It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


100 books, part 2

This the second in a short series of posts about “100 Books that Shaped My World”, as inspired by a list of 100 books published by the BBC. The first post in the series is here.

The 1980s

During the 1980s, I further explored science fiction and fantasy. This was chiefly a result of three events. First, I started college (for non-UK readers, that’s not a university, but a secondary school or gymnasium, typically private), and the college had a bookshop. Second, I discovered Andromeda Bookshop, the biggest importer of US paperbacks – almost entirely science fiction and fantasy – at the time. Finally, in the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association.

A word about that school bookshop: at the school, one afternoon a week was devoted to “activities, societies and hobbies”, and one of these activities was a bookshop, run by pupils, and at which other pupils could buy from a reasonable selection of titles. (I say “buy” but of course it was the parents who paid – any such “purchases” were added to the bill for the term.) The bookshop had a good sf section, although it was fairly typical for the time, not all that different to what you might find in a large WH Smith. All the usual names, in other words: Clarke, Smith, Asimov, van Vogt, Heinlein, Herbert, Le Guin, Cherryh…

The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950)
The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967). I’ve a feeling I may have read both of these books in the late 1970s… but it might also have been the early 1980s. Having looked up both titles while writing this post, I discovered the edition of The Undercover Aliens I own was originally published in 1976 (the Panther paperback to the left), but the Arrow reprint edition of The Winds of Gath, which is the one I have, only saw print in the UK in 1980. No matter. The Undercover Aliens remains a favourite sf novel, and the only van Vogt I hold in any regard. The Winds of Gath introduced me to Earl Dumarest – and the thirty-one novels Ted Tubb churned out for Donald Wolheim for as long as DAW was happy to publish them. Neither book is, to be honest, great literature, but while the van Vogt is likely forgotten by all but fans – its original title was The House That Stood Still – Tubb’s Dumarest series went on to influence a huge number of things, including GDW’s Traveller RPG…

The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979). Alien is one of my favourite films, but at the time it was originally released I wasn’t old enough to see it in the cinema. But I learnt all I could of it through the available books. I suspect it was this particular one which kickstarted my love of the film because of the worldbuilding it documented. From the age of about twelve to fourteen I was really into designing spaceships, spending hours drawing up deckplans on graph paper. This is pretty normal behaviour. It also proved useful experience when I started playing Traveller. But I was deeply envious of professional illustrators, such as Ron Cobb, who could actually draw the interiors of the spaceships they designed; and there were a number of illustrations in The Book of Alien that generated both admiration and envy. I still have my copy of this book.

The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984). Speaking of worldbuilding, one of the premier examples in science fiction is Dune. While Frank Herbert did an excellent job, The Dune Encyclopedia – written by a variety of hands – expanded Herbert’s universe with an impressive degree of originality. Some of the entries show more invention than your average science fiction novel. The Dune Encyclopedia remains, in my opinion, one of the best books of the series, even if it has been labelled non-canon (no brains in jars, you see). I eventually tracked down a hardback edition of The Dune Encyclopedia. It is one of my most treasured books.

The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968). From what I remember, by the mid-1980s bookshops in the UK, especially WH Smith, had extensive science fiction and fantasy sections, most of which seemed to comprise books featuring Chris Foss cover art, by authors such as Frank Herbert, CJ Cherryh, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. But, for some reason, relatives often gifted me minor anthologies. Including this one. Whose contents are pretty unexceptional, both for 1968 and for the year of publication of the edition I (still) have, the 1979 Magnum paperback: Sheckley, Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke. Lots of old white men. But it also includes ‘Equator’ by Brian W Aldiss, which has remained a favourite novella to this day. It makes this list because it’s a memorable re-packaging of mostly unmemorable material.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975). I’m fairly sure the first copy of this book I bought – I own three or four copies, for various reasons – was at the aforementioned school bookshop. It’s a difficult book, but I’ve loved it since my first read. It probably remains the genre novel I’ve reread the most times. Yes, even more times than Dune. I’ve always appreciated Delany’s prose, and I recognise him as one of the most important figures science fiction has produced, but I’ve no real idea why I love this book so much.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1979). I’m fairly sure I first read this during the 1980s, but I don’t remember when or where. I’d been interested in spaceflight and astronauts as a kid – I had posters of them on my bedroom walls – but it wasn’t until the 2010s I began to seriously research the topic. The Right Stuff was an early foray into the subject, and impressed because of its topic, not because of its prose or its author – although the prose was good. I have never read anything else by Wolfe, and have no real desire to do so.

The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978). I didn’t always have access to my preferred choice of reading during the 1980s. While visiting my parents in the Middle East for Christmas and Easter, the only reading material was what they had on hand. Books like Lace and I’ll Take Manhattan. Which I did actually read. But also The Far Pavilions. Which I enjoyed so much, I tracked down everything else Kaye had written and read it. The TV adaptation of The Far Pavilions is… okay. True, The Far Pavilions is, like Dune, a white saviour narrative, but it’s also respectful of the cultures of the country in which it is set, which is more than can be said of Frank Herbert, who plundered a variety of cultures for his novel.

Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975). I’ve a feeling the first Clive Cussler novel I read was Mayday, but the story of Iceberg has remained with me while that one’s story has not. I include a Cussler novel in this list for cautionary reasons. I was a big fan of his formula of readable techno-thrillers for many years. True, Dirk Pitt became increasingly implausible as a protagonist, turning almost superhuman sometime in the mid-1990s. That was sort of forgivable. But Cussler became so powerful a writer, he a) formed an atelier, in which others wrote novels to his instruction, and b) editors refused to touch his prose, which, unedited, was really very bad. Cussler has had an interesting career, but any book with his name on the cover published after 2000 is basically unreadable.

The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983). I am an inveterate list-maker – like, er, this one – and an avid consumer of lists created by other people. The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists is exactly what its title says, and it provided me with the titles of many books I could hunt for that I’d otherwise not known about. And then tick them off once I’d either bought a copy or read a copy. This is the stuff of life.

Radix, AA Attanasio (1981). The copy of this I own is the 1982 Corgi trade paperback, which I likely bought within a year or two of its release. The book made me a fan of Attanasio’s work, but he has had a varied career and I later stopped reading him so assiduously. A fairly recent reread of Radix proved… interesting. While the novel wasn’t as good as I remembered it, I found its ideas much more interesting. These days, I’d probably classify it as an undiscovered classic.

The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980). This may well have been a purchase from the school bookshop. Or I may have bought it in a Nottingham bookshop. Ether way, I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading it, and the title story remains a favourite sf short story. I have read pretty much everything Varley has written, but I think his best years are behind him. A recent novel was definitely as good as anything he wrote back in the 1970s and 1980s, if not better, but it wasn’t set in the Eight Worlds, and that’s a universe I really love.

Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980). My memory says the first Cherryh novel I read was The Faded Sun omnibus but that wasn’t published until 1987 and I’m pretty certain I’d read her before then. I know Serpent’s Reach was an early read, and one that especially appealed to me. It’s a fairly common narrative for science fiction, and one that no doubt explains the genre’s appeal for many. An outsider proves to have a special talent – it’s always in-built, of course, never learned – that helps her save her world. I’ve been a fan of Cherryh’s books ever since.

The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984). The only thing better than a list is, of course, an annotated list. The Science Fiction Sourcebook is a run – well, more of a gallop – through the old and new classics of the genre, with commentary and even a scoring of stars against several criteria (my copy is in storage, so I can’t check what those criteria were, although I remember “literary merit” was one). The Science Fiction Sourcebook introduced me to a lot of sf I had not heard of previously. I’ve not looked at it recently, I admit, and I suspect I would disagree with many of its recommendation. But not all of  them.

The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983)
Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975)
Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981). A mixed bunch, but I became a fan, to varying degrees of all three writers. Where Time Winds Blow remains a favourite sf novel, and I had the opportunity to tell Holdstock as much and get him to sign a copy. Rowley was never perhaps a favourite writer but one whose oeuvre I was keen to explore, but unfortunately the bulk of his work was published only in the US, not in the UK. So he was one of the first writers whose books I had to hunt for. Morressy, on the other hand, was published in the UK – at least his Sternverein novels were, and they’re the good ones. Under a Calculating Star is set in a universe Morressy used in several other novels, something which very much plugged into my love of Traveller and science fiction RPGs. (For the record, Morressy’s Frostworld and Dreamfire is a much better novel, and well worth reading.)

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985). In the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association, after learning of the organisation from an advert in the back of a CJ Cherryh paperback. One of the first things I did after joining was volunteer my services as a reviewer for the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno. The editor asked me for a sample review. I’d just read Knight Moves and thought it was terrible, so I wrote a negative review of it. The review was good enough to get me the gig. Through the BSFA, I learnt about fandom and conventions. And also about a great many sf authors, mostly British and recently-published, I had not come across before. (For the record, I later read several other books by Williams, and they were much better. But I never became a fan of his writing.)

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988). I don’t think this was the first Jones novel I read but it was certainly the first that made me sit up and take notice of her – to such an extent, in fact, she has been my favourite sf writer for a couple of decades now. And, in my opinion, she is probably one of the best sf writers the country has produced.

The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980). Back in the day, Woolworths used to have bins of remaindered sf paperbacks for 99p each, or perhaps even less. They were usually by authors you had never heard of. One such book I picked up was Children of the Night by Michael Kring, which proved to be a sequel. I eventually tracked down a copy of the first book of the series, The Space Mavericks. There were no more. Possibly for good reason. The Space Mavericks is notable because on my entry to fandom at Mexicon 3 in 1989 I ended up hanging out with a group of Glaswegian writers (you know who you are) and someone had a copy of The Space Mavericks and several of them tried to act out the fight scenes as described in the book. To much hilarity. The Space Mavericks was also a major inspiration in the creation of the fanzine Turkey Shoot, which was briefly infamous in the early 1990s.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972)
The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950)
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969). I’m pretty sure I read these books in the 1980s and, for many years, I was a fan of their authors. Some, I still am. But it’s hard to be sure when I read them exactly – although I’m fairly certain they were the first works by those authors I read (at novel-length certainly; I’d read some of Russ’s short stories much earlier). Russ I didn’t rediscover until the 2010s. Wolfe I rated highly throughout the 1990s, but went off him several years ago when ti felt like he was more interested in writing tricks and not narratives. Vance’s oeuvre I explored thoroughly during the 1980s and 1990s, and found much to like; but his last few works were poor and I went off him – only to thoroughly enjoy my first read of his Cadwal Chronicles this year. Le Guin is, well, Le Guin. I have read a lot of her fiction; I should probably read some of her non-fiction. She is definitely in the top five of greatest writers the genre has produced, certainly more so than the likes of Asimov.

The 1980s saw my science fiction reading expand greatly, chiefly through the three reasons given above. I remember reading Neuromancer, and then wondering what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Robert A Heinlein’s late novels and enjoying them, while still recognising their faults. By 1990, I’d started at university, attended two conventions, been a member of the BSFA for a couple of years (and reviewed books for them during that period), and had even tried my hand at writing short stories (with no success). I identified as a science fiction fan and was a member of science fiction fandom.


Alien zero

Prometheus – for a film which is not a prequel to the Alien franchise no honest well okay maybe it is – appropriately asks a ton of questions. Sadly, it either ignores them or gives dumb answers that don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Having said that, as a film, it looks great. Pretty pictures, after all, trump everything.

The movie opens on a verdant planet beside a waterfall. There is a giant hairless humanoid standing on the shore, and a giant flying saucer hovering in the sky nearby. The giant opens a small container and eats its contents. It kills him. He falls into the water and his body dissolves down to its constituent DNA. This, we are supposed to believe, is an alien seeding human life on Earth.

But wait.

Did the giant humanoid mean to dissolve into primordial goop? Was it suicide? Or a really badly planned delivery method for planetary seeding, in which someone has to commit suicide? Maybe it was murder, maybe that was humankind’s original sin. But if we’re descended from them, why did we evolve to be so short and so hairy?

Cut to the Isle of Skye, later this century. Two palaeontologists have discovered 35,000-year-old cave paintings in a, er, cave. These paintings depict a giant pointing to a pattern of five circles. If it’s the same giants from the flying saucer, then they must have returned to Earth. Why? So they could prompt Upper Paleolithic humans to paint their picture? (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the oldest settlement so far discovered on Skye is younger than these cave paintings by about 30,000 years.)

This painting of a giant pointing the way to a pattern of five circles is apparently not unique to Skye. In fact, variations on it appear on artefacts from a wide variety of ancient civilisations, not all from the same time period – suggesting a number of visits, or a stay of a couple of millennia. This, apparently, is sufficient evidence for the two palaeontologists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), to persuade zillionaire Weyland to fund a mission to the “galactic configuration” represented by the five circles. “Galactic configuration”? What’s that then? A planetary system? Or a constellation of five stars? As seen from Earth? Thirty-five thousand years ago? Stars move, you know. Planets move too. Over time, their positions change – and so too does our viewpoint, as the Earth itself moves.

No matter. Movie logic says there’s something in the heavens which can lead our intrepid palaeontologists to a specific planet. Well, actually a moon of a gas giant. We’ll ignore the vast amounts of radiation the gas giant is likely producing, or its magnetosphere has trapped – this is a movie, after all. Weyland’s spaceship – called the Prometheus – lands on the moon, LV-223 (the first two Alien films took place on LV-426).

All this is handily explained in a briefing given by Shaw and Holloway to the members of the mission aboard Prometheus. However, rather than hire competent scientists for this trip, Weyland appears to have chosen to use rejects from Central Casting. It’s bad enough that the two leaders, Shaw and Holloway, believe in some von Däniken-type rubbish about gods from outer space creating humanity, but the rest of the team are no better. One tells another to fuck off when he introduces himself. Right. You’re zillions of kilometres from Earth – not “half a billion miles,” as one character later says; that would put you about twice as far from Earth as the Moon. Anyway, you’re light-years from Earth, in a spaceship with a small group of people, en route to an alien world. It is not a good time or place to act like an arsehole.

So there’s the scientific mission, the crew of Prometheus, the representative from Weyland, named Vickers, and an android, David. Vickers lives in a “lifeboat”, which is like a luxury flat stuck on the back of the spaceship. This lifeboat also contains a “medpod” – like the original Alien‘s “autodoc”, I imagine – but this one only works on human males. Er, right…

Prometheus lands on LV-223, and discovers a row of strange giant buildings. They’re like giant weathered pyramid-things, inside circular walls. Shaw and the others explore the nearest one. It contains lots of tunnels… and a room with a giant humanoid head. Also jars, lots of jars. Which start to ooze black gunk once the room is breached. Later, they determine the pyramid is a tomb.

Except most tombs don’t have spaceships buried under them. And these are the Giger boney boomerang spaceship from Alien… and the space jockey proves to be one of the giant hairless humanoids wearing a spacesuit. Which does make you wonder why they turned up to Earth in a giant flying saucer.

The boomerang spaceship also contains lots of jars, which the scientific team realise are a weapon. But a very strange weapon. It has different effects on different people. It made the giant at the beginning of the film turn into gunk, and so seeded the Earth. It makes the preserved head of a giant they find in the tomb explode. It turns one of scientific team into a super-strong diseased madman. It allows Holloway to impregnate Shaw with a tentacled monster. (She later uses the medpod to extract it – clearly it has been programmed to deal with pregnant males.)

When they find a surviving giant humanoid, and David manages to speak to him because he’s studied comparative linguistics and can somehow cobble together a working patois of the alien language from that… well, you don’t need that alien gunk to make your head explode. (Oh wait, maybe human languages are genetic too… Not.) But by this point in the film, the plot has already imploded into a black hole of illogic and nonsense and implausibility, so you only have yourself to blame. Prometheus is not a film to watch with your brain engaged. Just admire the pretty visuals. It makes for a much more entertaining 124 minutes.

Yes, Michael Fassbender pwns the film as the android David. Noomi Rapace’s character makes little sense, not least because religion has been fisted into a story it doesn’t fit. The rest of the cast might as well have worn red shirts. Vickers (Charlize Theron) tries to do a robot-or-not thing, but in the end proves she’s human the only way a woman in a movie possibly could: she fucks the captain (Idris Elba). At one point, Shaw is referred to as Holloway’s “zealot girlfriend”. Shaw and Vickers, incidentally, are the only two women in the film. So by 2093, we’ll have cool interstellar spaceships, but no gender equality. Plus ça change…

I saw Prometheus on IMAX 3D. It cost me £13. It was not worth it. I should have waited for the DVD and rented it. I also saw John Carter on IMAX 3D. That film was worth it. John Carter was a much better film. It also flopped. It’s unlikely Prometheus will flop – in fact, it’s probable the sequel implied by the ending will be made.

If you want to see a good sf film with giant spaceships and scary thrills, watch Cargo.