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Reading diary, #35

As a general rule, I try to spread my reading across genders and genres, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So far this year, around forty percent of my reading has been science fiction, I suppose chiefly because when I fancy an easy read it’s my go-to mode of fiction. Which might tell you something about recent sf, except that quite a bit of my sf reading has been twenty- or thirty-year-old sf novels by women writers for review on SF Mistressworks…

nodNod, Adrian Barnes (2012). We’ve just had a somewhat controversial Clarke Award – but then, when hasn’t the Clarke been somewhat controversial? It was back in 2013, when Nod was shortlisted. From what I remember, Nod was seen as a quite baffling choice; although the same could also be said for The Dog Stars, also shortlisted that year, and which I read a year or two ago and thought not very good at all. Whereas NodNod is one of those books written with a strong, idiosyncratic voice – not idiosyncratic like Riddley Walker or Engine Summer – but the first person narrator is chatty and irreverent and likes to pepper his story with witticisms and snide remarks and it’s really fucking annoying. The central premise is nicely done – suddenly no one can sleep, except for a handful – and the breakdown of civilisation as sleep deprivation psychosis kicks in, as seen in the narrator’s home town of Vancouver, is well-handled… But the way the book is written, the prose style, is like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I hated it. It was a test of endurance to read it. This is one of those books which illustrates the difference between “this book is good” and “I enjoyed this book”. I hated it, didn’t enjoy it at all, but could see it was put together with skill. My response to it is entirely personal; the book’s quality is intrinsic to it. The two should not be confused.

exploration_space_smallThe Exploration of Space, Arthur C Clarke (1951). Why did I read a book about space exploration written more than half a century ago, when the appropriate science and engineering was in its infancy, I hear you ask? Er, I don’t know. But I thought it might be interesting to see what Sir Arthur had got right – the edition I read was an updated one published in 1960, so pre-Gagarin and -Apollo – and the answer is… not all that much, actually. His explanation of freefall, for example, is sort of right but doesn’t explain it very well. Astronauts at the ISS (which, of course, didn’t exist when the book was written, so Clarke’s example is hypothetical) are not experiencing zero gravity because the gravity in Low Earth Orbit is exactly the same as it is on the ground. The astronauts are falling toward the ground, and so is the ISS, at exactly the same speed; but the ground is rotating away from them, also at the same speed. So, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s description on how to fly, they’re throwing themselves at the ground… and missing. True, science and engineering didn’t know then what we now know, and the stuff Clarke gets right is the stuff that had been known for decades, if not centuries. The chapter on ‘The Lunar Base’ speculates the Moon would be exploited solely for minerals – thus ignoring the US Army’s Horizon lunar base study from 1959 – and that spacesuits would have to be hard-shelled. A later chapter on space stations claims their chief role would be in communications – and this from the man who “invented” the communications satellite… although first active repeater communications satellite wasn’t launched until 1960. The Exploration of Space is mostly good on the basics, and it has that weirdly unrealistic optimic take on its subject, much like those famous Colliers Magazine articles. But it’s very much an historical document, and no different in that respect to a science fiction novel published during the same year.

elysiumElysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014). I must be getting jaded. I mean, I know I apparently don’t see science fiction in the same way as many others do – for instance, I thought The Book of Phoenix a terrible book, and yet it received a huge amount of praise (and was even tipped by many to take the Clarke). Elysium is another sf novel which has received lots of praise, but has a much lower profile than the Okorafor. It is also a better novel than The Book of Phoenix, but… The book opens with a series of vignettes depicting Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette, in each of which the two are of different genders – male/female, male/male, female/female; as are also some of the supporting characters. This section (sections) reads like mimetic fiction, but breaking them up is what appears to be output from a computer program (in the form of error messages). The novel then takes an abrupt swerve into alternate history, in which Adrianne is a Vestal Virgin in a modern-day Western city, before then heading into post-apocalypse territory as off-stage alien invaders release some form of dust which mutates human beings and brings about the collapse of civilisation. One of the two main characters becomes one such mutant herself and develops wings. Another shift, and now Adrian is the chief designer of an underground city – a geofront, from the description – in which some of humanity plan to survive, safe from the mutagenic dust and the alien invaders. They’re also building starships to take them to another world. It is at this point in the story that the novel reveals a plan to use the atmosphere to store an archive of human civilisation, and it is the operating system of this which is genersating the computer messages and actually “telling” the story of Elysium. In the final section, Adrianne is a prisoner in a concentration camp run by the alien invaders, and when one of the aliens is imprisoned with them, she learns from it that the aliens had killed all the humans who had not escaped Earth, and that she is no more than a simulation run by the archive in the atmosphere (as, indeed, were all the other narratives in the novel). While Elysium certainly has its moments, the writing is rough to begin with – “The water of sorrow ran like a river down the curve of Adrianne’s cheek”? – but soon improves, or at least becomes less of a barrier. The gender- and sexuality-switching in the opening sections is also neat and cleverly-done, and I thought the Vestal Virgin part especially good… but the post-apocalypse section, and the geo-front section, were a bit dull, and the novel only picked up again with Adrianne in the prison camp, a section which pretty much seems to serve no purpose other than to explain the entire book. In many respects, Elysium reminded me a lot of Sue Thomas’s Correspondence, although I thought Correspondence a much more difficult, but more rewarding, read (see here). I bought Elysium at the end of last year, along with Jackie Hatton’s Flesh & Wires, Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and a pair of novellas, Lisa Shapter’s A Day in Deep Freeze and Lori Selke’s The XY Conspiracy, from Aqueduct Press (and I cannot recommend Aqueduct Press enough). The Shapter I thought good enough to nominate for the BSFA Award. I’ve yet to read the Taber; but of the other two novels, I think Hatton’s may just be the better one.

3bodyThe Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008). So the puppies managed to fuck up the Hugos in 2015, but one of the novels on their slate was pulled by its author, and The Three-Body Problem was promoted onto the shortlist… and went on to win the award. I don’t normally read books because they’ve won a Hugo – if anything, that’s a good indication I won’t like it – but the premise of The Three-Body Problem sounded interesting, and Liu is a big name in Chinese sf. (I have a collection of his three novellas, The Wandering Earth, knocking around somewhere, but have yet to get around to reading it.) So, anyway, The Three-Body Problem… I wasn’t expecting much: old school sf, but set in China, and with a clever premise. And so it initially seemed. The writing was serviceable at best, although the info-dumps were often intrusive and clumsy… but this is sf, this is what it looks like a lot of the time. However, when protagonist Wang Miao stumbles into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel, and the “end of science” is demonstrated to him through, first, a countdown mysteriously appearing on photographs he has taken, then in his actual vision, and then he witnesses the cosmic background radiation of the universe flicker… Well, this was a fascinating puzzle. Throw in a MMORPG set on a world orbiting three suns and in which players have to figure out a solution to the three-body problem – not that there is one, but the game proved an interesting illustration and history of the issue. It was all going so well: mysterious secret project, the end of science, clever VR game… And then Liu whips away the curtain to reveal what’s really going on and… big disappointment. It’s like a sf novel from the 2010s and a sf novel from the 1950s were welded together. Even that thing with the countdown proved to be a massive letdown. The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I won’t be bothering with them. But I will dig out that collection of novellas and read that, I think.

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992). This is the first book of the Mageworld series, as the cover helpfully explains. There are seven books in the series, the last in 2002 (the blurb for which does not read like it’s the final book of a series). Initially, I wasn’t all that impressed – The Price of the Stars wears its inspirations – kof kof St*r W*rs kof kof – far too openly, and even the changes it rings are overshadowed by that media behemoth. But I sort of got into it, and began enjoying the read… so I’ll probably end up tracking down the rest of the series and giving them a go, despite their faults.  I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

demonsDemons, John Shirley (2000). For some reason I have yet to figure out, I cottoned onto John Shirley as an author worth collecting… despite not being a fan of horror. I think it was partly because in the early 1990s, he was producing some exciting stuff – Wetbones, Heatseekers, Eclipse, A Splendid Chaos – and, like Lucius Shepard and Lewis Shiner, two genre writers I admire, he began publishing limited edition novellas through small presses. Anyway, I have a number of his books in those signed limited editions, and yet most of them are, well, pretty forgettable. Demons – not to be confused with the Ballantine collection of the same title which includes this novella/short novel (and which I’ve had to link to on Am*z*n because the Cemetery Dance limited edition is apparently very rare) – is fairly typical of Shirley’s output. The gonzo horror inventiveness, the slightly off-kilter approach to the world, nailed into place with the careful use of details, the often slapdash prose, and a story that’s usually more than it appears. In Demons, er, demons start to appear, all over the world. And they kill people, without rhyme or reason. There are seven specific types of demons, which a glossary before the story helpfully describes, and which artwork in the book depicts. Ira is an illustrator for an occult magazine and a bit of a slacker. He’s love with Melissa, the daughter of Dr Paymenz, an occultist professor at a California university. And he’s with them when the demons appear. The three manage to hook up with a symposium of like-minded academics, where Ira learns of the Conscious Circle of Humanity, a group of 23 psychically-gifted people who keep humanity safe, and about a conspiracy which prepared the world for the demons’ arrival. Eventually, they figure out that various large-scale industrial accidents were triggered to usher in the demons, so that a small group of men can use the ensuing slaughter as “sacrifices” to gain immortality. Cliver Barker would probably have made a 900-page epic out of this plot, but in Shirley’s hands it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Better than I had initially thought. But I’m still not sure why I collect Shirley’s books.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


The voters have spoken

Back on 22 June, I posted a poll to see which six allegedly classic science fiction novels you would like me to read as my summer reading project. I promised to read the books and then write a blog post on each one. In hindsight, it was clearly a foolish thing to promise, although perhaps there were one or two books in the seventeen I chose for the poll that I sort of wanted to read/reread. Sadly, only one of those made it to the final six. Which are, for the record:

rah_themooni The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A Heinlein 35 votes
childhoodsend Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke 32 votes
city City, Clifford D Simak 23 votes
TauZero Tau Zero, Poul Anderson 22 votes
Panther-1080-n Asimov Foundation Foundation, Isaac Asimov 22 votes
timeofchanges A Time of Changes, Robert Silverberg 20 votes

You lot must really hate me – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation. Still, a promise is a promise. Foundation is one of three rereads of the six books. I last reread it in 2006, thugh for some reason I don’t appear to have written about it then. Childhood’s End I read some time back in the early to mid-1980s, I think. I’ve not reread it since. A Time of Changes I’ll have read around the time my Gollancz Classic SF edition was published, which was 1986. The remaining three books I’ve never read before. They’re also in the SF Masterworks series, and those are the editions I own – in fact, Foundation and A Time of Changes are the only books in the six that aren’t SF Masterworks.

Anyway, some time in July I will start my summer project, and after I have finished each book I will write a review here on the blog. I am not expecting my reviews to be positive, but you never know, I might be pleasantly surprised…


Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.