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100 books, part 1

About three weeks ago, the BBC published a list of “100 Books That Shaped Our World”, comprising titles chosen by a panel “of leading writers, curators and critics”, otherwise known as a radio presenter and literary supplement editor, a broadcaster, three authors and the director of a literary festival. As lists go, it’s a bit, well, establishment, choosing minor titles from contemporary fiction and clonking great bestsellers from genre fiction. A few days later, Nina Allan published a rival list on her blog, and called for others to do the same. Some of my friends have followed her lead.

I like lists. I’ve made no secret of the fact. I’m even responsible for creating one or two that have gone viral, such as the SF Mistressworks list, or the 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women list. So, of course, I decided to have a go myself. But putting together a list of 100 novels which have shaped a person’s reading is hard. Even if you have recorded pretty much everything you’ve read (or, for me, back to the start of the 1990s).

I decided instead to produce an annotated list. And I would organise the list by the decade – one decade per post – during which I encountered the books, giving a sort of history of my reading. While I’d stick to the one book per author “rule”, I wouldn’t limit myself to novels.

It still wasn’t easy. But I managed to put something together. It’s sort of in the order I encountered each book. For the 1970s and 1980s (see next post), it can’t be exact as I didn’t record my reading then. And my recall is good but not that good.

So here is the first installment:

The 1970s

The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970). I don’t actually recall the books I read before the age of eight or nine, but I do have a vivid memory of this one, particularly its illustrations. Until looking up titles for this post I had, however, thought it was by Joan Aiken, who I do recall reading back then – but not which of her titles.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960). This was a British children’s classic for many years and, like many of the books I encountered prior to my eleventh birthday, I read and loved it before understanding what science fiction or fantasy actually were.

Destination Moon, Hergé (1950). I can’t be the only sf fan who was influenced by this when they first read it? Hergé’s star has grown somewhat tarnished in the decades since he died – for the early racist stories, deservedly so – but Destination Moon introduced the iconic rocket that is still recognised the world over today.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972). I’ve no idea why I have such a strong memory of this book – it was the 1974 Pan paperback edition – but I was big on Tarzan around the age of eight or nine or ten. Perhaps because the Tarzan television series starring Ron Ely was a fixture on Dubai’s Channel 33 at the time. I also have a very strong memory of reading a Tarzan annual – I later tracked it down as the 1973 annual – in a hotel in London, probably because it was the day before I had an orthodontic brace fitted and that kind of gets seared into your memory.

The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951). One Christmas in the early 1970s, my parents bought me the Hamlyn Dan Dare 1974 annual, which contained ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’. I loved it. And it made me a lifelong fan of the adventures of Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare. The book was badly damaged by mice or rats while in storage in the 1980s, but I still hung onto it for a couple of decades afterwards.

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965). This is the first of the two novels which, I think, led to me identifying as a science fiction fan. My parents bought it me for Christmas in, I think, 1975. I had seen very few episodes of Doctor Who because I only spent the summers in the UK. For several years after being given this book, my relatives would buy Doctor Who novelisations published by Target as birthday and Christmas presents.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953). In my first year at boarding-school – I was eleven – a boy in the same class lent me Starman Jones following a conversation. I had never read category sf before. As soon as I finished it, I wanted more…

Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951) … and, fortunately, there was another boy at the school – in the year below me – who was an actual sf fan, and lent me some of his books, which he kept in his locker. True, it was EE ‘Doc’ Smith and Asimov… I don’t remember if I read the Lensman books in the correct order… but Gray Lensman I recall being the most exciting of the novels. I also loved the Chris Foss cover art on the books.

The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965). The same school had a subscription to Look & Learn, a “weekly educational magazine for children”, which included in each issue some pages from the The Trigan Empire sf comic strip. I also had a copy of the Hamlyn The Trigan Empire omnibus published in 1978, but that must have come a year or two later.

Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952)
Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951)
Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971). These three novels are ones I remember loving during the 1970s. Blish and Simak were also authors I collected then. I no longer read them, although the novels here by them I did reread this century. I’m not entirely sure what I originally saw in them. The Dickson survived an adult reread much better, perhaps because I was more forgiving of its flaws. I still sort of like the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t hold them up as especially good novels. Fortunately, that’s not what this list is about.

Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg (1974). I think I received this as a present. I don’t think the person who bought it knew what it contained, because some of the contents were a bit adult for a twelve year old. The anthology contains one of my favourite sf stories, Philip K Dick’s ‘A Little Something for Us Tempunauts’, and probably the only Harlan Ellison story I’ve ever really liked, ‘Catman’.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1966). I remember at boarding-school seeing another boy reading this and asking him about it. He told me it was good, I eventually got hold of a copy of my own and… well, every thirteen year old boy wants to be Paul Atreides. My opinion of the book has dimmed considerably in the decades since, but I still maintain it is one of the genre’s premier exercises in worldbuilding.

Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977). I should really include all three books of the original Traveller RPG box set, especially since I count a few quartets as a single “book” later in this list. A friend at school had bought Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition (the one in the blue box) and we planned to start up a school RPG society. So I asked for the Traveller basic set – the three Little Black Books in a box – for Christmas… and I’ve been a fan of the game ever since. Its world-building is a bit of a grab-bag, but as a collaborative project that’s been added to for over forty years, it has a depth few other science fiction universes can match.

Next up, the 1980s…


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readings & watchings 2011 #1

A month into the year, more or less, and so time for some more filler in lieu of proper content. Here are the books I’ve read and the films I’ve seen…

Books
The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010). Dear me, how much did they spend on this? Nearly $4 million for the trilogy? No wonder it’s been hyped to buggery. Was it worth the money? Sadly, no. The first third is very good indeed, but then the book bogs down badly, and never quite recovers. Further, everything in it is just far too familiar, there’s almost nothing that’s new. And those borrowings are entirely from films – in no way does The Passage build on earlier vampire or post-apocalyptic written works. It’s like watching a “That’s Showbusiness” compilation, one that’s been extended to last most of the day. I can understand the book selling well – it would be strange if it hadn’t, given all the money spent on marketing it – but I’m puzzled by its inclusion on so many best of the year lists. Did I miss the memo? Was I not concentrating when we all decided as a genre that recycling tired old clichés from movies was preferable to new, innovative ideas? I wrote a bit about The Passage here.

Genesis, Bernard Beckett (2006), I recall hearing good things about a couple of years ago. But at the time the book proved somewhat elusive. Recently, it re-appeared in a very cheap edition, so I bought a copy. It’s a not a novella, it’s a YA novel. And a thin one at that. I hated it. It’s framed as the oral examination of a candidate for the Academy, the ruling elite of an island nation which is all that remains after a plague has devastated the Earth. The first few questions of this exam are effectively, “explain the world of this story to the reader so they can follow what little plot the book possesses”. We then get pages of badly-disguised info-dumps, in which the character speaks not in dialogue but in descriptive prose. There’s an interesting twist at the end, the writing is mostly very good, the book presents complex ideas in an easily-digestible fashion, but it’s all been done before and it’s so clumsily-structured it’s almost embarrassing to read.

0.4, Mike Lancaster (2011), I actually read for review for Interzone, but it proved unsuitable as it’s aimed at eleven-year-olds. It’s another sf novel which references film and television, but not the written form. So nothing in it seems especially original. Still, I wasn’t the target audience, so it’s no surprise I found it unsatisfactory.

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Music for Another World, Mark Harding (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles. My review is here.

Spreading My Wings, Diana Barnato Walker (2003), I read for research for a story I was writing. Barnato Walker was an early British aviatrix – she learnt to fly between the wars, and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when it was formed during World War II. Later, she flew a BAC Lightning and became the first British woman to pilot an aircraft through the Sound Barrier. Spreading My Wings, despite the somewhat naff title, is a fascinating read. Barnato Walker’s voice is engaging, she has a remarkable memory for details, and she led an interesting life.

The Sodom and Gomorrah Business, Barry N Mazlberg (1974), in which Malzberg attempts to channel JG Ballard and fails. I know Malzberg was a mainstay of the US New Wave (take note: not the New Wave, which was British, but the US movement of the same name it inspired; the US New Wave needs that qualifying “US” to distinguish it from the original (British) New Wave). The Sodom and Gomorrah Business would happily have fitted into either movement on each side of the Atlantic, although I suspect it’s closer to the UK side in tone and implementation. At some indefinite point in the near-ish future, two young men from an institute which produces mercenaries play hooky and visit the nearby post-apocalyptic city. They’re captured by “savages”, who prove to be not quite as uncivilised as advertised, and one is forced into leading them in an attack on the institution. Which is run entirely by robots, who are themselves running down. It’s all very hip and nihilistic, but the prose can’t quite carry it.

Spacesuits, Amanda Young (2009), is about, well, spacesuits – specifically the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Sylvow, Douglas Thompson (2010), I reviewed for Interzone instead of 0.4. Thompson could be a name to watch, if this is any indication. Weirdly, the name of the publisher of Sylvow, Eibonvale Press, appears nowhere on this book, not even on the spine.

First on the Moon, Jeff Sutton (1958), is Sutton’s debut novel and its title pretty much tells you the plot. It’s all manly men of America and dastardly Russkies, pure pulp from start to finish, and not especially scientifically accurate, despite the author being an aviation journalist. I plan to review it on my Space Books blog.

Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005), is the short, copiously-illustrated autobiography of an astronaut who flew on two Shuttle missions. A review of it will appear on my Space Books blog soon.

Films
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Series 6 (1997). So only one season left and I’ll have seen the lot. I’ve heard it said by many, and I was starting to believe it myself, that Deep Space Nine is the best of the Trek franchises. But, oh dear, they plumbed the depths in this season. The war with the Dominion was getting interesting, although the Vorta Weyoun is really irritating. But they resolved the war – at least as it pertains to Deep Space Nine itself – by retaking the station in one of the crappiest-looking and unconvincing space battles in Trek history. Other episodes tried hard for interesting themes, but only proved embarrassingly bad. The student crew of a battleship behind enemy lines, for example. The writers aimed for pathos, missed, and hit bathos. The episode where Quark changes sex in order to help Grand Nagus Zek back into power was cringe-inducing. The Ferengi are cringe-inducing, anyway. Who thought comedy Shylocks was a good idea? Even the better episodes in this season can’t compare with earlier seasons – O’Brian makes an unconvincing undercover cop, and the reason why he was recruited is never satisfactorily explained; the super-secret Section 31 seems completely antithetical to the philosophy of Trek; and the episodes set in the Vegas show-lounge on the holodeck just seemed really cheap. Let’s hope the final season is better.

State Of The Union, dir. Frank Capra (1948). I don’t know why Capra gets so much stick. I really enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life, and Lost Horizon is a pretty good film. I suppose Capra was one of your original “Hollywood liberals”, and so it’s become the fashion to sneer at his output. And it’s true that State Of The Union doesn’t map onto modern US politics – and probably didn’t map onto US politics of 1948, either. Spencer Tracy plays a self-made millionaire – an aircraft manufacturer, of course – who is persuaded to run for high office. He’s estranged from his wife, played by Katherine Hepburn, but in order to secure the Republican nomination, they need to pretend to be happily wed. Cue much rapid-fire screwball rom com banter, and an eventual happy ending. By all accounts, Capra’s film stripped out much of the wit in the original play, written by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay. Perhaps it’s true that Capra’s films can be a little anodyne – even the politics espoused in State Of The Union is a combination of common-sense and light Hollywood liberalism. As a satire on American politics, the film has little bite. But then, I suspect it was never intended to. The title may reference the president’s annual speech, but it’s the union between Tracy and Hepburn which has precedence in the film. Capra’s reputation may have tarnished somewhat over the years, but he still made entertaining, enjoyable films… which was not always true of his contemporaries.

A Winter’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1992), is the second of Rohmer’s Contes quatre saison. Félicie fell in love with Charles while on holiday, but stupidly gave him the wrong address by mistake when the holiday ended. As he was heading off to the US, she had no way of contacting him… or of telling him that he was now the father of a daughter. Five years pass. Félicie is a hairdresser in Paris, sleeping with both Maxence, owner of the salon where she works, and librarian Loïc. But she still loves  Charles. Maxence persuades her to move with him Nevers, to live with him and work in the salon he is opening there. She agrees. But she’s unable to settle down with Maxence – she can’t love him the way she loves Charles – so she returns to Paris… and entirely coincidentally bumps into Charles on a bus. So they get back together. Like the first film of the quartet, A Tale Of Springtime (see here), this is a quiet, slow but deep study of its characters – especially Félicie. She’s not especially likable – Loïc loves her, but she’s clearly not his intellectual equal and it’s hard to determine what she gets from her relationship with him. Maxence, at least, makes for a more understandable partner for her, but even then she fails to understand his expectations. Félicie comes across as a spoilt dreamer… but then Rohmer allows her dream to come true. As a result, the film lacks any real resolution.

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, dir. Chris Columbus (2010), is based on a popular YA fantasy series, just like the Harry Potter films. And just like the Harry Potter films, it’s about a teenager who discovers he is not an ordinary person, but has special powers. Even more so, just like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson’s powers are more special than those of the other kids with special powers. This because he is a son of Poseidon. When someone steals Zeus’ lightning bolt, everyone suspects Percy Jackson, although he has been happily living the life of a mundane, unaware of his special Harry-Potter-like powers. This abrupt eruption of Greek godly adventure into his life, he takes with aplomb, a readiness to learn how to use his special powers, and a beady eye for a feisty young woman. The Greek pantheon is cleverly integrated into this Harry Potter clone – it is, at least, a bit more original than Jennings Goes to Wizard School – but it still feels like by-the-numbers for a target audience. Good special effects, though.

From Here To Eternity, dir. Fred Zinnemann (1953), is one of those classic 1950s films everyone knows of. Well, there’s that iconic scene with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling about and snogging in the surf. In fact, that was pretty much all I knew about the film. That, and Frank Sinatra was in it and won an Oscar for best supporting actor. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that it’s not really about Lancaster’s character, but about the one played by Montgomery Clift. And it’s about boxing – or rather, not boxing – in the US Army. It’s also set in Hawaii, in the year leading up to Pearl Harbour. Clift plays a bugler who has transferred to a rifle company on Oahu. He used to be a boxer, and was very good at it, but gave up when he blinded a friend during a sparring bout. The rifle company’s CO, however, won’t take no for an answer, and instructs his NCOs to begin a campaign of harassment and bullying until Clift agrees to box. Lancaster, the first sergeant, a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier, disagrees with his CO, and does his best to make sure Clift comes to no real harm. Meanwhile, Lancaster has also fallen in love with his CO’s wife, Kerr, which is a definite no-no in the armed forces. Sinatra plays Clift’s buddy in the barracks, who’s a bit of a chancer and introduces Clift to the Oahu night-life. To be honest, Lancaster should have got the Oscar – he’s the best thing in the entire film. It’s also bizarre that the film never mentions the war taking place elsewhere on the planet… until it abruptly intrudes in the final quarter of the film. I suspect there was a better film to be made of From Here To Eternity‘s script, because this one feels too ordinary for much of its length to justify the eight Oscars it won. A classic, then, but not a great classic.

George And The Dragon, dir. Tom Reeve (2004), I reviewed for the Zone here.

The Secret In Their Eyes, dir. Juan José Campanella (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Seventh Continent, dir. Michael Haneke (1989), was Haneke’s debut film, and is apparently inspired by a true story. A young Austrian couple, solidly middle-class, with a young daughter; she works and co-owns an opthalmic practice, he’s an engineer at a chemical plant. Haneke shows us a day in their life – troubles at work, dull routine, a voice-over reading out a letter from the wife to her mother-in-law. We then see another similar day a year later. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. But their life together is still mostly comfortable. In the final part of the film, the couple tell all their friends and relatives they are emigrating to Australia. They empty their bank accounts, sell their half of the opthalmic practice, and spend all their money on a massive feast. They then smash everything in their house. Finally, they commit suicide. No reason is given for them taking their lives, and nothing is presented in the first two parts of the film which might explain it. So, right from the start Haneke was making films which defied easy explanation, which did not adhere to the usual rules of film narrative. Last year, I bought the Michael Haneke Collection DVD set, which contains Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and Hidden. Annoyingly, Artificial Eye have now brought out the Michael Haneke Anthology DVD set, which contains ten of his films – all but The White Ribbon, in fact. And including the four I already own. Bah.

Laputa – Castle In The Sky, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1986), is the second of Studio Ghibli’s film, which I am slowly working my way through (though I’ve seen several of the later ones). There’s lots in here that’s common to Miyazaki’s films – the feisty young girl, the bizarre steampunk-ish aesthetic, the teenage boy sidekick, a world recovering from a past unexplained catastrophe, a focus on a simple life-style, and a villain with a moustache… In the world of Laputa – Castle In The Sky, there used to be flying cities, but most have gone – all except Laputa, which is now considered near-mythical. Sheeta escapes from Colonel Muska when pirates, led by their mother Dola, attack the airship carrying her. She is found by Puza, who agrees to help her. The chase is on – both Muska and Dola after Sheeta and Puza. But it turns out Dola and her piratical sons are actually the good guys, and with their help Sheeta and Puza find the lost flying city of Laputa. Which is what Muska was after – or rather, its fabulous technology. But only Sheeta and Puza hold the secret to the city. Entertaining, with some lovely visuals, but the plot is a little too familiar and doesn’t quite hang together in a couple of places.

Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista here.