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Some thoughts about Fantasycon

I’ve seen a few reviews of this year’s Fantasycon, which took place in Chester a couple of weekends ago, and how good it was, and… well, not everyone was quite so impressed. I’m the first to admit Fantasycons are much better than they used to be. I attended one, or it may have been two, when it was at the Britannia Hotel in Nottingham, and it was awful. But starting with the one in York in 2014, there has been a definite improvement. However…

The Queen Hotel was a good venue. The rooms were comfortable, the breakfast pretty good, and there was plenty of space, both function and social. But it was also expensive – not that I can really complain, given I’ve stayed in hotels in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavík this year. But the hotel didn’t put on enough staff in the bar; or indeed enough beer, as it ran out on the Saturday night. The location was good for the railway station, although it was a ten-minute trek into the town centre. Having said that, finding somewhere to eat in the evening that wasn’t fully booked was only marginally easier than it had been in Reykjavík… I will say this for Chester, however: wherever I went the staff were friendly and helpful, more so than in any other UK city I’ve visited.

So, a good venue – and I’ve not even mentioned the Victoriana, the portraits or the statues. The convention itself, however… The programme was not very appealing; with four streams, which is too many for a con of that size. While individual panel items might have come up with something new, the topics covered were the same ones UK cons have been doing for years. I don’t generally attend programme items – I’m there for the social, more than anything else – but no item in Fantasycon’s programme persuaded me it might be worth sitting through. But then it’s not just Fantasycon. UK conventions as a whole seem to have got into a bit of a rut. (I’m told Nine Worlds is different, but I’ve never been to it.) Having four or five people sitting behind a table just seems boring these days. I like IceCon’s more relaxed approach, where the panellists are in armchairs or on sofas. I think UK cons should adopt it. I also think there should be more talks/presentations given by individuals, and programme items that are just interviews/conversations between two people.

But then Fantasycon has always felt like a showcase weekend for UK small presses, with its back-to-back book launches and dedicated stream of book readings. The entire Sunday afternoon is taken up with a banquet, in which members of the British Fantasy Society hand out awards. Not always to each other. Although one year the best novel and best short story awards were won by the partner of the BFS chairman, and acting awards administrator, and the chairman’s own publishing company won best small press… With four programming streams, this year felt more than ever like it was designed for writers to showcase themselves. But since pretty much everyone else attending was also a writer…

That’s what UK fandom seems to be turning into these days: writers marketing themselves to other writers. Actual fans seem to be a dying breed.

Speaking of readings, I’m not a fan. I’m a person who prefers to look at the words on a page, not hear them. Reading and listening use different parts of the brain – I suspect the former part of my brain is more developed than the latter. Book launches, on the other hand, I no longer attend having done so for years and ended up with bookshelves of books I’m unlikely to read… Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. But you do feel obligated to buy something at a book launch, whether you really want it or not. Ironically, I bought a book at Fantasycon before the book launch, because I hadn’t known it was being launched at the con…

Which neatly leads into the organisation of Fantasycon. The two organisers have been praised by many. But. There were no programmes available until midday on the Saturday. When I registered on Friday afternoon, all I received was my membership badge. No programme. No goody bag. And the programme, when it did finally turn up, included a story by the convention chairman. Since when was that acceptable? And the programme doesn’t include a list of attendees, so I had no idea who was present. It contains only a partial list of those appearing on panels. It’s also riddled with typos, and even manages to spell the name of one of the Guests of Honour incorrectly. The top half of the second page is an introduction from the con’s “Coodinator”, while the bottom half, ironically, is an advert for a proofreading service…

(However, the volunteers, the Red Cloaks, were omnipresent and helpful.)

I attend conventions chiefly to hang out with friends, I admit it. Fantasycon is friendly, yes, if you know people. And on the Saturday night in the bar, it’s as friendly as any place full of people in various stages of drunkenness who are all gathered in one place for the same reason – and even have handy ID badges hanging around their necks… It is, if you like, a social crucible. A good place to meet people and make new friends. Because you all have something in common. But that’s true of conventions in general, it’s not unique to Fantasycon. And while Fantasycon has much improved in that regard, it’s still no better and no worse than other cons.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t have a good weekend, when in fact I did enjoy myself. On the Friday night, David Tallerman and myself ended up eating in Koconut Grove, a southern Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, we arrived just after a party of around two-dozen, so it took over an hour for our food to arrive. Walking back to the hotel, we bumped into two people I’d not expected to see: Cristina Macía and Ian Watson. I’d seen both of them back in June, as Ian was GoH at Swecon, but they don’t typically attend Fantasycon. On the Saturday, I went hunting for a supermarket to buy a sandwich for lunch, but found only a street that the 1980s forgot (Brook Street, for the record). Not only did it have shops that sold vinyl, but also two private shops! I ended up having a pint in the Old Harkers Arms at the side of the canal, and it was awful. Worse than Wetherspoons.

After a trek round Chester city centre on the Saturday night – the programme didn’t include maps, not even a map of the hotel, which would have been really useful; with smartphones, who really needs a town map these days? – myself and David finished up in an Italian place on Foregate Street. It was quite good. Cheaper than a lot of the places we passed. However, on both Friday and Saturday night we’d set out relatively early to eat, around six o’clock. Those trying later had difficulty finding somewhere that wasn’t fully booked.

As with any UK convention these days, any shortcomings are thrown into stark relief by the shitness of British public transport, especially the railway. The train journey from Chester to Manchester wasn’t too bad – the train had originated in Chester and was less than half full. But at Manchester Oxford Road, I had to transfer to an East Midland train that was both ancient rolling stock and over-full. I managed to get a seat, but many didn’t. I’d left early, around noon, as I saw no good reason to hang around for the banquet and the awards, which I haven’t done for any Fantasycon I’ve been to. I was home by about 4 pm.

This year’s Fantasycon was a definite improvement on the last one I attended, in Scarborough, but I didn’t think it was, well, an especially good con. I liked the Queen Hotel, and I liked Chester. But the programme was not much different to one you might have found at a UK convention ten years ago. My overriding memory of Fantasycon 2018 is sitting in the bar talking to various people – many of whom I’d known before the weekend, one or two I had not – or trekking around Chester…

There are worse things you could do on a weekend.


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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…


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To York and beyond – Fantasycon 2014

So that was the new all-improved Fantasycon, and you know what? It was a bloody good con. The hotel was nice, if expensive, but it had an excellent real ale pub next-door and was five minutes walk from the city centre (and hence many fooderies). The company was convivial, and from what I heard the programme was successful. Okay, so the bar smelt of chlorine (which prompted me to start quoting Wilfred Owen at one point) and it was stinking hot in there on the Sunday; but at least the beer wasn’t massively expensive for a hotel (£4.40 a pint). My room was a single, and I’m just not used to sleeping in a single bed any more and nearly fell out of it a couple of times; but the room’s bathroom was enormous, almost as large as the room itself.

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And speaking of bathrooms, the gents toilets on the ground floor were like something out of Hogwarts and quite amazing – tessellated floor, marble fitments and an enormous skylight above the centre of the room.

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I spent most of Fantasycon chatting to people – old friends and new friends – in the bar and in the dealers’ room. It would be impossible to name them all, but I should definitely give a shout-out to Gillian Polack, the 2014 GUFF race winner, who had come all the way from Australia (albeit chiefly for Loncon 3, of course). I can’t recall much of what the weekend’s many conversations were about, but I remember getting a loud groan out of about a dozen people with the Saeed story one night.

The con ended with the British Fantasy Awards – congrats to all the winners – and I left for home not too long afterwards. That was a nightmare – unlike the very pleasant journey to York. A four-coach train from Edinburgh to Reading, so naturally it was packed solid and I spent the journey home standing. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long trip. The next government in power seriously needs to renationalise the rolling stock companies, and I don’t care if it means some of their rich friends end up out of pocket. In fact, I’d welcome it if they do.

Finally, no con report would be complete without a list of the books I came home with. For the second con running, I managed to purchase books only by female authors. The books by male authors pictured below were all freebies – except for the Calvino, which I bought in Oxfam on Micklegate.

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These were among the freebies available when you registered – although pretty much the entire Moorcock series was there, I already had most of them in the Fantasy Masterwork editions… but not The Eternal Champion and Von Bek (which weren’t in the Masterwork series anyway). David Tallerman is a friend and I picked up his book, Crown Thief, so he could sign a copy for me. Extinction Game didn’t appear on the freebie table until the Saturday, and I’d been intending to buy it so that saved me a bob or two. A dealer at the con was selling off a large stock of unwanted review copies all weekend for £1 each (and 50p on the Sunday), but after the dealers’ room closed for the banquet and awards ceremony, they dumped their remaining books in the hotel foyer for people to take for free – which is where I spotted The Suicide Exhibition, when my eye was caught by the Nazi eagle, flying saucer and black sun logo on the cover…

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School For Love and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller I bought in the Oxfam on Micklegate, when Mhairi Simpson, Kev McVeigh and myself went for a wander on the Saturday afternoon. The Start of the End of it All, on the other hand, Kev picked up for me from a dealer at Loncon 3, and brought to Fantasycon.

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I decided to pick up some more of Nina Allan’s work and, fortunately, although not unexpectedly, both PS Publishing (Stardust) and Eibonvale Press (The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth) had tables in the dealers’ room. Changing Planes I bought from the aforementioned dealer with all the review copies.

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All bought in the dealers’ room – Langue[dt]doc 1305 from Gillian herself, Mars Evacuees from the table run by Fantasycon, and vN and Walking the Tree from the review-copies dealer.

Next year’s Fantasycon is apparently back in Nottingham, but in the East Midlands Conference Centre rather than the horrible Britannia Hotel. I’m certainly considering going…


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Something for the weekend, sir?

A meme, of course. Provided by SF Signal. And since I’ve been a bit rubbish – well, a lot rubbish – at posting here over the past couple of months, and the tumbleweed and cobwebs are starting to look unsightly, I have seized the opportunity given by the meme to generate some uncontroversial blog content… Well, uncontroversial for me, anyway.

I’m not entirely sure what a “book snob” is – that would be someone who likes good books, yes? Well-written books, yes? I certainly wouldn’t recommend a crap book to someone. Well, not without mentioning that it was crap, and only if they’d asked for something that was so narrowly defined the only book I could think of happened to be a crap one… Many of the books I’ve recommended below I really can’t recommend highly enough. They should be required reading.

Science Fiction
Sf is my genre of choice, so I’m well-practiced in answering some of these questions. Most are books I’ve mentioned before, some I’ve even written about or reviewed – and I’ve linked to my review, where one exists.

If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book with lots of action, it would be: Against A Dark Background, Iain M Banks (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a “book snob”, it would be: Coelestis, Paul Park (my review), or Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book series I loved, it would be: The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (my review)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: What Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (mentioned here)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: Darkmans, Nicola Barker

Fantasy
I have a low opinion of epic fantasy, so I read very little of it – and then typically only when it’s either been recommended by someone whose opinion I value, or it was written by an author I already like. I will point out that “dislike” is probably too strong a word for my reaction to the Alan Campbell. I did quite enjoy it, but not enough to bother reading the rest of the series.

If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a new genre reader, it would be: A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park
If I were to recommend a fantasy book with lots of action, it would be: Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a “book snob”, it would be: Evening’s Empire, David Herter (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book series I loved, it would be: Isles of the Forsaken / Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (review here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: God Stalk, PC Hodgell (mentioned here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: King’s Dragon, Kate Elliott

Horror
I read very little horror, so most of these will be blank…

If I were to recommend a horror book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce
If I were to recommend a horror book with lots of action, it would be:
If I were to recommend a horror book to a “book snob”, it would be: Viator, Lucius Shepard, or X,Y, Michael Blumlein
If I were to recommend a horror book series I loved, it would be:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was:


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8-question meme from SF Signal

John DeNardo posts these regularly on SF Signal and I usually have a go at them. This week it’s the following eight questions:

1. The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
Technically, it would be Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, a novelisation of the TV series, which my parents gave me as a Christmas present in, I think, 1974. But the first category sf novel I read was Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, which was lent to me by a classmate in my first year at prep school – so that would be either late 1976 or early 1977.

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2. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
I guard my Top 20 jealously and, sadly, it’s mostly not sf, fantasy or horror. No genre book has made it into the list during the last couple of years. However, if I were to run a category genre-only Top 20, then the last book I read which might make the grade would probably be… Extra(Ordinary) People, a 1984 collection by Joanna Russ, if only because it contains a story, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a new favourite. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here. If I were to restrict myself to novels, the last three genre reads with the most stars from me on GoodReads were, in no particular order: Europe in Autumn, The Violent Century, Rapture and Ancillary Justice.

3. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
That would be Palimpsest by Cathrynne M Valente. I’d heard a lot of positive things about it, and was quite chuffed to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. But the reading didn’t go very well at all. I baled around page 100, unable to put up any longer with the over-writing. I think it was something about a character being able to taste a snail’s foot in his mouth or something.

4. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
I have my favourites – who doesn’t? Paul Park has a new novel and a collection coming out this year, which has made me very happy – doubly so, in fact. Sadly, Gwyneth Jones doesn’t seem to have anything due out in the foreseeable future. A couple of years ago, I’d heard a US publisher had contracted for a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (as by Ann Halam), but I’ve yet to see it mentioned anywhere online. I’m also eagerly awaiting David Herter’s new sf novels/novellas from PS Publishing.

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5. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
But I’ve read everyone! Ahem. Of course, I haven’t really, just rather a lot of them – but many of those I’ve not read have been a matter of choice. I don’t think there’s anyone I’m ashamed I’ve not read – because if I was, I’d have read them; or at the very least I’d have one of their books on my humungous TBR pile. PC Hodgell, for example; or Michael Cisco… I own books by both but have yet to read them. Which reminds me, I really must get around to purchasing a copy of Laurie J Marks’ Fire Logic, as I really want to read it. Um, in fact, now I think about it, there’s a whole bunch of authors I want to read but have yet to buy anything by…

6. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
Easy. The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here, and have been singing its praises ever since. Sadly, it’s currently out of print; but it really needs to be introduced to a new audience.

7. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
Where do I start? Many of my favourite genre novels were highly regarded when they were published, but they’ve never been reprinted since. One or two are now in the SF Masterworks series… so I can hardly claim they’re still under-rated. Instead, I will chose something completely out of my comfort zone – a fantasy novel: The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (1991). It was never published in the UK, had two reviews on publication (in Locus and amazing Stories), has zero reviews on GoodReads and two on Amazon (including a 5-star one by Katherine Kerr!), Kirkus called it a “formless hodgepodge of a book”, and the first five pages of Google are links to places to buy the book rather than online reviews… I think it qualifies as under-rated.

grailfohearts

8. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:
There’s a lot of recent sf I think is horribly over-rated – just look at the Hugo Award and Nebula Award shortlists for the past few years. But many of those books I’ve not actually read myself, so my opinion is chiefly the result of other stuff written by those authors. However, I have read Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, and it was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for 2012, and made it into the top 5 on the Locus Poll for that year. I thought it was terrible, and I refused to read its sequels. I now hear it’s been optioned for television. Sigh.


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The apples and oranges of genre

Apples and oranges are fruit, and you’ll find them in fruit bowls and packed lunches around the world. They’re sold in supermarkets and greengrocers, but not in fishmongers and betting shops. Some people prefer apples to oranges. They like the appleness of apples more than the orangeness of oranges. Or vice versa. Some people like both equally. But the fact you can find apples and oranges in a fruit bowl doesn’t make an apple an orange or an orange an apple.

Comparing_Apples_to_Oranges

Just like science fiction and fantasy.

Everyone knows what apples and oranges are, and they could give any number of reasons why one is not the other. Yet when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, most people can only say, “they’re fruit”. As if that’s all that matters. Of course it isn’t. Otherwise everyone would like the two genres equally – and fantasy wouldn’t outsell sf by five or seven to one.

But because sf and fantasy stories both take place in invented worlds, people lump them together. But not every sf/fantasy story has an invented setting; and not every story which takes place in an invented world is sf or fantasy. So that’s a piss-poor definition. And where do we stop with the invented elements? Robots. Dragons. FTL. Magic. What about an invented organisation? Like… SPECTRE? Are Fleming’s Bond books science fiction? Maybe it’s the degree of invention in the story, then. Like that’s not a movable bar…

The point is, when you start looking at what science fiction and fantasy have in common you soon find yourself tied in knots. However, when you consider why they’re different… then things begin to make sense. Which, logically, implies they must be different things.

So they share a “fruit bowl”, and have done since fruit bowls were invented – but they still exhibit more readily-definable differences than they do similarities. Please stop trying to insist apples are oranges, and vice versa. Accept that they are each their own thing, no matter how many fruit salads you make.


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Five genre books that should be back in print

A couple of times while reading books to review on SF Mistressworks, I’ve wondered why a book is no longer in print, especially given that many inferior ones still are. A recent such review – it will appear tomorrow – had me thinking about which out-of-print books I’d like to see available once again, books that only saw one or two editions a decade or more ago. It proved a harder list – even limited to five – than I expected. For one thing, the SF Gateway has been doing an admirable job in bringing a number of books back into “print” as ebooks; some of my favourite sf novels have appeared over the last few years in the SF Masterworks series; and many authors have made their back list available as print-on-demand books or on Kindle, such as Marta Randall or Gwyneth Jones. But there are still some books that I think should be re-introduced to a twenty-first century audience:

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Sloczewski (1989). I reviewed this for SF Mistressworks (see here) and thought the book a masterclass in science fiction writing. The last edition in print was from The Women’s Press in 1991. It really deserves to be made available once more.

The Complete Short Stories of Joanna Russ, Joanna Russ. This is a cheat – there’s no such book. But if assorted male authors have had their collected short fiction published, then why not Russ? Her last collection was in 1988, and by my count she had almost seventy pieces of short fiction published. It’s long past time for a collected works.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). Okay, so it’s one of my favourite sf novels and I also happen to think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written… But it saw only a single hardback and paperback release in the UK and US and has been out of print ever since.

The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). This was an omnibus of two earlier novels, published in 1989 and 1992 (neither of which were then reprinted), but the omnibus appeared only in a single edition and has never been reprinted since. It should be – the books are excellent. See my reviews on SF Mistressworks here and here.

The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992). This is a superior fantasy which has apparently never been reprinted since its paperback edition in 1993.

Anyone else have any genre books they’d like to see back in print?

ETA: By my count Russ had 56 stories published, plus six Alyx stories and two set in the Cthulhu mythos. All but fourteen have been collected.


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So that was a World Fantasy Convention

While I rate a number of fantasy novels very highly, the genre is only about my fourth or fifth choice of reading material. So in the normal course of events a con devoted to fantasy doesn’t interest me much. Except, of course, that I’ll know quite a few people who’ll be there, and it’s one of the few opportunities I’ll get to see them IRL. Plus, this being a World Fantasy Con, there’ll also be several people present I wouldn’t normally get to meet face-to-face. Having said that, there may have been citizens/residents of 35 countries present at WFC, but it often felt like the “w” and the “r” were superfluous in the first word of the con’s name.

Anyway, fantasy or not, I bought my membership months ago, booked my hotel room, was ripped off by our railways – £93 for an open return! – and at the appointed time left home for Brighton. And this is how it went…

Thursday 31 October: catch tram to railway station with overnight bag and box full of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to sell on the small press table in the WFC dealers’ room. I prefer to travel light, especially if the journey is going to take hours, but my books are never going to sell if I always leave them at home. End up sharing a table on the train to London with a woman and her three grandchildren (all under the age of twelve). To read on the train, I grabbed Michel Houellebecq’s Lanzarote. Should have known better: I read his Platform while returning home from a con and by the time I reached home the combination of British railways and Houellebecq’s misanthropy had me fuming. To make matters worse, Lanzarote includes several very graphic sex scenes, so have to hold the paperback in such a way only I can see the page. Fortunately, the colour photographs in the book depict the landscape of the titular island… It’s a relief to finish the book and start on Karen Joy Fowler’s The Sweetheart Season, which is much more appropriate train reading material…

The trip to Brighton is pretty painless. Change trains in St Pancras, get a seat on the one heading for the south coast, listen to music on the iPod, stare out of the window, read my book. There are some spectacularly ugly buildings in London. On arrival in Brighton, jump into a taxi and get driven to my hotel, the Best Western Brighton Hotel. Which claims to be one of the best hotel in the city. In the 1980s, perhaps. It is a bit rubbish. And in the tiny lift cabin, there is sign that reads “NO SMOKING ON THIS FLOOR”. Not sure how that works. After dumping my stuff, I head up the seafront to the con hotel, the Brighton Metropole, a 400-metre walk. This is only my second visit to Brighton, and my first experience of the Metropole. I register at the convention, and pick out my giveaway books from the table full of same. God’s War I already own so I ignore that. There’s a bande dessinée which looks interesting. PS Publishing have sealed their free books inside grey plastic envelopes, so it’s pot luck. Of course, I end up with Gwyneth Jones’s Grazing the Long Acre. Which I already have. (I give it away later.) I also grab David Tallerman’s Giant Thief… only to realise later he made me buy a copy of it at the SFX Weekender in 2012. The rest of the books look like epic fantasy, so I give them a miss.

Then it’s down to the bar in search of friendly faces, which I duly find. I pretty much spend the entire evening in there. I meet up with Liam Proven, who is kipping on my floor, and we go back to my hotel to dump his stuff (which includes lots of bottled ale). Later, a large party of us go for a meal at a seafront restaurant which features an opera singer. It’s nouvelle cuisine, which means it’s presented nicely but there isn’t much of it. The opera singing isn’t up to much either. But at least the company and conversation make up for both. Then it’s back to the hotel to continue drinking and chatting. I crash out at 12:30. When I look for my bag of giveaways, I can’t find it. Oh well. At one point, I am introduced to KW Jeter. After telling him how much I enjoyed his sf novels, I add that I’m not keen on “the schlocky horror books, like Mantis.” “Ah, Mantis,” he replies, ” my favourite novel.” Oops.

Friday 1 November: get up early so I can make it down for breakfast. No buffet. You chose one of three types of breakfast from a menu, they bring it you from the kitchen. I thought hotels stopped doing that twenty years ago. Not the best breakfast I’ve ever had. In fact, I don’t even bother breakfasting in the hotel for the rest of the weekend. I grab my box of Apollo Quartet books and head for the Metropole. It is pissing it down and I get wet. Make my way straight to the dealers’ room. It is pleasingly large. As well as the usual faces, there are several dealers from abroad, such as Australia’s Ticonderoga (hi, Russell) and Fablecroft. After setting out my books on Roy Gray’s Interzone/small press table, I bimble about the room but only purchase Lavie Tidhar’s Martian Sands and a copy of Keith Roberts’ Anita (which is priced much less than usual). The rest of the day is spent bouncing between bar and dealers’ room. I have a bottle of water with me, so I stick to drinking that. I don’t manage to get lunch. Apparently, there’s a second bar serving cheap food, but I never manage to find it. The Metropole is like a rabbit warren. The function space is enormous and quite a walk – up two separate flights of stairs – from the front of the hotel and the bar.

At one point in the dealer’s room, while chatting to a dealer who has a signed first edition of Dune for sale… for $7000… I’m approached by someone who wants me to sign something. It turns out to be a copy of the anthology Where Are We Going? I also later spot copies of Catastrophia and The Monster Book for Girls. There’s also another first edition of Dune for sale, but it’s unsigned. And only £3000. One dealer, Simon from Hyraxia Books, has quite a few rare genre first editions – the aforementioned unsigned Dune, plus a signed first of Neuromancer for £1200, a first of A Wizard of Earthsea for £750…

I spend the evening on a real ale pub crawl with Liam P, Charlie Stross, Feorag, Jain Fenn, Jetse de Vries and another couple of whose names I never catch. (And yet everyone wears badges at these conventions. But at least twice I go to speak to people thinking they are someone else.) I don’t remember the name of the first pub we visit, but it is quite a trek from the hotel. It is also large, busy, noisy and very warm… and I’m beginning to regret agreeing to come along. But then we find a table shortly after getting served, things quieten down and it gets much better. Our next pub is the Prince George, which serves vegan food and was chosen so we could eat there. I’m not vegan, but I’ll eat it – and it’s likely to have more dairy-free dishes for me to choose from than a non-vegan place. The beer is very nice – we’re drinking halves so we can try a number – and my falafel burger is good. We are supposed to move onto another pub, but Charlie needs to get back to the hotel, and I’ve had enough – as have two others. so we grab a taxi back to the Metropole. The other four apparently try one more pub and then return to the con. I stay in the bar until 3:30 am. Walking back to my hotel with Liam, we witness an altercation between a taxi driver and a young couple. The young man is dressed like a pirate.

Saturday 2 November: have a bit of a lie-in, don’t bother with breakfast, and head for the Metropole. Another day bouncing between the bar and the dealers’ room. And drinking water. I manage to get lunch this time – I order the soup of the day in the bar, after verifying it is dairy-free. It’s vegetable soup but I’ve no idea which vegetable. I buy a couple more books than the previous day: One Small Step, a women-only anthology published by Fablecroft Publishing, The God Stalker Chronicles by PC Hodgell, an epic fantasy about which I have heard many good things by people who are aware of my tastes, Aliette de Bodard’s On A Red Station, Drifting, and a Women’s Press paperback of Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them. I suspect I might have that last book but I forgot my wants list so I’m not sure. It turns out later I do have it. Though I see plenty of books I want to buy, especially ones where the con is my best chance of getting them at a reasonable price (and without postage & packing on top), I don’t want to  cart loads of books as well as my unsold copies of my own books back home.

Before the con, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont arranged a meet-up at a Brighton pub on the Saturday afternoon, but since I don’t have a smartphone I don’t know when or where. Happily, Alex Bardy does know and comes to ask me if I’m going. I say yes. In the hotel lobby, I spot Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke and David Hebblethwaite and ask them if they’re going. They say yes. The pub is located around the back of the hotel, a five-minute walk away. I spend the next few hours at “Pubcon”, and it’s probably the highlight of the weekend (you can actually hear yourself think in the pub, which is more than can be said of the hotel bar).

After a couple of hours in the pub, it’s back to the hotel for a party thrown by my agent for his clients and industry professionals. This is in a room at the top of the hotel with great picture windows. Everyone remarks on its likeness to an evil villain’s lair, but it’s dark out so you can’t see much. As I leave, an editor from Orbit sees me and says, “Ian Sales! I know you! You liked Ancillary Justice.” What price fame, eh? Then it’s along a very blowy seafront for the launch party for Lavie’s The Violent Century. This is in the tiny basement room of a pub. It is small, busy, hot and loud. I chat to a few people, have a bad pint of some real ale, can’t have any of the free food because dairy, and then head back to the Metropole. I’m hungry so I get a meal in the hotel restaurant. But it’s nouvelle cuisine again – two halves of a new potato and a pair of broccoli florets are not sufficient vegetables. Then there’s a Del Rey launch party in one of the bars, and a Jo Fletcher Books party in one of the function rooms. I spend the rest of the evening in one or the other. (The JFB one is bigger, but when Mitch Benn gets up on stage to sing it’s too close to filk for me so I make a run for it.) At one point, there is also “Corridorcon”, which is myself, Liam and David Tallerman chatting in one of the corridors, saying hello to people we know as they pass by. One of these is Jukka Halme, who stays to chat. We are talking about the recent Swecon, Fantastika, when I ask him if he knows Miikka, one of the Finns I met there. He laughs – I gather it’s a common name in Finland. Fortunately, I remember Miikka’s surname.

It is another late night. I’m mostly drinking the beer Liam has brought. He’s carrying it around in his rucksack, and for refills we go to the toilet to pour it into our glasses. At one point, I’m doing this for Simon Clark when I realise I’m getting odd looks from a man washing his hands. I recognise him as the bar manager. Oops.

Sunday 3 November: My last day at the con. I could have extended my hotel booking and stayed on until the following day, but I decide not to. I check out of my room, and head for the Metropole. The dealers’ room is closing at noon, so I have to get my stuff out. I am on my way out of the room when I get chatting to Brian Ameringen, and in the middle of the conversation spot he has a copy of Brian Aldiss’s Cracken at Critical, which is a book I want. My last book purchase of the weekend. Myself and Liam go for food at a café a few streets away that has been recommended. I have the all day breakfast – it’s basic but more than edible. I get a few blank looks when I ask about dairy-free. This prompts a conversation back in the hotel how gluten intolerance is widely- known, but lactose intolerance isn’t – despite 75% of the world’s population being lactose-intolerant to some degree, and coeliacs less than 1% of the population (by comparison left-handed people account for around 7%). I suspect this is because during the 1980s there was a fad in the US for gluten-free food as a dietary choice – even though it is no better or no worse for you than foods that contain gluten.

I’d originally planned to catch the 13:35 to London but with one thing another end up catching the 14:45. I run into Adrian Tchaikovsky in the Metropole lobby, and he’s about to leave too. But neither he nor Annie are ready and my taxi has just arrived. I see them again at the railway station, and point out to them the train to Bedford, which goes through St Pancras, is much more convenient for their change to King’s Cross. Their tickets read Victoria Station – it seems all train ticket websites assume you have to travel to Brighton from London Victoria (and vice versa)… unless you’re travelling north on East Midland Trains, who use St Pancras as their terminus. The train arrives, but Adrian and Annie are waiting for friends. I go grab seats, and sit there receiving dirty looks from those boarding because I have my bags on empty seats. But Adrian and Annie don’t make the train. Oh well. At St Pancras, I have plenty of time to catch a train home. Though they are cheaper, I’ve been caught out before buying tickets that are only valid on one train. Now I always buy open returns. It is worth the expense. As is becoming more frequent, the reservation system aboard the train has crashed. I don’t have a reserved seat but neither can I see which seats are not reserved. Turns out the one I chose is reserved. And I only learn this when there are no other seats left. So I end up standing until Market Harborough. I’m not the only one. And there are suitcases in the aisle too, making it difficult to get from one end of the coach to the other. At one point, a bloke turns up and finds his reserved seat occupied. He asks the bloke in it to move, but the bloke refuses. He claims the train staff said over the PA that since the reservation system is not working then all reservations are void. This is not true. Myself, I’d have poured my water all over the bloke in the seat. The guy whose seat it is has to go find somewhere else to sit. Dear British people, our railway net work is shit enough without you acting like knobs on the trains. If you are in a reserved seat, then vacate it for the person who has the reservation, even if the display above the seat is not working. Refusing to do so only makes you a total prick. When I reach Sheffield station, there’s a massive queue for the taxis. I eventually get home at 8:15 pm. The cat is glad to see me.

I thought WFC was a bit of a rubbish con but an excellent weekend. I wasn’t at all interested in the programme and missed it completely. I didn’t eat enough but drank too much. I’d liked to have bought more books. And sold more of my own books. I didn’t get to meet everyone I’d hoped to meet, but as well as hanging around with friends – Colum Paget introducing me to Hal Duncan: “Do you know Hal, Ian?” Me: “Yes, we’ve known each other for years.” Hal: “No, decades.” – I also met some people I only know online and some that were new to me. I couldn’t possibly name-check everyone I spoke to. I do remember lots of really interesting conversations. And lots of people asked me about Apollo Quartet 3, so I got to bore many people on the topic of the Mercury 13.

I had fun.


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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Locus All-Centuries Poll short fiction results

Locus posted the short fiction results to its poll a couple of days ago and the results are… not entirely unexpected. Americocentric. A little more diverse in terms of race and gender than the novel results, but not by that much. And yes, pretty much exclusively Anglophone. But let’s see how my choices did…

20th Century SF/F Novella
22 – 1 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
6 – 2 ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, Gene Wolfe (1972)
51 – 3 ‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
0 – 4 ‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1958)
72 – 5 ‘Green Mars’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)
83 – 6 ‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
0 – 7 ‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
1 – 8 ‘Story of Your Life’, Ted Chiang (1998)
71 – 9 ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, Richard Cowper (1976)
10

Well, I picked the number one novella, although I had it down at number eight. A single Aldiss novella barely made the top fifty – so much for his sixty-year career (though I will admit ‘Equator’ is not generally seen as one of his career highlights; I still love it, however.) A single Ian Watson novelette made it to number 117 – so there’s another British author who has been cruelly neglected.

Instead, the actual top twenty had Chiang, old favourites like Heinlein and Simak and John W Campbell and Sturgeon and Lovecraft, and six women (including US middle-aged fan favourite Connie Willis). Most, surprisingly, are science fiction, rather than fantasy.

20th Century SF/F Novelette
108 – 1 ‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
170 – 2 ‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
0 – 3 ‘The Time-Tombs’, JG Ballard (1963)
73 – 4 ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick (1974)
157 – 5 ‘Black Air’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1983)
0 – 6 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’, Leigh Brackett (1952)
100 – 7 ‘No Woman Born’, CL Moore (1944)
0 – 8 ‘FOAM’, Brian W Aldiss (1991)
44 – 9 ‘Swarm’, Bruce Sterling (1982)
0 – 10 ‘Housecall’, Terry Dowling (1986)

A few more zeros here, meaning no one selected those choices as their number one. My highest placer is Bruce Sterling at 44, and I thought that was my most commercial pick. I should have instead listed ‘The View From Venus: A Case Study’ by Karen Joy Fowler, which, er, no one picked at all.

The actual top twenty has the execrable ‘Nightfall’ at number two. Kill it with fire. And another Asimov at number four. Plus Harlan Ellison (it’s harder to know which to despise more, the man or his fiction). Three women, although Tiptree is selected twice. Samuel Delany sneaks in at number sixteen. All twenty novelettes are by Americans (the first Brit appears at 41).

20th Century SF/F Short Story
56 – 1 ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree Jr. (1972)
25 – 2 ‘Air Raid’, John Varley (1977)
0 – 3 ‘Forward Echoes (AKA Identifying the Object)’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
213 – 4 ‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts (1973)
0 – 5 ‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle (1991)
0 – 6 ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’, Sean Williams (1995)
0 – 7 ‘The Brains Of Rats’, Michael Blumlein (1986)
22 – 8 ‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany (1967)
276 – 9 ‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks (1987)
101 – 10 ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson (1981)

I wasn’t expecting to have many popular choices in this category, but not a single one of mine made it into the top twenty. Delany came highest at 22, and then Varley at 25. And they’re popular works of sf. I got four zeroes.

The actual results featured Ellison (3), Heinlein (2), Clarke (3), Asimov, Bradbury (2)… It’s Dead White Male time. (Except Ellison isn’t dead, of course.) Four women. JG Ballard’s highest placing is 47, which is dismaying. Looking at the results, I see a lot of stories that are repeatedly anthologised. Well, there you go…

21st Century SF/F Novella
59 – 1 ‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
0 – 2 ‘My Death’, Lisa Tuttle (2004)
6 – 3 ‘Diamond Dogs’, Alastair Reynolds (2001)
0 – 4 ‘Dangerous Space’, Kelley Eskridge (2007)
0 – 5 ‘A Writer’s Life’, Eric Brown (2001)

I’ve read two of the novellas which made the top ten in this category. One of them was the Reynolds. I was surprised Carolyn Ives Gilman didn’t get zero, but then it was originally published in Asimov’s. Two of the others were original novellas from PS Publishing, so no surprise with the zeroes there…

21st Century SF/F Novelette
2 – 1 ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, Ted Chiang (2007)
66 – 2 ‘Divining Light’, Ted Kosmatka (2008)
3
4
5

I freely admit to being crap at this category. Not only is the novelette a completely useless category and should be roundly expunged from, well, everything, but I’ve not read enough long short fiction published this century. Still, my number one choice made number two. Still, Chiang… (On the other hand, he also made the number one spot.)

As it is, the top ten are all genre darlings – Chiang, Link, Gaiman, Stross, Miéville, Bacigalupi…

21st Century SF/F Short Story

I was so rubbish at this one, I couldn’t think of a single story to nominate. If I had chosen the story I remembered after the deadline, ‘The Avatar of Background Noise’, Toiya Kristen Finley, it would have come… nowhere. No one picked it. Instead, we got ten relatively recent award winners, with a couple of outliers – Le Guin and Swanwick.

We can thus conclude that all worthwhile science fiction and fantasy short fiction is written by a group of about thirty people, over half of whom are dead. Of course, this is a consequence of the small number of voters, most of whom probably fit a fairly similar profile. I’m not sure how useful an exercise that makes the poll, though as a guideline for changing a reader’s approach to the genre it offers a possible blueprint. You know, don’t read the writers in the top twenties for each category, read other ones instead, ones you may not have come across before. Diversify your diet of genre fiction. Add some diversity to it.

And finally, I just have to say something about the amazingly stupid remark made in the comment thread on the results page:

“If there was more women and minorities that cared enough to vote in this poll, then there would have been more females and minorities on the list. you cannot blame others for it.”

Poor grammar aside, it’s a remarkably dumb thing to say. Because of course only women and minorities nominate women and minorities. And women only vote for women, just as minorities only vote for minorities. Someone take away Maddog’s computer, he’s clearly too stupid to use it properly.