The Aesyr have a weapon, the Hammer, which they threaten to use unless the Vanirans reveal what secrets they have discovered in their research on the Canal.

These three stories seem to follow the same plot, before they abruptly, and solely due to authorial handwaving, become linked. Maarlyna transforms into the title character; the Aesyr provide a direct threat to the universe of the book… But the Ruche narrative is entirely superfluous. It neither impacts the resolution, nor assists in explaining it. In fact, very little of any of the three worlds is explained – the reader, for example, has to guess the relationship between the Vanir and Aesyr. It makes for a frustrating read. Further, characters lecture each other on assorted subjects, none of which sound remotely plausible. The description of the Hammer’s workings are the worst kind of technobabble; as indeed are the workings of the Canal. Which is, in fact, a “bridge” through time and apparently “anchored” at “discrete event-points”. Modesitt’s explanation badly confuses a philosophy of time with physics. He also presents events or situations to illustrate points… only to have a character then explain what has just been illustrated. The prose, too, is peculiar, and padded out with stylistic ticks which render sentences clumsy: “he smoothed his hair, short as it was”, “he carried but a bag”… That “as it was” is appended unnecessarily to sentences throughout the story; that inserted “but” appears on almost every page. Not to mention the Ruche characters’ “bio-orbs” and “calcjections”…

Empress of Eternity is a novel light on sense. This may well be because somewhere within its 352 pages a short story has been forcibly fed a pottage of words in an effort to bulk it up to novel-length. This is a novel remarkable for the number of scenes which neither advance the plot nor explain the world. The end result is some sort of van Vogtian tosh put in service of a plot which has neither beginning nor middle, but crashes to an unsatisfactory end. Van Vogt’s 800-word cliff-hangers, however, made his novels pacey reads. The same cannot be said of Empress of Eternity.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #231 November-December 2010.


The future we used to have – special

These jetpunk posts are chiefly meant to be eye candy for those who like retro-futurist stuff, especially machines. Cars. Rockets. Aeroplanes. Submarines. Ships. Moon bases. Space stations. Stuff like that. So it occurred to me I might as well do the occasional post focusing on only one of those. And I could make it a sort of top ten. Like Top Trumps.

So, first up, it’s aircraft. These are my own choices, the ten military aeroplanes I find most emblematic of the future we used to have…

Avro Vulcan
V-Bomber (GB)
crew 5
max speed 1,040 kph
range 4,171 km
max ceiling 17,000 m
service 1956 – 1984

Handley Page Victor
V-Bomber (GB)
crew 5
max speed 1,009 kph
range 9,660 km
max ceiling 17,000 m
service 1958 – 1993

North American XB-70 Valkyrie
Prototype supersonic bomber (USA)
crew 2
max speed 3,309 kph
range 6,900 km
max ceiling 23,600 m
service n/a

North American X-15
Hypersonic research aircraft (USA)
crew 1
max speed 7,274 kph
range 450 km
max ceiling 108,000 m
service 1959 – 1970

Convair B-58 Hustler
Supersonic bomber (USA)
crew 2
max speed 2,123 kph
range 3,220 km
max ceiling 19,300 m
service 1960 – 1970

Tupolev Tu-22 ‘Shilo’ (‘Blinder’)
Supersonic bomber (USSR)
crew 3
max speed 1,510 kph
range 4,900 km
max ceiling 13,300 m
service 1962 – 1990s

Prototype strike/reconaissance aircraft (GB)
crew 2
max speed 1,348 kph
range 4,630 km
max ceiling 12,000 m
service n/a

Avro Arrow
Prototype supersonic interceptor (CA)
crew 2
max speed 2,185 kph
range 660 km
max ceiling 16,150 m
service n/a

BAC/English Electric Lightning
Supersonic interceptor (GB)
crew 1
max speed 2,100 kph
range 1,660 km
max ceiling 16,000 m
service 1959 – 1988

Convair B-36 Peacemaker
Bomber (USA)
crew 13
max speed 672 kph
range 16,000 km
max ceiling 13,300 m
service 1949 – 1959




Shaping sf

Only a fool would deny the influence magazine editors Hugo Gernsback, John W Campbell and Michael Moorcock had on science fiction. So to suppose that editors still wield such influence over short form science fiction is not that much of a stretch of the imagination. I put together some pie charts of the contents of the year’s best anthologies for 2011 to test the truth of this. Perhaps it was unsurprising that the biggest markets in terms of readership provided the most stories for the anthologies. Writers will send their best works to where it will earn the most money and be read by the most people. But the editor still has to buy it. It could be arguing they’re just siphoning off the cream of the crop, but that would have to assume their taste plays absolutely no part in their purchasing decision. And that’s unlikely.

So, I put up some numbers, but it wasn’t enough for some people. Who chose to sneer on Twitter at my post. (To be fair, one did then apologise, and we went on to have an interesting discussion on the topic.) One of their criticism was “rotating editors” – but Gardner Dozois has been doing his year’s best anthology for twenty-nine years, Hartwell and Cramer for seventeen years. Sheila Williams has been editing Asimov’s since 2004, and it was Dozois for eighteen years before that; Stanley Schmidt has edited Analog since 1978, and retired only this year. Gordon Van Gelder has been the editor of F&SF since 1997 and its publisher since 2000. Not much rotation there.

David Hartwell, in a comment on my post, raised the point that year’s best anthologies are commercial endeavours. It’s a valid observation. Stephen King, for example, may not have written one of the absolute best stories of the year, but if it’s good enough for inclusion, then putting his name on the cover could help sell a few more copies. Plenty of people have said that year’s best anthologies aren’t really “best”. Fair enough. But it does devalue the term. If something is not the best, is not chosen solely because it is of the best quality, then it’s not, er, the best. Mind you, An Anthology of Good Stories Published In The Previous Year Which [editor’s name] Has Selected For Reasons Of Taste, Quality And Commercial Appeal probably wouldn’t fit on the front of a massmarket paperback.

It seems plain that the single biggest factor affecting genre fiction is the number of units shifted of genre books. Publishers publish books to make money, and if a book of a particular type does well they’ll naturally want to publish books of a similar type. Successful authors become well-known – often it’s their name alone which sells the books (cf the thriller sweatshops of James Patterson and Clive Cussler; or Virginia AndrewsTM). Hugo voters, faced with a ballot of novels they’ve not read, will often as not plump for the one by the author whose name they recognise, or have read and enjoyed in the past. The appeal of those names can carry across to short fiction – though now that shortlisted short fiction is routinely given free to voters (in both the Hugo and BSFA awards), you’d hope their decision would be based solely on the quality of the stories. Big names on the covers of fiction magazines will sell more copies of an issue than the names of unknowns…

Names have weight. Especially in a small group like the science fiction community. How many people have I heard explain Connie Willis’ Hugo win last year as the result of her being “a nice person”? Her book(s) was shortlisted for the award, but she won it. And some people’s writing will be preferred over others. Even by editors. Who have chequebooks, and can make good use of their choices. There have been, and likely will continue to be, magazines who routinely publish work by certain authors to the mystification of everyone – some people might perhaps remember UK small press magazine Dream from the 1980s and an author whose stories appeared in it regularly…

Science fiction is neither monolithic nor homogenous. Nor is the community which both supports it and feeds off it. Sf can be affected by a number of things; some parts can be affected while others are not. Despite being a written genre, it has been changed by individual films, Star Wars being the classic example. Changes in taste in short fiction rarely impact novels, but the reverse is not uncommon. As editors develop the characters of their magazines and so build up “stables” of writers, so they play a part in shaping genre fiction at short lengths. As anthologists turn to the same small number of names to provide reliably entertaining content, so do those names carry greater weight and their style of sf come to be reflected wider in the genre. As publishers rub hands gleefully at the runaway success of an author, so they start looking around for more material to capitalise on that success. And so on.

So no, it’s not stupid to imagine that editors and year’s best anthologies still have influence on science fiction. It’s stupid to imagine they don’t.


Dan Dare

I’m fairly sure my first introduction to Colonel Dan McGregor Dare of Spacefleet was in the early 1970s, when my parents bought me a Dan Dare annual one Christmas. (No, I’m not old enough to remember Eagle, where Dare originally appeared.) The annual contained two stories, ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’ – and they’re still my favourite Dare stories. We were living in Oman at the time, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t buy it there. Anyway, I treasured that book for years.

And then, during the early 1990s, I was in London visiting friends, and in a remaindered book shop on Charing Cross Road I found the seventh volume of a series of Dare reprints published by Hawk Books. I bought it, but never saw any of the other volumes in the series. When I returned to the UK to live in 2002, I decided to complete the series. It took me several years, and quite a bit of money, but I eventually did it. The last one I purchased was volume 4 Prisoners of Space in early 2009.

And here’s the full set…

 There are actually two editions of the first volume. I have the second edition, the 10th anniversary edition of the original. The Red Moon Mystery, volume 2, is one of Dare’s best stories.

 The Man from Nowhere, volume 6, and Rogue Planet, volume 7, is a two-parter and are one of the better stories.
 While Dare was away helping aliens on their home world in Rogue Planet, the Mekon conquered the Earth using robots – but Reign of the Robots, volume 8, is a bit silly, to be honest. The Terra Nova trilogy, volume 9, is one of my favourites. Since this was the most expensive volume to buy, it must be everybody else’s favourite too.
 The last three volumes cover stories written and drawn after Hampson handed over the reins and, sadly, neither the design nor the stories are as good as when he was in charge.
 Back in the day, you could actually buy replica Spacefleet uniforms. In fact, there was a huge amount of merchandising for Dare – everything from button badges to tin spaceship models. All before my time, of course. You often see items available on eBay for silly money. There’s even a novel, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future by Angus P Allan, published in 1977. The book is illustrated with black and white line-drawings of panels from the comics, but as a novel it’s a bit rubbish.

Dan Dare has been resuscitated a number of times. In 1977, he appeared in the first issue of 2000 AD, and lasted until 1979. The strip has yet to be published as a trade paperback omnibus, which is really annoying. I do have a 2000 AD Dan Dare annual from 1980, but it’s not very good. The Eagle comic was relaunched in 1982, and featured Dan Dare as its flagship strip – but this was a grandson of the original Dan Dare. The new Eagle folded in 1994. In 1990, Grant Morrison scripted a new Dare, set in Thatcherite Britain, which was serialised in the Revolver comic. It was later republished as a trade paperback. In 2008, Virgin comics published a seven-issue Dan Dare mini-series written by Garth Ennis. I have an omnibus of the first three issues but wasn’t impressed. New Dare stories have also appeared in Spaceship Away, a magazine dedicated to Dare, and which has to date published twenty-seven issues. We won’t mention the terrible CGI television series.

Also worth noting is a “biography” written by Daniel Tartarsky, which was published in 2010: Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future: A Biography. Titan Books have also published a series of Dare reprint volumes, which are smaller in size than the Hawk Books versions. They’re also still in print. And it appears that Haynes will be publishing an Owner’s Workshop Manual on Spacefleet Operations in June of 2013. It’s already on my wishlist.


Toward working definitions of science fiction and fantasy

I’ve mentioned these thoughts in passing in other posts, but I decided it was time to put them together and see what happens. I have said in the past that science fiction makes explicit the wonder in the physical universe – see here; yes, with an equation too – but perhaps that’s also true of fantasy. Maybe instead of the horrible “speculative fiction”, or the equally awful “strange fiction”, we should use the term “wondrous fiction”. Though I believe Yes beat me to it.

Unfortunately, “wf” is a pretty naff acronym, especially if you use it as one and not an initialism. Would it be “wif” or “wuf”? “I am a wuf writer.” Ugh. Would bad wondrous fiction be known as “wiffy”? Um, and “wifi” has already been taken. Ah well, perhaps not.

However, it strikes me there are two defining loci for science fiction and fantasy. One is wonder, the other is agency. And while wonder identifies both genres, agency differentiates them:-

fantasy – stories in which agency, or power over the natural world, is given by authorial fiat to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

science fiction – stories in which agency, or power over the physical universe, is given by human beings – systematically – to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

No doubt everyone will now immediately think of exceptions which disprove these definitions. That seems to be the way this sort of thing works…


Do magazines and their editors really shape sf?

The history of science fiction is filled with powerful editors who determined how the genre progressed – in fact science fiction was born in a magazine and would not have existed but for its editor, Hugo Gernsback. After my post on the Hugos, Paul Kincaid’s review of a couple of year’s best anthologies, a discussion of that review on the latest Coode Street Podcast, and a discussion this morning on Twitter, I decided to do a little research.

I have it in my head that the written science fiction we see within the community is a product of a small group of people with much greater than average leverage. Not just the editors of the magazines, who chose what fiction to publish, but the editors of the Big Three magazines – Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF. There are also the editors of the year’s best anthologies, who get to choose each year which stories are the “best”, and so set the variety of sf that will be emulated in later years. And those year’s best editors generally pull from a limited number of sources – the Big Three magazines, especially.

So you get this incestuous and self-perpetuating relationship, in which a handful of sources supply the best stories of the year because only those handful of sources are used to provide stories. And this all feeds into the awards, and thus back into the genre, and so provides it with direction… Except that direction only really appeals to that small group who read the Big Three magazines and vote for the Hugo…

But do the numbers actually back up this scenario? How wide is the net cast by year’s best editors and the awards? Who is really shaping science fiction?

Dozois apparently doesn’t look much further than the Big Three magazines and high-profile anthologies. Which makes this the most purely commercial selection of stories.

Horton’s anthology is fantasy and science fiction, unlike the other two. This may explain why he casts his net much wider than the other two, but it’s still a surprisingly wide spread of venues.

Hartwell & Cramer appear to like a lot, but they’ve also picked stuff from some very obscure venues. NewCon Press does quite well, and there’s even a story from Irish sf magazine Albedo One. Engineering Infinity has also done well in all three anthologies – in fact, with Eclipse 4 and Life on Mars as well that makes Jonathan Strahan the most successful editor at publishing “year’s best” stories.

However, I have to wonder how much of this is driven by author-name-recognition. Even in the obscure venues, it’s well-known authors who get pulled out – in the Dozois, for example, it’s Alastair Reynolds in Voices from the Past, an ebook-only charity anthology.

The only outlier in the Hugo shortlists is Panverse Three – and that’s a story by Ken Liu, who is plainly a favourite of Hugo voters.

Again, that same Ken Liu story from Panverse Three. The presence of GigaNotoSaurus is a surprise.

It definitely seems as if there is a second tier of magazines after the Big Three – currently it’s only and Clarkesworld, but perhaps another online magazine will make the jump to Tier 2 in a year or three. Nonetheless, Asimov’s continues to dominate the year’s best anthologies and awards shortlists, as it has done for several decades. F&SF has, I suspect, slipped a little – in the anthologies, though not in the awards – but original print anthologies seemed to do well in 2011. There’s more online fiction than in previous years, but it’s still very much slanted towards print.

The pie charts do suggest that a handful of names have undue influence in science fiction. And the smaller that group, the narrower the range of genre fiction that rises to the top. If sf is becoming more fantastical, more concerned with mining its own tropes rather than doing anything interesting with them, then perhaps it’s because that’s what this group values…


Turn that frown upsidedown

I’d sort of promised myself I wasn’t going to post anything negative here any more, because everyone likes the upbeat, everyone likes the happy. But then I went and spoiled it with a whinge about the Hugo Awards – but then I’ve whinged about them every year since starting this blog. However. Positive, er, stuff. I mean, I’ve read some excellent novels so far this year, I’ve seen some bloody good films, I’ve heard some damn fine albums and even watched some amazing live performances by bands. There’s good stuff there to celebrate. It doesn’t always have to be a total downer.


So much of the positive shit you see plastered across the Internet is just so brainlessly uncritical. Certainly praise where praise is due – but I see so much of it that’s just plain undeserved. I don’t see myself as a negative person (stop laughing), just a realistic one. Sturgeon’s Law may be glib, asinine and way too easy to overuse / misuse, but it wouldn’t have survived this long if there wasn’t some truth to it. But you’d think it was the 10% that was shit sometimes from the way people carry on…

As a result, it’s easy to over-react and be overly negative. And, sometimes, doing that means the important stuff gets overlooked. It’s good that so many on the Hugo shortlists were not white males. But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet, Hugo nominators; because you also put a stupid April Fool fantasy story on the shortlist.

Having said that, it’s not like I don’t celebrate the good stuff when I encounter it. See, here’s a positive review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. And here’s an even more positive one of Gwyneth Jones’ The Universe of Things. And here’s a few words about my choices of the best books, films and albums I encountered during the first six months of the year. My tastes are perhaps not entirely mainstream – science fiction! death metal! weird Polish and Hungarian movies! – but I like to think I value quality and can recognise it when I see it (stop laughing).

There is no recipe, no programme of umpteen steps. Changing things takes stick and carrot. And occasionally a bloody great huge cluebat. It doesn’t happen overnight. When, that is, it happens at all. I like to think I’m doing my bit – not just on this blog, or in reviews on SF Mistressworks and Daughters of Prometheus. But in my fiction too. Not that I’ve been entirely successful – I’ve yet to break into any of the big short fiction markets (except for Postscripts). And a common response to my stories is “what happens next?” Er, nothing. It’s finished; the rest is up to you. Anyway, resolution is so bourgeois. Just like quotation marks around speech (small joke there).

I had a point to this post but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. It wasn’t “be nice”, because being nice to everyone and about everything only devalues it. Nor was it “be negative”, because if the wind changes you’ll be stuck like that and then no one will be your friend. Be honest – that’s certainly important. Yes, above all, be honest. But I think I shall, as my pulled-out-of-thin-air point to this post, use something said by astronaut Gus Grissom, though it later proved to be horribly ironic:

Do good work.