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):
- The Undercover Aliens, AE van Vogt (1950)
- Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
- Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R Dickson (1967)
- Dhalgren, Samuel Delany (1975)
- The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
- Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
- Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
- Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
- Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
- Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
- Against a Dark Background, Iain M Banks (1993)
- Coelestis, Paul Park (1995)
(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…