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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.


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Reading diary, #52

I’m still trying to pick up the pace of my reading, but I’ve not had all that much success so far. I’m managing to keep ahead of my TBR – ie, I’m reading more books each month than I buy, although I’m not buying as many as I have done in the past – but I’m still more than a dozen books behind in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books by the end of the year.

Valerian and Laureline 17: Orphan of the Stars (1998, France). The volumes in the Valerian and Laureline series have been forming an extended narrative for a while now. Initially, each was an unconnected story, then there were a couple of two-volume stories, but since the disappearance of Galaxity after the past was changed, the duo’s narrative has been more serial than series. The volume prior to this one, Hostages of Ultralum (see here), saw Valerian and Laureline rescue the Caliphon, the brattish young son of the Caliph of Iksaladam, a fabulously wealthy planet, from kidnappers, and in this book he’s still with them, and they’re still being pursued by the kidnappers. The three are now in the Asteroids of Shimballil, a belt close enough to the star system’s sun for the asteroids, each with their own atmosphere, to be habitable. The duo are trying to find a treatment for the Caliphon’s behavioural dificulties, but they need money… and after meeting a producer of popular entertainments, Laureline agrees to act for him for the money. Like many of the other tomes in the series, Orphan of the Stars takes satirical pokes at various things – in this case, the aforementioned entertainments industry (ie, the film industry), but also academia. I’ve yet to see Besson’s film, and I think I’ve missed its run at the cinemas, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems to mangle an important aspect of the series, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Given that the relationship has developed and changed over 22 volumes, it’s no surprise the film fails to get a handle on it. But, more importantly, it also seems to me, the movie fluffs the books’ humour. It’s not just satire and piss-takes of contemporary culture which feature in the series, but also the banter between the two principals. Laureline is definitely the competent one, and has been since around volume three or four, and the two are in a relationship, but there’s a give and take between the two, between Valerian’s misplaced protectiveness and Laureline’s competence, it sounds like the movie has bungled. But I guess I’ll know that for sure when I finally get to watch it.

Living, Henry Green (1929, UK). What to say about Henry Green? At one point, he was considered by some as “the best English novelist” and – a phrase I quite like – as the “writer’s writer’s writer”. According to Wikipedia, he was always more popular among other writers than the reading public and “none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies”. From the 1950s onwards, his star faded – he died in 1973 – and by the 1980s, he was mostly forgotten… only to be rediscovered in the early 1990s, and omnibuses of his nine novels (three per omnibus) have been in print ever since. And yes, he is every bit as good as his admirers have/had it. Living, his second novel, is set in and around a Birmingham iron foundry in the 1920s – Green actually worked as the managing director of his family’s engineering firm in Birmingham – and focuses on a handful of its employees, including the London-based son of the company’s owner. The prose is modernist, and uses definite and indefinite articles sparingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Green’s writing is so good it’s highly effective. The dialogue is also written in dialect – although I could never quite make it sound Brummie in my head – which also takes a while to get used to. In terms of plot, there’s not a great deal, just the lives of its central characters, and how they cope with changes to the company’s fortunes. But reading Green just makes me want to push the envelope of my own writing. I don’t want to come up with cleverer plots, or more engaging stories, I want to sharpen my narratives, improve my word-choices, write the best damn prose I can, so that I too can be as lucid, as economical, and yet as lyrical, as Henry Green. Highly recommended.

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK). This book was, in a roundabout fashion, my introduction to the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor – or rather, I learnt of her writing thanks to this book. Well, thanks to François Ozon’s adaptation of it, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed many years ago for videovista.net. I liked the film so much, I kept an eye open in charity shops for books by Taylor… and it’s taken till now before I finally stumbled across a copy of Angel (after first finding and reading Blaming and A Wreath of Roses). And the first thing I noted about Angel the novel was its differences to the film adaptation. The plots are pretty much identical – opening in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, working-class teeenager Angelica Devereux, Angel, writes a florid romance novel, publisher takes a chance on it, book is a success, Angel goes onto become a successful – if critically mocked – writer, falls in love with Esmé, an impoverished upper-class painter, who marries her for her money but cheats on her, he is wounded in WWI and dies in an accident soon after, her books are by then no longer popular, and she lingers on in poverty… The film has Esmé’s work re-evaluated after his death, so he becomes critically lauded, while Angel’s books continue to be seen as trashy potboilers. The film also makes Angel more of a figure of fun, and so more sympathetic, than the novel, although they make use of the same events. In that respect, in that Angel is an unsympathetic character, and not played for light laughs, the book is a tougher read than the film is a viewing. But Taylor’s prose is so very good, reading it is never a hardship (which is not say Ozon’s direction is bad, although he does film it in a very artificial, almost pantomime, style, which suits his treatment of the material). I’ve now read Angel, but I’ll continue to keep an eye open for Taylor’s novels – and I have her Complete Short Stories on the TBR…

Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (2011, USA). I picked up a copy of the signed and numbered PS Publishing edition of this novel for much cheapness a couple of years ago, although not being an especially big fan of Wolfe’s fiction I’ve no real idea why I did so. His The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a classic work of sf, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkable work but its sensibilities have not aged well, and everything else he has written I’ve found more or less meh. Except his short fiction – that I really don’t like at all, bar one or two stories. But Wolfe has a reputation for tricksiness and cleverness, as if the two things are the same, and his profile within genre remains extremely high, even if few people seem to read him these days. Home Fires does nothing to change my current opinion of Wolfe. It’s set a century or so hence. Skip Grison is a wealthy lawyer in his fifties. Twenty-something years before, he contracted (civil partnership) with Chelle Sea Blue (yes, really), who then left Earth to fight the Os. She is due to return home. Although she has been away decades, it has only been a handful of years for her. He is worried for their partnership, although he still loves her dearly. As a present for her return, Skip arranges for Chelle’s mother to be resurrected – ie, a brain scan of her is imprinted onto the mind of a volunteer. Skip and Chelle then go on a cruise on a sailing ship (the cover art depicts a motor cruise liner with masts and sails badly photoshopped on top, which is annoying). Things happen aboard the sailing ship – hijackers seize it, attempts are made on the life of Shelle’s mother, Wolfe plays his usual wordgames with the reader… But it all seems a bit, well, a bit feeble. Some of the puzzles presented in the narrative are easy enough to solve, and are indeed explained, but don’t seem to add much to the story. Those which are left unexplained, add even less. I can live with the mix-n-match worldbuilding, and while the old-fashioned sexual politics are uncomfortable they don’t actually overwhelm the narrative, but… it all feels like a pointless exercise. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like half a puzzle with no reward for solving it. I had expected some intellectual gratification from identifying the puzzles and then solving them, or failing to solve them, but to be honest I didn’t really care. Home Fires reads like a forgettable sf novel with a heavy reputation it doesn’t deserve hanging over it. Avoidable.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi (2017, France). The first Tardi I read was The Arctic Marauder, and I liked its Verne-esque steampunk-ish flavour very much. So I continued to read his bandes dessinées – or rather, the Fantagraphics English translations of them. He’s probably best known for his The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, made into a film by Luc Besson, or perhaps for providing the production design, and the actual style of the art and animation, of the steampunk April and the Extraordinary World (see here). But Tardi’s graphic novels actually cover a variety of genres, from war to thriller to crime. And Fog Over Tolbiac is this last, an adaptation first published in French in 1982 of a noir novel by Léo Malet. (Tardi has adapted nine of Malet’s Nestor Burma novels to date, but Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is the first to appear in English.) Burma is a private detective, who receives a letter one day from a man he knew twenty-five years before when both were anarchists. But the man has been murdered, and Burma finds himself trying to puzzle out the murder, its link to an unsolved robbery in 1936 on the eponymous bridge, and Burma’s old friends from his anarchist days at the “vegan hostel”. It’s a bit thin as a mystery, to be honest, though I suspect that’s an artefact of adaptation, but Tardi’s art is eminently suited to the material, both the story and the less-than-competent Burma. To date Tardi has published thirty-one bandes dessinées, of which around fourteen or fifteen have so far been published in English by Fantagraphics. After a hiatus of several years, brought about by illness, Fantagraphic seem to be back translating Tardi’s work… and I’ll continue to buy them.

Nomansland, DG Compton (1993, UK). Compton is a science fiction writer I admire a great deal. I think his prose is far far better than 99% of genre writers, living or dead, and his relatively low profile is not only due to the quality of his prose (many sf readers consider such prose either irrelevant or a hindrance), nor the fact his last novel was published in 1996 and only the SF Gateway has any of his books currently in print (as ebooks and omnibuses), although he does have one novel in the SF Masterworks series… but chiefly because the bulk of his fiction has a very British flavour and a lot of it is really quite miserable. Nomansland displays both these last two qualities, despite being set in an invented, and unnamed, European country, and because the world of the novel is forty years into the “Attrition”, an epidemic which causes pregant women to reject male embryos. In other words, only female babies have been born for nearly half a century. Nomansland also uses another common Compton technique – the double unsynchronised narrative, which is probably not the best way to describe it, but refers to paired narratives which differ in ways other than just POV. In Nomansland, one narrative is loosely-coupled third-person, set forty years after the Attrition, and focusing on scientist Dr Harriet Ryder-Kahn, who has just discovered a cure for MERS, Male Embryo Rejection Syndrome, but is being blocked from publication by her bosses at the Ministry of Science. The second narrative begins some ten years after the start of the Attrition, when Harriet is a young girl, and is first-person. It traces her history up to the 40-years-after narrative. There’s an elephant in the room in this story, and it takes two-thirds of the novel before anyone even mentions it: the world is a much nicer place now there are so few men (they’re still in charge, but they’re hugely outnumbered by women, and dying out). So the question becomes, is it worth actually curing MERS? Isn’t it better to leave the population as it is? Of course, the men – and few of them in this novel are painted in a flattering light – would like their own kind to be back in charge, but… I’m entirely sympathetic to the view a massively-majority, or entirely, female population would turn the planet into a much more pleasant place; and I can think of no good reason why men should be re-introduced, given a solution to reproductive needs. For all the crap we’re fed in the right-wing press about vile behaviour by other cultures, most of it is more a product of toxic masculinity than it is actual culture. In Nomansland, Compton is also clearly sympathetic, but he tries to present a balanced view and often undermines his point. MRA types will object to the characterisation of the male characters, but fuck ’em, they have no opinions worth treating seriously. If there is a problem, it’s that Compton is, if his fiction is any indication, somewhat misanthropic, and so even his female characters are far from sympathetic. Ryder-Kahn, for example, is fixated on publication, and does not seem to understand the impact of her cure. Nomansland is by no means one of Compton’s best, although my admiration for his writing remains undimmed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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March madness

Well, not strictly March – after all, we’re less than a week into the month. Some of the following were bought during February. Obviously. So far this year I’ve managed to chip away at the TBR, by reading more books than I’ve bought each month… but I think I might have a bit trouble doing that in March. Especially since it’s the Eastercon at the end of the month… Oh well, never mind. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading them all. One day…

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Some first editions. I’m not a huge fan of Wolfe’s novels, but PS Publishing recently set up a discount website, and they only wanted £6 for a signed and numbered edition of Home Fires. That’s also where I bought Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God. For £4. Bargain. I recommend visiting PS2. Other Stories I’ve been eagerly awaiting for more than a year as I am a fan of Park’s writing. Murder at the Loch is the third of Eric Brown’s entertaining 1950s-set murder-mysteries. And my mother found J: A Novel for me in a charity shop.

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Aeroplanes… I’ve been picking up copies of Wings of Fame whenever I see good condition copies going for a reasonable price on eBay. Now that I’ve finally found a copy of Volume 9, I have eighteen of the twenty volumes. I’ve also been doing the same for Putnam’s Aircraft Since 19– series, although I forget why I began buying them in the first place. And with Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Since 1913, I now own sixteen of them. X-Planes of Europe and X-Planes of Europe II I saw on Amazon, and I’m fascinated by the aircraft designed during the Cold War which didn’t make it into production.

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Some of yer actual science fiction. Invaders is an anthology of genre fiction by literary fiction writers; I’m reviewing it for Interzone. Patchwerk was given to me by the author; I wrote about it here. The Price of the Stars I bought to review for SF Mistressworks (it has a male co-author, but that’s no reason to ignore it). Sargasso I found in a charity shop, and looks to be a techno-thriller potboiler about an Apollo mission. And finally, Aphrodite Terra is a thing at last – a paperback thing, that is; it’s been an ebook thing since the middle of December (although Amazon have yet to figure out the two editions are of the same book…).

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I bought a couple of these Anatomy of the Ship books as research for A Prospect of War back in the day, and ended up picking up copies whenever I saw them going cheap on eBay. Like The Cruiser Bartolomeo Coleoni and The Destroyer The Sullivans. I have more than a dozen of them.

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Finally, some translated fiction, some Malcolm Lowry, and a Lawrence Durrell. I read Munif’s Cities of Salt a couple of years ago and thought it very good, so I picked up the second book of the trilogy last year, and now I have the final one, Variations on Night and Day. I recently read Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, also part of the Canadian Literature Collection series, and the first time Lowry’s “lost” second novel had seen print. So I decided to get these two critical editions, also published in the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Literature Collection series – The 1940 Under the Volcano (I’ve read Under the Volcano, the final published edition, of course), and Swinging the Maelstrom (which I read under the title Lunar Caustic, but which was apparently a version cobbled together posthumously from a number of different manuscripts). Finally, Pope Joan is for the Durrell collection. Not an easy book to find in this edition.


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com 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 abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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A critical bookshelf

Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:


First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).

On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.

These three books do exactly what it says on the tin: annotated lists of the top one hundred genre books, as chosen by the editors. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and Fantasy: The 100 Best Books are sister-works; I’m guessing Pringle wanted to do both but ended up approaching another publisher for his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels . Interesting books, but I can’t say I agree with the majority of their choices.

Two important critical works, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis and Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and a couple of general guides to sf, David Wingrove’s The Science Fiction Source Book and David Pringle’s The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction.

I’m not sure what use is The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, but never mind. Likewise, the Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Zool is actually the Oxford SF Group). Essential SF is, well, just that – at least according to the authors. Who’s Who in Science Fiction lists the pseudonyms used by genre writers.

Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.

I seem to recall Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder causing something of a fuss when it was published in the late 1990s. I enjoyed it and, like Westfahl, I’ve always felt science fiction began in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories. The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology is just that, and the title of British Science Fiction and Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys pretty accurately describes its contents too.

A pair of British critics: Paul Kincaid’s A Very British Genre and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction; and Gwyneth Jones’ Deconstructing the Starships and Imagination / Space.

Some books about writers: Snake’s Hands is a study of the fiction of John Crowley; The Cherryh Odyssey covers CJ Cherryh’s works; Parietal Games is criticism about, and by, M John Harrison; Heinlein in Dimension is about Robert Heinlein; and The Universes of EE Smith is about the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Some books about one writer: Gene Wolfe. The Long and the Short of It does not cover any specific work of Wolfe’s, unlike Solar Labyrinth, Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition and Attending Daedalus, all of which are about The Book Of The New Sun. I reviewed Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition for Interzone.

I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.

The Delany Intersection and the Starmont Reader’s Guide are both about Delany’s fiction. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is Delany’s first and probably best-known work of criticism, though he’s written nearly a dozen such books. Jack Vance – Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography is just that.

Finally, two books about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master Of Adventure about his fiction and A Guide to Barsoom specific to his Mars books. Who Writes Science Fiction? and Wordsmiths of Wonder are both collections of interviews with genre writers.

As well as the above books, I also have a number of science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedias and reference works. But that’s a post for another day.


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The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

Everyone loves lists. Contentious lists are even better. So here’s one: the ten absolute best science fiction novels ever published – written by sf authors, published by sf publishers. These ten books show what the genre is capable of when it aims to be more than mindless escapism. They are fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, meaningful, inventive, rigorous, and sf from the first word to the last. They are, in chronological order:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972). A collection of three novellas – but not a cheat, as the three are linked and form a novel together. This is the sort of science fiction that can be read and enjoyed, and then carefully puzzled through to determine what was really going on. Wolfe is a tricksy writer, and in The Fifth Head of Cerberus he’s at his tricksy-est.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974). Donald Wollheim once claimed that the benevolent dictatorship was the government of choice of sf fans. That’s clearly what comes of reading too many space operas with interstellar empires and the like. And yet sf also has a history of documenting the road to utopia. All that benevolent dictator stuff is nonsense, of course – it’s as much fantasy as the Competent Man as hero. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to it. The Dispossessed is a political book – it’s even subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” – and it’s political in a way that makes you think, that shows you what sf is really for.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975), is definitely science fiction – it’s in the relaunched SF Masterworks series, for a start – even though it’s proven extremely popular outside the genre. Sometimes it reads like a novel of its time, sometimes it seems almost timeless. But every time you read it, it’s different. It is also the most profoundly literary book in this list, and from an author who is steeped in genre.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Yes, so Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas arguably kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing in 1987, but to my mind the movement didn’t really gel until the appearance of Take Back Plenty three years later. I remember the buzz the book caused – and I remember on reading it discovering that it was as good as everyone said it was. I reread it a couple of years ago, and it’s still bloody good. So why is it not in the SF Masterworks series, eh?

The Martian trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996), is a bit of a cheat as it’s three books. While many are full of admiration for the first book, Red Mars, but not so keen on the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars, I maintain that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You need to read Green Mars and Blue Mars after you’ve finished Red Mars because the first book only poses a small handful of the questions the three books ask and attempt to answer.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000). This is the biggest book on this list – it contains nearly a million words. It is, with Red Mars, one of the most rigorous too. Rigour is important in sf – you can’t just make shit up as you go along (but you can, of course, as Iain Banks is fond of putting it, “blow shit up”). The bulk of the story may be set in an alternate mediaeval Europe, but it is not fantasy. It is clever, it is visceral, it is also physically heavy.

Light, M John Harrison (2002). They say Harrison is a writer’s writer, and the prose in Light certainly suggests as much. Light is also one of those novels that’s often described as one which “redefines” science fiction. Which it does. Sort of. But not by coming up with something new, only by shedding new light on those genre tropes being over-exercised at the turn of the century. They say that sf is a genre in conversation with itself, which makes Harrison one of sf’s sharpest conversationalists.

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004). I need only repeat David Soyka from his review of this book on sfsite.com: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’ve never believed sf should be predictive, but if any sf writer could be called an “architect of futures” then it would be Bruce Sterling. And in The Caryatids he has produced his most inventive and meaningful conversation with the future yet. It is the best book he has written. So why hasn’t it been published in the UK? Why is there only a US edition of this excellent book?

These are not “seminal” sf novels, they are not “classics”, they are not even especially popular. But they are “best” in the true meaning of the word – i.e., “of the highest quality”. If you haven’t read them, you should do so immediately.

Now tell me which books I’ve missed off my list. No mainstream authors slumming it in the genre, please. And I don’t care what impact a book had in, or outside, the genre. It has to be, in your eyes, one of the best-written science fiction novels ever published. And that doesn’t mean the “most entertaining”, or any other excuse used to justify flat writing, cardboard characters, or simplistic plotting. I’m not talking about fit for purpose; I’m talking about excellence in writing, in prose, in literature, in genre.