It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Looking ahead

This year is almost over, but what will the new year bring? I already have more than a dozen titles from 2012 on my wish list. They are (in alphabetical order by surname of author):


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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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Ten Greatest Authors

I can’t even remotely pretend the ten authors in this list are the “greatest” in any commonly-accepted sense. They’re not all favourites, but they’re certainly the authors whose writing I admire the most. Still, it’s a list. Everyone likes lists.

In no particular order…

  1. Lawrence Durrell – I love the way he uses the English language. At a sentence level, I think he writes the best prose of any writer I’ve ever read. The Alexandria Quartet is required reading.
  2. Anthony Burgess – because fiction should be clever – although, to be honest, Burgess was occasionally too clever for his own good. Once described as a great writer who never wrote a great novel… except Earthly Powers is a great novel.
  3. John Fowles – the sheer readability of his prose disguises the depth and insight of his fiction. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of the great works of post-war British literature.
  4. DH Lawrence – I came late to Lawrence, but I immediately fell in love with his prose – the level of detail, the insight, the poetry…
  5. John Crowley – the Ægypt Sequence remains one of the best works of American literature from the second half of the twentieth century. Often it seems the height of hubris to claim Crowley as a genre writer.
  6. M John Harrison – the finest British prose stylist who self-identifies as a genre fiction writer. Light is a touchstone work of science fiction.
  7. Paul Park – the finest American prose stylist who self-identifies as a genre fiction writer. His books are less challenging than M John Harrison’s, but they also make more original use of genre tropes.
  8. Gwyneth Jones – her prose is an order of magnitude better than is typical for science fiction; and her science fiction is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than is typical for the genre.
  9. WG Sebald – because he’s such a resolutely interesting writer in the way he frames and presents narratives.
  10. Kim Stanley Robinson – the most thoughtful science fiction writer of his generation, and extremely readable with it. The Mars trilogy is a touchstone work of science fiction.

Honourable mentions: Mary Gentle, Paul Scott, Joseph Conrad, Frank Herbert, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Also: my Ten Greatest Film Directors post.


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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.