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…
Nod, 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 Nod… Nod 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.
The 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.
Elysium, 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Demons, 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