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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.


Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…


The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.


To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


My 10 works for inclusion in the SF Masterwork series

This is something Joachim Boaz (see here) and some other bloggers did yesterday, and I was then challenged by Joachim on Twitter to produce my own list. Ten books I think Gollancz should add to their SF Masterwork series. There are a number of “rules”, to be followed at your own discretion: one book per author; no books by an author currently in the series; and a goodly number of years between publication and 2014 – I chose twenty years, so a publication of date of 1994 or older. Of course, this list totally ignores any rights issues that might prevent Gollancz from including the books.

So, in chronological order of publication…

detective_houseThe House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950) I’m surprised there’s no van Vogt in the SF Masterwork series – he was, after all, hugely popular for many decades. Admittedly, most of his books are complete tosh, and he was second only to Philip K Dick in making shit up as he went along (and there is, of course, at lot of Dick in the series). But I still rate The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens). I once described it as “if Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book”, and I stand by that description.

Judgment-NightJudgment Night, CL Moore (1952) I will admit I wasn’t expecting much of this short novel when I read it – a typical piece of Planet Stories space opera nonsense, I thought. But it proved to be a lot more interesting than I’d expected. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the characterisation of the protagonist, the warlike Princess Juille, is clever, and there are some really interesting ideas in the world-building. It’s a very short novel, however, only 156 pages in its first paperback publication; so perhaps it ought to be bundled with another of Moore’s novels, or a Northwest Smith novella, or something. I reviewed Judgment Night on SF Mistressworks here.

HelloSummerGoodbye_CoverHello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975) There are few sf novels written from the viewpoint of the alien, and among them even fewer in which humans never appear. Hello Summer, Goodbye is an elegiac coming-of-age novel set on an alien world with an entirely alien cast and an alien culture. And it works really well. It’s also a lovely piece of writing. I’m actually surprised this hasn’t appeared in the series yet. There is a sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, which I’ve not read.

ophiuchiThe Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977) Varley’s Eight Worlds – in which the mysterious Invaders threw humanity off the Earth, so we now eke out an existence on various moons – is one of sf’s more memorable middle-distance futures, and while he explored it to better effect in numerous stories, The Ophiuchi Hotline is the first of three novels set in that universe. It’s also the best of them. The ending throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas in a single paragraph, but the journey to that point is strange and wonderful.

Cowper- A Tapestry of TimeThe White Bird of Kinship, Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982) This one is a bit of a cheat as it’s an omnibus of three short novels – The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). There’s also a novella, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, which inspired the novels, so perhaps we should throw that in as well. The story is set in a UK after water levels have risen so the country now comprises many small islands. It is very British sf. The SF Gateway has published the four in an omnibus, but it belongs in the SF Masterwork series too.

SerpentsReachSFBCHCbyKenBarrSerpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980) I’m guessing rights issues have prevented Cherryh from appearing in the SF Masterwork series so far. Because given her stature in the genre during the 1980s, she certainly qualifies for inclusion. Of course, there is then the question of which book to include… My favourite is Angel with the Sword, but it’s not her best. Downbelow Station and Cyteen are worthy contenders, but I plumped for Serpent’s Reach because its plot is closer to heartland science fiction.

queenofstatesQueen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986) There are lots of books in the SF Masterwork series which never got within sniffing distance of an award, so why ignore one that appeared on two shortlists during its year of publication? Queen of the States was shortlisted for both the BSFA Award and the Clarke Award in 1987 – it lost out to The Ragged Astronauts, Bob Shaw, and The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, respectively. Queen of the States is also a great novel. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1986) I picked up this book and read it just so I could review it on SF Mistressworks – see here. I knew very little about it or the author, so I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a masterclass example of accessible science fiction. It is one of the best-constructed sf novels I have come across, and I’m surprised it’s long out of print. It needs to be introduced to a new audience. As soon as possible.

kairosKairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988) This is one of my favourite sf novels and appears pretty much on every “top” or “classic” science fiction list I put together. It’s set in a Thatcherite near-future of its time of writing which, of course, now makes it alternate history – but it captures the fears and anxieties of that period with clinical precision. And it’s beautifully-written. In many ways, Kairos prefigures Jones’s Bold As Love sequence in that it remakes the political landscape of the UK using people outside mainstream culture as catalysts. Sf authors don’t write enough of this sort of science fiction.

coelestisCoelestis, Paul Park (1993) Another favourite science fiction novel and mainstay of the various “best” sf lists I put together on this blog every so often. An intelligent commentary on postcolonialism – a subject not often explored in sf, which seems to prefer rehashing First World colonialist imperatives of earlier, and less enlightened, centuries – Coelestis then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. An important book that deserves to be back in print.

There were a further two books I would have liked to include in my list of ten, but since both authors already had entries in the SF Masterwork series I ruled them ineligible. And one was a bit of a cheat, anyway. They were Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), which I think is actually a better book than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (Compton’s only entry in the SF Masterwork series), though it reads a little more dated than that book; and The Collected Joanna Russ, because Russ is an author who deserves to have all her fiction collected together into big career-defining collection, and the SF Masterwork series is the perfect venue for that.

ETA: The other bloggers giving their own choices for inclusion in the SF Masterwork series are: the aforementioned Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, 2theD at Potpourri of Science Fiction, Admiral Ironbombs at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased, Jesse at Speculiction and From Couch to Moon at, er, From Couch to Moon.


10 books that stayed with me

Whenever a book-related meme pops up, I love to jump on board. And apparently there’s one currently doing the rounds: “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ works, just ones that have touched you”. I saw this on Liz Bourke’s blog here, and decided to have a go.

I’ve done something similar before, I think, but not for quite so many titles… Which made this one a bit harder than expected. But here they are, in the order in which the books occurred to me:

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007), a novel I hugely admire and which has inspired me in my own writing.
2 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957 – 1960), because on reading it I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and began collecting everything he had ever written.
3 The Undercover Aliens (AKA The House That Stood Still), AE van Vogt (1950), bonkers California noir meets pulp sf, and the only van Vogt novel I’d ever recommend to anyone.
4 Dune, Frank Herbert (1965), still the premier example of world-building in science fiction.
5 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1974), the sf novel I’ve probably reread more times than any other.
6 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), one of my top five favourite novels of all time.
7 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951 – 1952), the scene where Hank and Pierre first see through the clouds hiding the surface of the Red Moon haunted me for years as a kid.
8 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953), the first of hers I read, and her novels are still my chief comfort reading.
9 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980), I fell in love with Varley’s Eight Worlds, and the title novelette still remains a favourite.
10 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992), I’ve always preferred crime fiction written by women, and Paretsky is why – this was the first of hers I ever read.

Not such a great showing gender-wise – only two women out of ten. While there are certainly a great number of women writers I admire and whose novels and short stories I love, I spent my formative years reading mostly science fiction, and sadly it was chiefly science fiction by male writers. There were exceptions – in amongst all those books by Heinlein, van Vogt, Simak, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Harrison, Herbert, Tubb, Vance, etc, I read and became a fan of Cherryh, Le Guin, Van Scyoc, Julian May… Later, I discovered Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle, Joanna Russ, Leigh Brackett… and now, of course, I think most of the twentieth-century science fiction I read is by women writers.

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Weekend meme-y thing

… in lieu of intelligent content. This meme appeared earlier today on SF Signal, with instructions to leave answers to the questions in the comments. But I’m doing it here instead because.

The last sf/f book I finished reading:
… was The Maker’s Mask by Ankaret Wells. This was a self-published novel and I forget where I first came across Wells’ name. Anyway, the description made the book seem like it might be fun so I bought a copy. And it is fun. It’s also a bit rough, and the ending somewhat abrupt – it’s the first book of a duology. Looks like I’ll have to get the second one so I can find out what happens.

The last sf/f book I did NOT finish:
I tend to finish books that I start and rarely bale on them. I remember giving up on The Windup Girl about fifty pages in, after finding its racism and its use of the sex slave trope offensive. But that was a while ago. More recently, I gave up on Spitfire Girls by Carol Gould, which is not genre. It was so badly written, with arbitrary head-hopping, inconsistent internal chronology, and frequent references to things and events which were neither described nor foreshadowed.

The last sf/f book(s) I bought:
I bought a bunch of new books by favourite authors recently from a certain online retailer. These were: Marauder, Gary Gibson; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson; Proxima, Stephen Baxter; On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds; and Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley. On order but yet to arrive are Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie, and Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, which Martin Petto persuaded me is worth reading (even though I don’t like epic fantasy).

The last sf/f book I bought that I already owned:
That would be The The Book of Being by Ian Watson. It’s the third book of a trilogy, and I had all three in paperback. I replaced the first two with first edition hardbacks a while ago, but only recently found a copy of the third book. More recently, I purchased a signed first edition of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu even though I have it in paperback, but that has yet to arrive.

The last sf/f book I shared with someone:
I’m taking this to mean the last book I wrote about on my blog or something… which makes it A Spaceship Built of Stone, an excellent collection by Lisa Tuttle which I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here.

The last sf/f book I raved about:
I can’t remember the last time I was really evangelical about a genre book. Back in April, I remember being complimentary about Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman’s Road, as I’d just read the second part of it (it’s an omnibus), The Outskirter’s Secret, to review on SF Mistressworks – see here. And in January, I was very impressed by Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden – see here; so much so that I mentioned it in a Locus Roundtable – see here. But I’ve not really been blown away by a genre novel since Katie Ward’s Girl Reading last year, and that was published as literary fiction anyway…

The last sf/f book I did not enjoy at all:
Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear. Which, astoundingly, was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Was not impressed at all. Before that, The Silkie by AE van Vogt, for which I had low expectations but it failed to meet even those. See here for my comments on both.


Recentest readings

Time for another report from my ongoing mission to read every book I own. There is no five-year plan – actually, there is: A Five Year Plan, a thriller by Philip Kerr, which I read back in February 2005… What I mean is, there is no end in sight – in fact, it recedes further from me with each passing month. Must. Read. More. Books. (Yes, yes, I know: I could also try: Must. Buy. Fewer. Books. But don’t be silly, that’ll never happen.)

OHMSS18On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ian Fleming (1963). This is the one where Bond gets married, and then his wife is killed soon afterwards. The woman he marries is the daughter of a Sicilian mafia boss, but she’s been to finishing school and her previous husband was a wastrel Italian count so she’s now a contessa; and, of course, she’s beautiful. And suicidal. The book opens with Bond rescuing her from a suicide attempt when she throws herself into the sea. The actual plot concerns a fiendish plan by Blofeld to destabilise the UK by destroying its agriculture. There’s a mountain-top health centre in Switzerland run by a mysterious scientist – who may or may not be Blofeld – and Bond infiltrates it in the flimsiest of disguises. He finds it populated by a number of young English women, all there ostensibly to be cured of phobias and allergies. But they’re actually being brainwashed into performing a series of tasks to poison British agriculture. When Bond meets the centre’s owner, Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, he just knows he’s Blofeld, even though he doesn’t resemble Blofeld at all. Plastic surgery, you see. Anyway, Bond foils Blofeld’s fiendish plot – the English women are caught before they can cause any damage, and British forces launch a raid on Blofeld’s health-centre but Blofeld escapes. Afterwards, Bond gets married, Blofeld attempts to kill him, and his wife dies in the attack. There’s a good sequence when Bond escapes from Blofeld’s hideaway by skiing down the mountain – bizarrely, it reads more like the cinematic Bond than Fleming’s original. The science practiced by Blofeld is completely bogus, and the only connection between the villain of this book and the villain of Thunderball is Bond’s conviction that they are one and the same man. Fleming’s treatment of Bond’s father-in-law, the Sicilian capo, is deeply racist; and it goes without saying that the women throughout the book are little more than plot tokens or adjuncts to Bond’s masculinity. This is actually one of the better Bond novels I’ve read so far, though I still don’t think they deserve their immense popularity. I’d always assumed their success was due to the films, but apparently there was a James Bond strip in the Daily Express, which ran from 1958 to 1983. While the hardback of Casino Royale apparently sold out three print-runs within thirteen months in the UK – but flopped in the US: they retitled it You Asked For It, and even renamed 007 as “Jimmy Bond” in the paperback reprint – I do wonder if it’s the newspaper strip which, by bringing the character to a much larger audience (under Beaverbrook the Daily Express had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world), really made Bond a twentieth-century cultural icon.

AMWBreathA Man Without Breath, Philip Kerr (2013). That’s me completely up-to-date on the Bernie Gunther novels, at least until a new one appears. In A Man Without Breath, Gunther has moved to the War Crimes Bureau, and is sent out to Smolensk because several buried bodies have been found in a nearby wood by German troops. The Germans suspect the bodies belong to Polish officers, killed by the Russians, who had allegedly shipped the Poles they had captured off to POW camps. The wood is Katyn Wood. When a pair of soldiers from a nearby signals detachment are found murdered in Smolensk, Gunther is asked to assist by the local field police. The more he investigates the double murder, and the circumstances surrounding it, the more he’s convinced there is some sort of conspiracy in place among the senior German officers in Smolensk. Meanwhile, other War Crimes Bureau investigators have found yet more murdered Poles buried in Katyn Wood… If Prague Fatale was a piss-take of a country house murder – including a locked room mystery! – A Man Without Breath is pure World War II behind-the-lines thriller. The plot hangs from two very real atrocities committed during the war – the Katyn Massacre, and another performed by the Germans (revealing it would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t). Kerr places Gunther firmly in the middle as all these events come to a head, and while he’s not responsible for resolving them, he is certainly the one who makes sense of them and puts the pieces together for the reader. One of the difficulties with writing historical fiction involving well-documented people and events is that everything must end up as it does in the history books. This is not Inglourious Basterds, Hitler and the Nazi bigwigs do not get gunned down before 1945. The larger events depicted in A Man Without Breath are actual history, and you can read about them on Wikipedia. The same is true of the movements of the more important figures. So when Hitler makes a flying visit to Smolensk in the novel, that’s what he actually did in the real world. Kerr does this really well. And having read science fiction for so many years, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to fiction which includes elements I can go and look up afterwards. In fact, that’s something I try to write myself – even though what I write is science fiction…

threemarysThree Marys, Paul Park (2003). After writing four excellent science fiction novels, one of which remains my favourite sf novel of all time, Park decided to write a couple of books set in Biblical Palestine. The first was The Gospel of Corax, a sort of alternate life of Jesus, in which he wasn’t crucified but wanders eastward, dispensing magic and theosophist philosophy. Three Marys is a more historical novel and, as the title indicates, takes as its protagonists three women called Mary who each knew Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Jesus’ mother, Mary. I’m a big fan of Park’s writing, but first century Palestine is not a place and time that especially interests me. I’ve read one book set there this year, Philip Boast’s Sion (see here), but that was quite a strange book. Park’s is far better historically-grounded, and reads much more convincingly than Boast’s did. The three title characters are also beautifully drawn. But… I don’t find Jesus interesting as either a historical or a religious figure, and I struggled to gain purchase on Three Marys despite its lovely prose. I suspect I may have to reread it one day, but for now I’d say it was a book I admired far more than I enjoyed.

kingdomKingdom of Strangers, Zoë Ferraris (2012). The third book in Ferraris’ Jeddah-set murder-mysteries. A body is found in the desert after strong winds have blown sand from a dune by a road. The body is that of a young woman, has had its hands removed and appears to be several years old. The police investigate and eighteen more bodies are found in the area. It looks like Jeddah has a serial killer on its, er, hands, and no one knew about it. This is not unexpected: given the frequent abuse and mistreatment of female expatriate maids and nannies – many of them run away and the police rarely bother to look for them. Meanwhile, the Filipina mistress of Imbrahim Zahrani, the policeman in charge of the serial killer investigation, has gone missing, and he’s worried that knowledge of his affair will leak out and torpedo his marriage and career. Forensic pathologist Katya Hijazi is also keen to get involved on the serial killer case, but most of the police officers don’t want women working on it. She has also agreed to marry her fiancé, which creates a bit of a problem as the police think she is already married (and she wouldn’t be allowed to work there if she were unmarried). The setting of Ferraris’ novels makes for interesting reading, and while the crime aspects of the plot often seem incidental to documenting the lifestyle of the Saudis, it all hangs together entertainingly. I never actually lived in Saudi myself, only on the Gulf coast, but Ferraris’ portrayal does match what I know of the country and its inhabitants. She has a group of sympathetic and well-drawn protagonists, handles her supporting cast well, and I think I’m going to continue to read the books as they’re published.

slow apocalypse_frontSlow Apocalypse, John Varley (2012). I fell in love with Varley’s short fiction when I first read some of it back in the 1980s, and his The Ophiuchi Hotline remains a favourite sf novel. I even sort of like Millennium, the film adaptation of his short story ‘Air Raid’, which he then novelised as, er, Millennium. Since 1998’s The Golden Globe (which I really must reread one of these days), I’ve bought his books in hardback on publication – he’s no longer published in the UK, so I’ve had to order them from the US. Sadly, none of his recent novels have quite matched up to those earlier works. And, unfortunately, Slow Apocalypse is more of the same. A Hollywood-based television writer, Dave Marshall, learns from a secretive ex-military contact that the US experimented with a bacteria to render enemy oil fields unusable, but that the scientist responsible turned rogue and released the bug into the wild. Marshall thinks the story is excellent material for a movie, one that will reinvigorate his stalled career. Then oil wells around the world start to explode… Soon, there’s very little petrol available, and other resources – such as food – which rely on petrol for transportation also become scarce. A huge earthquake then strikes Los Angeles, near-destroying the city, and society collapses. Marshall and family join together with their neighbours in the canyon in which they live to safeguard their houses. Because he heard the story early, Marshall has managed to stockpile plenty of supplies, but he’s afraid his neighbours may soon want to him to “share”. Also, their current redoubt is unsustainable for much longer – especially after a huge brush fire sweeps out of the hills and renders most of the city uninhabitable. The government is proving no help, and aid is virtually non-existent. So Marshall agrees to travel south with a group of close friends and colleagues, in search of somewhere sustainable to settle. It’s plain that Slow Apocalypse was written as a commercial disaster novel, and if it gives Varley’s career a boost than that’s all to the good. But. I found it really dull. Much of the book consists of Marshall – with wife or daughter – driving about LA and witnessing the damage done to it by the quake and subsequent breakdown of law and order. The whole thing reads prescriptively. There are a number of quite good action set-pieces, but they’re not enough to enliven the narrative. There’s also a Heinlein-esque mouthpiece character, but Varley has always been able to make such characters more palatable than Heinlein ever did. The plot is as predictable as a Hollywood movie, and might well follow Hollywood’s over-used three-act arc. Disappointing.

silkieThe Silkie, AE van Vogt (1969). Sometimes I wonder if something in my brain doesn’t work quite the way it should. I have very little time for Golden Age authors, but for some reason I keep on fooling myself that I have a soft spot for the works of one of them: AE van Vogt. I think his The House That Stood Still is very nearly a bona fide sf pulp classic, and some of his other novels can be entertaining in a not-quite-coherent way. But. He made his career out of the advice given in a how-to-write book, which basically said to break any narrative down into 800-word sections which must always end on a cliff-hanger. And it’s pretty clear in most of van Vogt’s fiction that when he finishes a section, he’s no real idea of what’s going to happen next. It’s often plain he’s no idea what’s going on within sections. His prose is competent at best; he mangles science, philosophy and history at will; and he has fixed-up and expanded so many of his stories, it’s impossible to say where some begin and others end. The Silkie is a fix-up and it reads like one. The book opens with a prologue, and it’s actually not that bad. It’s set in the present day in the Caribbean. A scientist and his daughter have been invited to the island of a secretive scientist who claims to have discovered immortality. Instead, the daughter meets a Silkie… a human capable of metamorphing into a seal-like creature which is equally at home underwater. And then the story completely changes, and we’re in outer space and Silkies apparently have a third form, which allows them to live, and move about, in space. There are also Variants, who are the products of Silkies and human women – all Silkies are male – but are not full Silkies. But they get written out of the story once van Vogt has finished with them. Which is pretty quickly. There’s a Variant boy who has astonishing mental powers and may be a threat to the Silkies, so the hero defeats him. Then it turns out there’s an alien attacking the Silkies, so the hero defeats it. And then it turns out there are bad Silkies who live in an asteroid inside the orbit of Mercury. So they weren’t invented by the scientist in the prologue after all. But they’re not really bad because they’re actually unknowingly under the control of a giant alien blob that’s older than the universe. But the hero defeats it. And discovers everything is all part of a plot by yet another alien race. So he defeats them… And it’s one damn thing after another, and each threat is written out of the story as soon as it’s vanquished, and its presence and/or defeat has no repercussions or ramifications on later parts of the story. The Silkie reads like the science-fictional ramblings of a drunk who has no grasp of plot, story-arc, continuity or rigour.

hull03Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (2010). I stumbled across a copy of this in a local charity shop, and bought it because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist last year. So it must be good, right? I generally have a lot of time for the Clarke Award juries’ choices, although every now and again they pick books which to my mind don’t seem to be award-worthy. This was one of them. A man wakes on a giant spaceship, with no memory of who he is or what he is supposed to do. All he can remember is that he is a Teacher, and will be needed when the generation ship reaches its destination and begins the settlement of a new world – information he chiefly recalls from a dream fed to him while he was in cryogenic hibernation. He ends up running around the ship with a bunch of strange people – not your normal-type humans – encountering monsters and such, and eventually discovering why he was woken and what has happened to the ship. All the time I was reading this book, I was thinking: why is this spaceship so bloody huge? There’s one scene where the group enter a vast room with a catwalk across its middle and an enormous window in its floor. Why is it so big? If it’s an observation room, it doesn’t need to be so huge. It makes no sense – enormous chambers need more steel to build, more air to provide a breathable atmosphere of the required pressure, and more energy to heat. It’s stupid. The whole spaceship seemed to have been designed by a production designer for a B-movie. As, in fact, did the story. Systems aboard a generation starship come to blows over one of the mission’s objectives… monster movie in space results. I couldn’t see why Teacher specifically had been woken, why the generation ship had been designed in such a stupid manner, and by the end of the book I no longer cared. Bear has written much better than this, and this monster movie book didn’t deserve to be on the Clarke shortlist.


Sunday meme

Okay, so SF Signal posted this last Sunday, but I was in Berlin then, with no access to a computer. And yes, I had an excellent time, despite the weekend’s inauspicious start: getting up at 2:30 am, wandering down to the kitchen to make breakfast and stepping on a slug; and then getting to the airport and realising I’d left my credit and debit cards at home (fortunately, I had plenty of cash). Anyway, the meme…

alanya_coverMy favorite alien invasion book or series is…?
Probably the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, although Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy runs a close second. Duchamp’s five novels – Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto – document the arrival on a near-future Earth of an alien mission which will only talk to women. Supporting character turned chief villain Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s best creations. Jones’ White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café cover similar ground, but from a more global perspective. It also features, like Duchamp’s quintet, an extremely well-drawn antagonist in Braemar Wilson. Both series are intensely political and among the smartest books in science fiction.

ascentMy favorite alternate history book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: I’d say Ascent by Jed Mercurio, but naming it as alternate history might constitute a spoiler. It could also be argued that the superb Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is alternate history. I think I’ve read my fair share of Hitler-victorious alternate histories, and I suspect there are very few changes remaining to be rung on that particular trope. Not being American, I’ve little interest in their civil war and how it might have ended differently. Stephen Baxter’s alternate take on the US space programme, Voyage, appeals for obvious reasons. And many sf novels of the past written about exploring Mars and the Moon may not have been written as alternate history, but they pretty much qualify as it now. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century sf novels about twenty-first space travel, such as those by Steele or Bova, suffer from being, well, not very good. Sadly, early and alternate space travel doesn’t seem to be an area of the genre that has attracted writers with much in the way of writing chops. Which is a shame.

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey, the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. Everything that came after is just the twitchings of a dead subgenre.

redplentyMy favorite Dystopian book or series is…?
Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. If you read Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty, you’ll see that not everyone thought the USSR was a dystopia. And for all the UK’s fabled streets of gold, it’s starting to look more and more like a dystopia each day to those of us living here. As for reading about dystopias… I don’t think it’s been done especially well in science fiction – but then Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow. Some of DG Compton’s works from the 1970s might be considered dystopian, such as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and in Ascendancies, he manages to find a dystopian story in a near-utopian society. JG Ballard wrote plenty of novels and short stories which might qualify, but no specific title springs to mind – it’s probably best to consider his entire oeuvre as dystopian fiction. And you can’t really go wrong by reading them all.

equator3My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?
AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens), which mixes California noir and pulp sf and just about manages to get away with it, is one of my favourite sf novels. It’s completely bonkers, of course; but it’s one of van Vogt’s more coherent works. Which isn’t saying much. Recently, I’ve read some early sf by women writers and found it much better than the so-called classics I read as a kid – these days, I find EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov near-unreadable. There’s also an early Brian Aldiss novel, Equator, which I really like, though it’s more like spy fiction with added aliens than science fiction per se. Which may be one reason why I find it so appealing.

My favorite hard sf book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: it’s probably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I don’t read that much hard sf as such. When I need my real science kicks, I read books about space or deep sea exploration. There are very, very few hard sf novels which come even remotely close to emulating the authenticity those books possess.

nature-beast-richard-fawkesMy favorite military sf book or series is…?
I don’t have much time for military science fiction, though in the past I’ve read my fair share – including David Weber, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Jack Campbell, David Feintuch, John Steakley, and probably a few others. The only such books left on my book-shelves, and which may well get purged should I ever get around to rereading them, are Richard Fawkes’ Face of the Enemy and Nature of the Beast, which I remember as quite interesting. Also worth a go is Shariann Lewitt’s debut novel, Angel at Apogee, and her two Collegium novels, Cyberstealth and Dancing Vac. And if any of CJ Cherryh’s books qualify, then they’re certainly worth reading.

kairosMy favorite near-future book or series is…?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve always been a fan of John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels and short stories, but do they count as near-future? Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, a favourite novel, was near-future when it was published, but that was back in 1988 – and these days it reads more like alternate history. The same might well prove true of Ken MacLeod’s excellent Intrusion a decade from now. Another excellent near-future novel is Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, though despite being two decades old it has yet to become alternate history – perhaps because it doesn’t feel like it’s set in a near-future which might well happen.

The_Caryatids_Bruce_SterlingMy favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?
To be honest, I’m not interested in how Americans would react should their society collapse, nor do I believe that every single person on the planet would react in that way. Which pretty much discounts ninety-nine percent of post-apocalyptic novels. The only one that springs to mind as different is Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which shows the world – all of it – coping with the aftermath of climate crash and nation-state failures. Perhaps the best of the more traditional post-apocalyptic novels is Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, in which mysterious aliens save isolated pockets of humanity. It reads like a masterclass in sf and deserves to be back in print.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…?
Science fiction’s treatment of robots has always been silly. They’re either human in all but name and yet treated like slaves, or blatant signifiers for slaves. In remarkably few sf stories do they actually resemble real robots.

ceres-storm-david-herter-paperback-cover-artMy favorite space opera book or series is…?
I’ve always enjoyed Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though I think the individual parts are not as impressive as the sum of them. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty has always been a favourite space opera too, and I remember being impressed by Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire when I read it many years ago. Likewise David Herter’s Ceres Storm, which I read back when it was published in 2000. I really must reread it one of these days…

My favorite steampunk book or series is…?
I don’t read steampunk. There’s nothing in it that appeals to me. Airships? Pfft. Give me supersonic jets every time. Brass? Useless metal. And anyway, steel is more emblematic of the British Empire than brass. Difference engines? NASA didn’t put twelve men on the Moon using clockwork computers, did they?

My favorite superhero book or series is…?
I used to read superhero comics by the likes of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, but went off the whole genre several years ago. I can no longer think of anything nice to say about the genre.

Millennium(1stEd)My favorite time travel book or series is…?
I’m more likely to read and enjoy an historical novel than I am a time travel one. I can’t off the top of my head think of any time travel novels that I hold in especially high regard. I remember enjoying Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, which is set in 1940s Hollywood. And Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships takes Wells’ The Time Machine and runs with it… and runs… and runs… I’m a big fan of John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’, and I still have a soft spot for the film adaptation Millennium, despite its godawful production design… which does mean I really like the novel written by Varley of the film adapted by Varley of the short story written by Varley…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?
I don’t read YA books. I am no longer sixteen, and haven’t been for a few decades.

My favorite zombie book or series is…?
I don’t read zombie books. I don’t even like zombie films. Maybe one day somebody will do something interesting with the trope, but I’m not holding my breath.

foss_foundation-coversThe 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?
Last month, I foolishly agreed to read and blog about half a dozen classic sf novels, so I have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation to look forward to over the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I have some reading for SF Mistressworks, and I hope to sneak in a few more recent genre novels as well, but I’ve yet to decide which ones. In fact, when you have a TBR of around 700 books, it’s often difficult to pick what to read next and I can sometimes spend ten or twenty minutes feeling really indecisive as I wander from one bookcase to the next…

And now I’ve finished this I’ll no doubt think of books I should have mentioned. Oh well. The more observant among you might also have noticed that all the links on this post go to Foyles using their affiliate scheme (except for the one link to a DVD). I found it relatively easy to use – a little fiddlier than Amazon’s, but not unworkably so. We’ll see how it works out.


The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…


New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.


These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…


Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.


Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.


These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.


Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.