It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


300 years from now is 2312

I’ve been saying for a while now that science fiction doesn’t need improbable spaceships and magic technology in order to generate sense of wonder. There’s plenty of wonder in the universe as we know it, once you accept its vast size and implacable hostility. So the prologue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes as a real pleasure to read. It is set on Mercury, and describes a sunrise as seen from the terminator. The world is in fact inhabited, and most of its inhabitants live in a city, called Terminator, which travels around the world on rails, forever staying within the twilight zone.

Mercury is not the only planet in the Solar System that has been settled. Mars not only has a thriving colony but has also seceded from Earth control. As indeed have the many moons and asteroids which have been colonised – and which now form the Mondragon, named for the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of workers cooperatives in Spain founded in 1956. Venus too has also been settled, and it is the fate of the human settlement of Venus which partly drives the plot of 2312.

Such a near-ish future scenario, with its strict adherence to realistic science, and plausible and clever extrapolation of technology and society, seems guaranteed to appeal to me. So it feels a little churlish to complain that 2312 falls a smidgen short of being a truly great science fiction novel.

Alex, one of the Mondragon movers and shakers, has died (of old age) and it is up to her friends to see that her plan continues. These friends include Swan Er Hong, Fitz Wahram, Inspector Genette, and others. The nature of Alex’s plan is only gradually revealed to Swan, though she is happy to involve herself. This initially requires travelling to Titan with Wahram. As they travel about the Solar System, the two fall in love, despite not seeming to suit each other particularly well. As they travel, Swan learns that Alex’s plan is a response to a secret conspiracy with unknown aims.

2312 is a novel comprising episodes spaced along a timeline in which a mostly-hidden conspiracy gradually reveals itself and its objectives. There is, for example, the destruction of Terminator. There is the discovery of qubes (quantum computers) in human form – rather than surgically-embedded qubes in humans, such as Swan’s companion Pauline. (Qubes are not artificial intelligence per se, though something like it emerges from their complexity.) There is the destruction of a travelling asteroid terrarium (a common means of transport about the Solar System) and the deaths of all those travelling within it. There is the reseeding of Earth with the fauna which had populated the terraria. There is a covert civil war on Venus.

In truth, the conspiracy is the weakest element of 2312, and not every event seems linked to the story it powers. The reseeding of Earth, for example, is clever and exciting, but doesn’t feel like part of the same narrative which sends Swan and Wahram gallivanting about the Solar System. And the resolution of the conspiracy, when it’s revealed in a disappointingly offhand fashion, feels like an after-thought rather than the resolution of a dramatic narrative.

Yet the Solar System of 2312 is a fascinating place. It feels like a valid extrapolation in ways that many nearish-future science fictions – such as James SA Corey’s poor Leviathan Wakes – do not. To some extent, this emphasis on world rather than plot does make the novel feel somewhat like a travelogue. But 2312 is not a plot-driven novel. It is dramatic in discrete moments, and it is sense of wonder, the continuity of the characters’ perceptions and the deepening relationship between Swan and Wahram, which chains those moments into a linear narrative. 2312 is like its terraria, it is a small world put together from elements of the real world, and in which a life unlike those we can experience ourselves can be lived. It’s no surprise then that the conspiracy which opens with the destruction of Terminator feels like a feeble counterpoint to the journey on which Robinson takes the reader.

As a genre novel – ie, a narrative reliant on plot for its backbone – 2312 is somewhat unsuccessful. As a science fiction in a more general sense, a personalised exploration of an invented universe, with its Dos Passos-seque “extracts” and “lists”, 2312 is superb. It may well be Robinson’s strongest work since the Mars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on a few shortlists next year; and I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t nominated.


The Best Science Fiction Series

The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.

What do I think are the best science fiction series?

For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.

So, in time-honoured reverse order:-

10 Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.

9 Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.

8 Jurisdiction universe, Susan R Matthews
Andrej Kosciusko is a torturer for the Bench, a totalitarian interstellar regime. The first of these books, An Exchange of Hostages, appeared in 1997, but sadly all but the last book seem to be out of print now. Matthews created an interesting universe, peopled it with a well-drawn cast, and wasn’t afraid to tackle thorny moral dilemmas in her stories. I thought them very good; it’s a shame so few other people did. Books in the series: An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience, Hour of Judgment, Angel of Destruction, The Devil and Deep Space, Warring States.

7 The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
I reread this last year, and wasn’t as impressed with it as I’d expected to be. But it belongs on this list because it shows that science fiction can be clever and cleverly-written, without having to pretend not to be genre. The five books of this series are not easy reads – you need your wits about you – and there has probably been more words written about it than the Book of the New Sun itself contains. But this is a work likely to remain a classic for a long time. Books in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch (my review of these four here), The Urth of the New Sun.

6 Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.

5 Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.

4 Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.

3 Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.

2 RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.

1 The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year.  I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).

Now, let’s see you argue about this list…