It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible



Whenever people asked me what were my favorite science fiction novels, I always had a list of ten titles ready to trot out. Some of the books are novels I’ve returned to again and again; others I’ve read only once – but that was enough to deem it a “favourite”. It occurred to me several months ago that this list hasn’t changed in over a decade. It seemed odd that there hasn’t been one novel published in the last ten years I didn’t think good enough to be on the list. So, among the health- and finance-related New Year’s Resolutions for 2007, I decided to reread one of those favourite books each month. And, wonder of wonders, so far I’ve managed to stick to it…

Here’s the list (in order of year of publication):

(Annoyingly, most of these titles are currently out of print. Oh, and the more observant among you will have noticed that there are twelve titles in the list above – that’s so I can read one a month for the entire year.)

So far, I have read…
The Undercover Aliens – I actually read The Mating Cry (see here) – remains a favourite. It’s by no means van Vogt’s best-written novel. Nor does it have the most coherent plot of any of his books. But the mix and match of Otto Preminger-style California noir and Planet Stories-type science fiction appeals immensely. The protagonist is a classic hero; the female lead is an archetypal femme fatale. It has immortals, an alien robot spaceship, Mexican cultists, and masks in it. It is a great deal of fun.

John Varley’s debut novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline, is also fun. In a Solar System in which humanity has been booted off the Earth by gas-giant-dwelling Invaders in order to save the dolphins and whales, Lilo has been sentenced to death for illegal genetic experiments. She is rescued by Boss Tweed, mayor of Luna and head of a secret organisation dedicated to wrestling Earth from the Invaders. Lilo isn’t happy about being indentured to Boss Tweed – she’s a prisoner at a facility aboard an asteroid in the Saturn system – so she decides to escape. Well, a clone of Lilo is. And she’s not the only clone of Lilo loose in the plot. Oh, and she’s also figured out that the eponymous, er, “hotline”, a radio signal narrowcasting scientific and technological knowledge used by humanity to survive off-Earth… Well, the unknown senders have just presented their “bill”…

The plot is little more than an excuse to travel about the Eight Worlds, marvelling at its many strangenesses. And in later novels Varley flatly contradicts some of the background given here. But that’s minor. On this reread, I found the book a much lighter read than I’d remembered – Varley throws out ideas every other sentence, but there’s not much meat to the prose on which he hangs them. Lilo is a bit flat as a character (er, characters); but so are the rest of the cast. The ending had slipped from memory – which was odd, given that it involves probably the most interesting idea of the whole novel. The rest of The Ophiuchi Hotline is mere window-dressing compared to it. Despite all that, the book will remain on the list.

Next up was Stations of the Tide. The previous two novels I’d read and reread many times. This one I’d last read over ten years ago. However, I’d forgotten very little of the plot – so the twist ending wasn’t much of a twist. A bureacrat visits the world of Miranda, shortly before its sole continent is inundated by the Jubilee Tides. He’s hunting Gregorian, allegedly a magician, who has smuggled something proscribed, something apparently given to him by the avatar of post-human Earth, onto the planet’s surface. The quest plot is interspersed with sections set in the Puzzle Palace, a Palace-of-Memory-like virtual reality in which the administrators of a galactic federation live and work. Swanwick never quite categorically presents Gregorian as a “magician” – it’s not plausible in the universe Miranda inhabits; and various characters try and explain Gregorian’s tricks, albeit never entirely convincingly.

One of the remarkable things about Stations of the Tide – and a great deal moreso when it was published – is its referentiality. Its narrative riffs off a host of science fiction works – not all of the references I claim to have spotted. In 1992, this was fresh and exciting. Fifteen years later, it’s been done so often it’s almost humdrum. One thing I hadn’t noticed on previous reads was that the novel is a thinly-disguised Southern Gothic. Even down to the fat bed-ridden matriarch. The sections set in the Puzzle Palace also didn’t work as well as I’d remembered them – I seem to recall the Palace of Memory idea was popular at the time, but Swanwick’s use of it as a metaphor for a VR sensorium is mostly just confusing. For the time-being, the jury’s still out on this book. I have a handful of “also-rans”, and I suspect one of them may take Stations of the Tide place in the top ten.

Where Time Winds Blow was, like Stations of the Tide, a favourite I’d not read for many years. Something about its central premise had struck me powerfully when I’d first read it all those years ago. This one was going to be an interesting reread… And so it proved. It is, like many British science fiction novels of its time, literate, slightly mannered, and very considered in its treatment of its characters. Its central idea is the framework on which the entire plot is hung (compare this with Stations of the Tide above). On the world of Kamelios, winds blow in and out of time, picking up and depositing artefacts, and people, in different eras. Leo Faulcon is a member of team which investigates artefacts left by the time winds. When Kris Dojaan joins the team, it provokes a crisis in Faulcon. Dojaan is hoping to find his brother, who was picked up by a time wind several months before. Faulcon and Dojaan’s brother were close, but he doesn’t admit it to Kris. Faulcon is also in a relationship with the team’s leader, Lena Tanoway.

Where Time Winds Blow is a great novel… for about three-quarters of its length. The central premise is a superb idea – the time winds are strongest along along Kriakta Rift, where mysterious and unfathomable artefacts magically appear and disappear. Holdstock imbues his characters with a depth and breadth not often seen these days in science fiction (or indeed, throughout much of the genre’s history). He also carefully dissects his central cast – with an almost Graham-Greene-like callousness. The writing, however, is occasionally clumsy. And I noticed when reading Eye Among the Blind last year that his characters tend to flip between emotional states with implausible speed. But this is forgivable. What isn’t is… Prior to setting up the novel’s climax, Holdstock explains the mystery of the time winds. It’s a concept he explores in greater depth in Mythago Wood and its sequels. It’s also a disappointment, given what’s been before. Right up to the point where Faulcon discovers the “truth” about Kamelios, Where Time Winds Blow was secure in its position on the top ten. Now, I’m not so sure. It’ll need another read, I think. Perhaps next year.

To be continued when I’ve finished the next four books…


Super Sexed Up Sci-Fi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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