Interstellar polities without Faster-Than-Light travel are not especially common in science fiction. Four examples spring to mind: Ursula K LeGuin’s Ekumen novels and stories, William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion, Chris Moriarty’s Spin State and sequels, and Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. And now Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Twenty Planets, in which people and materials are sent as beams of light from world to world and so experience time dilation from travelling at lightspeed. Scientists and explorers who regularly do this form “a strange sodality out of time”, and are known as “Wasters”.
Saraswati Callicot is one such Waster, an exoethnologist. Returning to Capella at the end of a five-year mission – but twenty-three years have passed on Capella – she is promptly recruited by an old mentor to join a team studying a newly-discovered planet fifty-eight light years away. The world is crystalline, so unlikely to be habitable; but it is also in a region of space containing “an odd concentration of dark matter”. Ostensibly a part of the team to research its new management techniques, Sara will actually be keeping an eye on a relative of her mentor, a woman called Thora who has only recently recovered from traumatic events on another world.
A handful of days after Sara’s arrival, one of the security guards aboard the scientists’ ship is murdered, and then Thora disappears during a trip to the planet’s surface. She has been taken by humans who live underground in lightless caves and are entirely blind. They also perceive their world – including the waves of dark matter which frequently pass through it – in a unique way. The natives speak a slightly archaic form of English, evidence they have been cut off from the mainstream of human history for a considerable time. Unfortunately, the presentation of this argot is not entirely successful, and makes it somewhat hard to take them seriously. However, life in the cave, and the solutions its inhabitants have put in place to in response to the absence of light, are ingenious and well-described. Gilman captures the claustrophobia of Thora’s stay there very effectively.
As Thora explores Torobe, the cavern village in which she is staying, she realises the villagers possess strange abilities which seem to contradict known science. The Torobians talk of visiting other settlements, yet their talk suggests they travel to other worlds and meet other races. It is through Thora’s friendship with Moth, a teenage girl from Torobe, that the central conceit of Dark Orbit is eventually revealed. In part, Thora’s ability to understand this premise is a consequence of the trauma she had experienced previously. This we learn from Thora’s journal, which forms a second narrative interwoven with Sara’s.
Thora’s discovery that the universe and its laws are a consequence of perception – albeit not a solipsistic universe per se – and that the Torobians’ blindness allows them to “manipulate” their reality, initially seems a bit wobbly for suspension of disbelief. But while attempting to duplicate the Torobians’ ability to “wend”, or travel instantaneously, even across interstellar distances, Thora realises, “Maybe it can’t be observed, because if you observe, you prevent it”. The Observer Effect, in other words. In quantum mechanics, the act of observation causes a wave function to collapse – so it seems plausible an absence of observation would suggest the laws of physics are a consequence of perception.
The scientists are obviously sceptical of Thora’s report on the Torobians’ abilities. She in turn is scared what use Capella’s corporations would make of the knowledge. But when a dark matter event damages a vital component in the lightbeam equipment aboard the scientists’ ship, Thora successfully wends to Capella to fetch a replacement.
One other aspect of Dark Orbit deserves mention: the Twenty Planets are multi-racial and multi-cultural, and relations between these are handled with sensitivity and nuance. There is none of the white monolithic universes of last century’s science fiction.
Dark Orbit is a fast read, but a substantial one. The central conceit may at times feel like borderline nonsense, but Gilman manages to keep suspension of disbelief in place for the length of the novel. This is a novel that would not look out of place on an award shortlist or two next this year.
I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on blogger.com but on wordpress.com for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.
This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.
1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.
2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crownhere.
3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.
4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.
5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.
7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.
8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.
9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.
10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…
special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Downhere.
I remember reading Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Halfway Human back in 1998, thinking it very good, and then being somewhat disappointed when no further novels appeared from her. I later discovered she’d had a number of short stories published – chiefly in F&SF – and even a novella, ‘Arkfall’ (now available from Phoenix Pick here). There are also a pair of chapbooks from Aqueduct Press.
Last year, I learnt Gilman would have a new fantasy novel published by ChiZine Publications. I am not, it has to be said, a huge fan of fantasy. Too many strike me as too similar. Ripping off a different culture for the background, or implementing a new magic system, is not enough. But the description of Isles of the Forsaken seemed to me it might appeal. So I pre-ordered a copy.
I have now read it. And I was not disappointed.
The Inning Empire has just won a years-long war, and has decided to turn its attention to its colonial possessions, the Forsaken Isles. The empire is a lexarchy, which means it is ruled entirely by its Courts and legal system. Despite this, it’s not especially enlightened – in fact, the Innings as a race are arrogant and racist, and their colonial policies reflect this.
Harg Ismol is an Adaina, the lesser of the two races which inhabit the Forsaken Isles. The others, the Torna, are the dominant race and administer the islands in the name of the Innings. Also relevant are the Lashnura, or Grey Folk, semi-magical healers who can take away the pain and injuries of the islanders. The Innings do not understand this relationship, imagining the voluntary empathic bondage the Grey Folk undergo is little more than slavery. Harg had a good war, and rose to the rank of captain, the only Adaina to do so. Though he is offered the command of the Native Navy by Admiral Corbin Talley, head of the Inning Navy, he turns it down and returns home to Yora, an island in the South Chain of the Forsakens.
At which point, things start to go horribly wrong.
Isles of the Forsaken moves smoothly from a story about a disaffected hero returning home from war into a story about an archipelago-wide rebellion. This is driven by veterans having seen the rest of the empire, and by the Innings’ desire to finally “sort out” the islands. Harg is, of course, caught up in this, if not partly instrumental. Also important is Nathaway Talley, the youngest son of the Inning Chief Justice (and brother of Corbin), who is on Yora because he wants to introduce the Adaina to the benefits of Inning law. And there is also Spaeth, who was created as a companion by Yora’s lone Lashnura, but has yet to take on her healing responsibilites.
There are, however, one or two set-pieces in the book which feel a little contrived. Harg’s first run-in with the Tornan authorities, for example, seems a bit too well-designed to put him on the path the plot demands. Which is not to say Harg is not a well-rounded character. He’s a reluctant hero – while acknowledging that he’s best-placed, and has the necessary skills, to lead the islanders’ fight, he doesn’t want the responsibility of leading them into a war they would probably lose. And which would doubtless result in bloody reprisals. Further, there is an island myth about a leader, the Ison, who appears in times of need to lead the islanders to victory. Harg doesn’t believe he is the Ison, nor does he want to be him – part of the myth involves a “cleansing” by one of the Lashnura, which Harg refuses to undergo.
Nathaway’s transformation from idealistic naïf is better-handled, though it takes a while to get going. The Grey Folk, and the mythology which they represent, provide an interesting backdrop to the story, one which becomes increasingly important and relevant as the plot progresses. In parts, this mythology reminded me a little of Le Guin’s Earthsea books, particularly when Spaeth takes Nathaway to the “circles”, where the opposing balances which “rule” the islands manifest. The character of Tiarch, the Tornan governer of the Forsaken Islands, struck me as the sort of character Gwyneth Jones would write.
One section of the story which stands out takes place when Spaeth and Nathaway escape from Admiral Talley’s custody. They flee into the sewers beneath the city, but soon get lost and, somehow, cross over into another “circle”. This is one not even Spaeth recognises. It manifests as a series of mezzanine floors about a great well many many levels deep. Each level contains vast rooms in which are stored books and scrolls and other forms of document. The section is genuinely creepy, and the writing – which is good throughout the novel – is especially effective at getting this across.
Isles of the Forsaken is a post-colonial fantasy. Though the Inning Empire won its war, and is governed by what we would consider a fair and impartial system, the story’s sympathies plainly lie with the Forsaken Islanders. Of course, the Innings are far from the noble people their technology and political system would suggest. Nor are they the only ones who are racist – the Torna consider the Adaina to be nothing more than feckless and ignorant peasants. There are different ways of life on display in Isles of the Forsaken, and its ignorance about these among and between each group which is partly the fuel which drives the plot. The Innings’ lexarchy also comes under scrutiny. Theoretically an impartial and impersonal system with no real leadership, it is in practice dominated by the Talley family, and Corbin’s campaign in the Forsaken Islands is partly phrased as a launchpad for a bid for power by him back in the Inning homeland.
I read Isles of the Forsaken pretty much in two sittings. It may only be 312 pages long – definitely a point in its favour, given that it is a fantasy – but even so, I’ve not read many books in recent years which have dragged me into their story and kept me there quite so effectively. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel, Ison of the Isles.