It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

books
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


Leave a comment

Reading diary, #30

Bit of a mixed bag this time around. Three science fiction, two crime and one literary. Which is what my reading is like sometimes.

reunion-smallReunion on Alpha Reticuli II, Eric Brown (2016). This is the third novella in Brown’s Telemass Quartet (yes, I know; everyone seems to be doing them these days), each of which has been numbered in reverse in the title. The quartet follows the attempt by retired Dutch policeman Hendrick to rescue his terminally-ill-but-in-medical-stasis daughter from his estranged ex-wife, who is so desperate for a cure she’s trying all manner of alien mumbo-jumbo. Her attempts have, in the books so far, been bizarrely lacking a technological basis. And the same is true of Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II. Hendrick follows his wife to to the titular planet, a popular holiday world, notable for hotels which comprise huge concrete spikes from which hang glass bubbles (the rooms), as depicted on the cover. But Hendrick’s ex-wife is there to meet secretly with a member of a reclusive race… who claims to be able to save the daughter… Unfortunately, three novellas in and the series is beginning to feel a little formulaic. Brown draws his characters and his worlds well, but the plot in Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II feels more by-the-numbers than the previous two. It’s not helped by the introduction of a telepathic love-interest, who comes across as far too good to be true. I kept on waiting for the twist. There wasn’t one. Having said all that, if you’ve been following the Telemass Quartet, you know what you’re going to get. And Brown delivers. The second has, to my mind, been the best so far, but… there’s still one more to go.

tor_dbl_22-smallThieves’ Carnival / The Jewel of Bas, Karen Haber / Leigh Brackett (1990/1944). I’ve been picking up copies of Tor’s series of back-to-back doubles since first stumbling across a couple of them in a remaindered bookshop in Abu Dhabi. There were thirty-six published in total, between 1988 and 1991, mostly reprints but with the occasional piece of original fiction, and all by known names. (Although Haber here is probably better-known as an anthologist.) ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ is a prequel to Brackett’s story, and shows how the two main characters met and ended up married. While it’s set chronologically earlier, it should really have been the second story in this book. Brackett does her typically skilful job at setting up world and cast in ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – although, to be honest, this is not one of her best – and ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ would have proven a more interesting read as a pendant to Brackett’s. Which tells how Mouse and her husband, the minstrel Ciaran, are captured by minions of Bas – well, not exactly, it’s the two androids Bas built to attend him, it’s their minions who have been enslaving people in order to build an engine to save the world… because Bas is more interested in his dreamworld and has been neglecting things. In Haber’s prequel, Mouse is teamed with Ciaran in a thievery competition, and she decides to steal the Portal Cube… which proves to be some sort of time-travel device and its theft results in weird flashbacks to other times and places. The Brackett is not among her best – the story feels tired, the dialogue is clunkier than you’d expect, and the plot echoes a few too many other stories of the period. Haber’s prequel takes Brackett’s science-fantasy and ups the fantasy, turning the story into something more like a RPG adventure than an homage to Brackett. I get that publishers are often constrained when putting these series together in as much as they can only include those stories to which they could obtain the rights… but both of these are entirely forgettable.

robberThe Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993). Four women, who first met at university in the sixties, each have a run-in with a fifth woman, Zenia. But that’s all behind them, since Zenia apparently died in a terrorist bomb, and her depradations actually brought them together as friends, even though they sort of knew each other back in university… And then a woman walks into the coffee shop where the four have met for their weekly lunch, and they all recognise her: Zenia. The novel then takes each of the four women in turn, and tells their stories and how Zenia entered their lives and the damage she caused. There are, it sometimes seems to me, two Margaret Atwoods. There are the novels written by one Atwood, where the ideas are really good but the prose never really shines; and there’s the other Atwood, whose prose is beautifully put together and a joy to read. I’d say Oryx and Crake was by the first Atwood, and Alias Grace by the second. The Robber Bride is also by the second. I’ve not enjoyed, and been so impressed on a sentence-by-sentence level, by an Atwood novel since reading, well, Alias Grace. This is easily her second-best work. I have by no means read her entire oeuvre, although I do plan to work by way through it. But of those I’ve read so far, I’d put The Robber Bride second after Alias Grace (and yes, above The Handmaid’s Tale).

beastsBeast in View, Margaret Millar (1962). Reclusive rich spinster Helen Clarvoe receives a telephone call from a woman who threatens her. After quizzing the staff of the hotel where she lives and finding out nothing, Clarvoe contacts her investment manager, Paul Blackshear, and ask for his help. Since he has just retired, and he finds himself liking Clarvoe, he decides to investigate… which puts him on the trail of Evelyn Merrick, an old school friend of Clarvoe and the estranged ex-wife of Clarvoe’s brother – who is gay, but married Merrick in order to appear “normal” but it all went horribly wrong on the honeymoon. While Blackshear runs around Los Angeles trying to track down Merrick before she makes good on her threat – and stumbling across a few of the Clarvoe family secrets, a murder, and increasing evidence that Merrick is completely deranged… But there’s a clever twist in the tail. I pretty much read this in a single sitting one Sunday afternoon. Worth a go.

heritageHeritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. I read Shwartz’s Grail of Hearts many years ago and really liked it – I must reread it one of these days – so I was pretty keen to try some of her actual science fiction. And eventually I stumbled across a copy of Heritage of Flight at Mancunicon earlier this year (on the Porcupine Books stall in one of the dealers’ rooms). But what I liked about Grail of Hearts was its repurposing of Arthurian legend as a romance, where as Heritage of Flight is pretty much a straight-up sf novel of the 1980s. In other words, a bit disappointing. It has its moments, but it’s by no means a great book. And that cover art is pretty misleading. A review of it will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

zagrebThe Lady from Zagreb, Philip Kerr (2015). Kerr admits in an afterword to this tenth volume in the Bernie Gunther series that he had planned to retire his Kripo/SD detective after nine books. He also admits there is another volume to follow this one, The Other Side of Silence (which is on the TBR)… And it seems there’s going to be a twelfth volume too, Prussian Blue, according to Wikipedia. Not that I’m complaining. These are superior detective novels, and Kerr’s research and level of historical detail is impressive. It is, of course, getting harder to stitch stories into Gunther’s life, but that’s hardly surprising – and while inconsistencies might pop up when reading the series from start to finish, I’ve not noticed any in my intermittent, albeit chronological, read of the books. The Lady from Zagreb opens in the 1950s. Gunther is a house detective for a hotel on the Riviera. He goes into a cinema and watches a film starring 1940s German star Dalia Dresner… with whom he was romantically involved back in 1942. Which is where the story abruptly shoots back to. It’s a fairly standard plot, perhaps even a noir staple, but by setting it in Nazi Germany during World War II, and framing it around the events of earlier novel, A Man Without Breath, but following on from Prague Fatale, Kerr gives the story an added dimension. Basically, Dresner gets Goebbels to task Gunther with tracking down her Croatian father, currently a monk in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Except things are not as clear-cut as they seem, including Dresner’s own marriage in neutral Switzerland. One day, someone should make a TV series of these books. They’re really very good.

1001 Books To Read Before You Die count: 124


11 Comments

Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.

ht_apollo_11_aldrin_ll_110901_wmain

I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.

1956-the-legacy-of-the-bathyscape-1

This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)

Gray_lensman

I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.


2 Comments

Reading diary, #2

Most of the reading I’ve been doing over the past month or so has been dipping into research books as I wrangle Apollo Quartet 4 into shape. (Not long now. Honest.) So there’s not been that much of yer actual reading of fiction. Except for, well, the following…

The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977). I read this for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

darebioDan Dare: A Biography, Daniel Tatarsky (2010). Back in the late 1970s, my parents bought me a Hamlyn anthology of Dan Dare stories one Christmas, containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, both of which remain my favourite Dare stories. Several years ago, I collected the full set of Hawk Publishing Dan Dare reprints (see here). So when a “biography” of Dare was published a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy. And… it’s not very good. The book tells the story of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and how Eagle was begun. But the writing throughout is terrible, and I spotted several inaccuracies (on things not related to Eagle, to be fair). There are some nice colour plates, particularly of the mock-ups of the first issue, and a useful appendix giving plot summaries of all the Dan Dare stories published in Eagle. But there are better books about Hampson, and reading about Dan Dare is no substitute for reading the actual Dan Dare comic strips.

whatdoctororderedspread0What The Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading him in Interzone back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he has not been exactly prolific – three novels to date, and What The Doctor Ordered is only his second collection after 1990’s The Brains of Rats. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few stories still uncollected. What The Doctor Ordered collects fourteen stories, dating from 1997 to 2012, and originally appearing in a variety of venues, such as F&SF, Asimov’s, Flurb and a handful of original anthologies, mostly horror or dark fantasy. The one thing I’d forgotten during all the years I’d not read Blumlein was how bloody good he is. His three novels are all too different to really get a handle on him as a novel writer. But his short fiction really is very, very good. Best story in here is ‘Isostasy’, although ‘The Roberts’ is also excellent. Blumlein’s fiction is unsettling in ways that I think few authors manage to be. His prose is clinical and sharp, and he paints realistic pictures… into which he drops something fantastical that nonetheless manages to fit in. And then he twists it in ways that makes it seem all the more uncomfortable. One of the best collections I’ve read in recent years.

catseyeCat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988). The narrator of this novel is a middle-aged artist, Elaine, who has returned to Toronto to attend a retrospective of her career. This triggers a series of long extended flashback sequences, in which she remembers her childhood in the city, particularly her friendship with three schoolfriends, one of whom was a cruel bully; but she also remembers her college years and her early years as an artist. That bullying schoolfriend, Cordelia, haunts Elaine, even in the present – although the tables did eventually turn, and while Elaine never bullied Cordelia to the extent she was bullied herself, Elaine does recount how Cordelia unravelled over the years and eventually ended up in a sanatorium. If Cordelia’s decline is signposted throughout the novel, then I missed most of it, though her fall as an ironic mirror image of Elaine’s rise to success did seem a little too obvious. Cat’s Eye was a surprisingly easy read, and if the early chapters, detailing Elaine’s childhood, were a little grim and hard to take in places, there was plenty more in the novel to balance them. Worth reading.

Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978). Another book read for review on SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1974). The fourth book of the Raj Quartet, and the war is over in Europe, the Americans have dropped their atom bombs, but there is still Malaysia to be taken back from the Japanese. In India, demission of power from the UK is a certainty – the socialist government back home are focusing on domestic issues, and are not interested in Empire. This novel introduces Guy Perron, played by Charles Dance in the TV adaptation (and probably the character most remembered after Timothy Piggot-Smith’s Ronald Merrick), who despite his privileged background has managed to stay a sergeant throughout the war. He meets Merrick, who is now a major dealing with the Indian army deserters who joined the Germans and Japanese, and is detached to his staff. Through Merrick, he also meets Sarah Layton, whose narrative figured prominently in both The Day Of The Scorpion and The Towers Of Silence. Also prominent in the narrative is Nigel Rowan, who made a brief appearance in one of the earlier books. Rowan and Perron are old school-mates, as was Hari Kumar – whose false imprisonment as a political detenu by Merrick, who is wrongly convinced Kumar raped Daphne Manners (the events surrounding this form the core of the first book, The Jewel In The Crown). Through Rowan, Perron and the Laytons, Scott examines the route to independence and its effect on Britons living in India, weaving in and out of the plot of the preceding three books as they relate to Perron, Rowan and Sarah Layton (the TV adaptation went for a straight chronological structure, and misses a lot of the books’ arguments and subtleties). Scott is quite scathing in his critique of the Raj, and of the British who ruled India. It’s not hard to understand why these four books are considered classics, they’re certainly amongst the best post-war British literature I’ve read. I suspect I’ll be rereading them again one day.

screamingplanetAlexandro Jodorowsky’s Screaming Planet, Alexandro Jodorowsky & various artists (2013). I’m a fan of Jodorowsky’s films and bandes dessinée, but I knew nothing about this title when I bought it. Still, Jodorowsky… It proved to be a linked anthology of short pieces, written by Jodorowsk but drawn by a variety of artists, which featured in the relaunched Métal Hurlant. A sentient planet is mistreated by its natives so badly it somehow makes them build an enormous metal head, into which it decants its personality, and which is then blasted into space – this is the “screaming planet”. And as it journeys through the cosmos, it passes by other worlds and its presence affects one or more people on those worlds. The story themselves are linked only by the giant head passing in the sky. Some work better than others. This is minor Jodorowsky – although he does confess in an introduction that he is used to working at longer lengths and found writing these “short stories” challenging.


Leave a comment

Groupthink at SF Signal

Yesterday, SF signal posted one of its regular Mind Melds – see here – this time on the subject of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarianism and total war. And I contributed to it. I sort of riffed about dystopias, which wasn’t entirely on topic but never mind.

I mentioned several relevant sf novels, including Anthony Burgess’s 1985, Alastair Reynolds’s The Prefect, Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But I wish I’d remember to mention Adam Roberts’ multi-award-winning Jack Glass, which pretty much demonstrates one of the points I was trying to make. The second and third parts of the novel feature the daughters of one of the super-rich families which effectively run the Solar System, a situation not that far removed from our current situation. Everyone else, of course, gets to live in abject misery and poverty in order to fund the super-rich’s lifestyles. I’ve said before that our current lords and masters appear to be taking Dickens as a model rather than Orwell, and Jack Glass is a good illustration of that.

And in the comments to the Mind Meld, I also sort of got accused of being a Nazi. Apparently pointing out that Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t really map onto the current political climate is a form of Godwinism. Er, no. It’s not a way to stifle argument, it’s simply pointing that if you believe Orwell’s book is relevant to the twenty-first century then your argument is wrong. Which, of course, has nothing to do with Nazis.


3 Comments

The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…

20130316a

New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.

20130316b

These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…

20130316c

Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.

20130316d

Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.

20130316e

These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.

20130316f

Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.


24 Comments

Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 2

Day two and here are my essential sf novels, from 26 through to 50. See here for Jared’s on Pornokitsch and here for James Smythe’s.

To me, what constitutes science fiction has always been quite clear, and my numerous attempts at defining the genre have merely been a way of communicating that certainty. But what does “essential” mean? I found that much harder to define. Yes, I relied a lot on my favourite novels when compiling this list – I thought they were brilliant, therefore they must be essential. Except several of them I could not quite squeeze in. My favourite DG Compton novel, for example, is Synthajoy, but in yesterday’s list I instead included The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – because I think it covers a theme more essential to a true exploration of the science fiction genre. Likewise, I wanted to include Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel that has been a touchstone work for my own writing for several years. But it only hints at being alternate history in its final pages, and it barely qualifies as space fiction. Oh well.

We readily agreed that graphic novels, or bandes dessinées, were allowed. I picked the most obvious choice – see number 26 below. I’d like to have chosen Dan Dare or the Trigan Empire, but I don’t think either really characterises a tradition in British sf comics – certainly not one that continues to this day. So, much as I love them, I found their inclusion hard to justify.

Certainly, there were movements during the last few decades in sf which I needed to represent in my list: cyberpunk, steampunk, New Space Opera… As long as I picked one work from each, and could justify its presence, then job done. The works I chose for those subgenres are not the most obvious ones, but I think they’re the most important – or  I certainly believe they deserve to be. Others may disagree.

Anyway, the list…

26 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
In France, there is a strong sf tradition associated with comics, or bandes dessinée. Not all of these have been translated into English – sadly. The Incal is one of the most popular bandes dessinée, and rightly so. It is completely bonkers, beautifully drawn, and an excellent example of what the medium can do.

27 Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Cherryh has been churning out muscular hard sf since 1976, and she’s still going. Somehow she has managed to stitch all these novels in to a single future history. It’s an astonishing achievement. This book is perhaps her best-known, and is very much characteristic of her oeuvre.

28 Native Tongue, Suzette Elgin Haden (1984)
Women-only utopias do not happen overnight – though from some of the novels which feature them you might think so. Native Tongue charts one route, starting from a near-future in which women are reduced once again to the status of chattel. The development of a women-only language, Láadan, is instrumental in overturning this situation. This novel is both linguistic sf and feminist sf.

29 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

30 Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Hav is not a real place, though you might be fooled into thinking so as you read this novel. Very early proto-sf often couched its tall tales in the form of travel journals, but once Gernsback bootstrapped the genre into existence, as a form of sf it seemed to go into decline. A pity, if Last Letters from Hav is any indication of what it can do.

31 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
Say “cyberpunk” and everyone immediately thinks of Neuromancer. But I’m not convinced that’s an especially essential book – cyberpunk has become a lifestyle, and does it really matter which novel – arguably – booted it up into existence? What is essential, however, is the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. This one. It marked the end of cyberpunk as a sf literary movement. All the cyberpunk novels and stories that followed were just twitchings of the subgenre’s rotting corpse.

32 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
This is one of my two slightly sneaky inclusions. We did agree to allow novellas, and many novellas are indeed published as independent books. But this one never was – it first appeared in the collection Novelty. It is possibly the best time paradox story ever written, with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

33 Take Back Plenty†, Colin Greenland (1990)
New Space Opera has been good for science fiction. But if this book had been its model rather than Banks’ Culture novels, it could all have turned out very differently. Take Back Plenty celebrates the pulp side of sf, and does so with intelligence, wit and verve. It is one of the genre’s best books.

34 The Difference Engine†, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
Another slightly sneaky choice, as Sterling appears alone at the end of this list. The term “steampunk” was coined by KW Jeter, and his Morlock Night and Infernal Devices are emblematic of the subgenre. But they’re not actually that good. The Difference Engine is good. It is the one steampunk novel that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre (which is now, sadly, a lifestyle).

35 Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
This sf novel is the only one I can think of which mixes science fiction and Southern Gothic. It’s a mashup that shouldn’t by rights succeed. But it does. It is a rich and strange book – and sf needs to be rich and strange more often.

36 Sarah Canary†, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Not all first contact novels involve hardy explorers beaming down onto an alien planet and trying to communicate with mysterious aliens. Sometimes the mysterious aliens are here on Earth; and sometimes we will never know if they were alien or even if we have made contact. This book is proof that sf does not need to be about the future, spaceships, robots, time travel, or giant computer brains.

37 Red Mars*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
This is the definitive novel on the near-future colonisation of another planet – in this case, our neighbour, Mars. Enough said. (Don’t forget to read the sequels too.)

38 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Near-future sf is difficult to do well, if only because the author is expected to have some sort of magical crystal ball. But sf has never been predictive, and when it has got something right it’s been a happy accident. China Mountain Zhang is a near-future novel, but that’s incidental. It is beautifully written. That’s all that matters. McHugh is one of the genre’s very best writers.

39 Dark Sky Legion, William Barton (1992)
We may never find a way to circumvent the speed of light. Which means 90% of science fiction is just so much magical hogwash. But some writers have tried to envisage a distant future in which the speed of light restriction still holds true. This is the best of the bunch. It also does something interesting philosophically – and sf is traditionally not very good at that.

40 A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
Some space operas aren’t New, though they appeared while New Space Opera was doing its thing. The central premise of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Zones of Thought, is one of those ideas that shows why sf is such an important and vibrant mode of fiction. The somewhat ordinary plot attached is almost incidental.

41 Fatherland, Richard Harris (1992)
One form of alternate history is vastly more popular than any other: Hitler winning WWII. It’s impossible to write a story based on it that is neither derivative nor clichéd. This is probably the best of the lot – because it is set decades after the War, and is only peripherally concerned with the fact of the Nazi victory.

42 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
There are many themes which science fiction rarely tackles. Postcolonialism is one. It smacks too much of the real world – and too much of the real world that is not the First World – for most sf writers and readers. Coelestis treats the subject with intelligence, and then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. A masterwork.

43 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Among the many themes covered by sf over the decades has been sexuality and gender. The most famous such novel is LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, but given the one-book-per-author rule I couldn’t pick that. (And besides, its treatment of its hermaphroditic humans is somewhat problematical.) Scott complicates matters here by throwing in five genders and nine sexual preferences and, while the gender politics are still a little iffy, this is an essential exploration of the theme.

44 Voyage, Stephen Baxter (1996)
This is not only alternate history, it is also space fiction: it is an alternate history of a NASA mission to Mars. The research is impeccable, and it makes a highly plausible fist of its premise. Space fiction has been chiefly dominated by writers who are not very good, which is unfortunate. Happily, Baxter can write well, and he does so in this book.

45 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? The world of the title character does seem more fantastical than sfnal, but it’s wrapped in a near-future narrative which is resolutely sf. And the way the two narratives interact, and change each other, is definitely straight from science fiction’s toolbox.

46 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
This is perhaps the most literary science fiction novel ever written (not counting, of course, the two sequels). Or perhaps it’s the most science-fictional literary novel ever written. On balance, I suspect the former – it is too steeped in genre to be wholly accessible to readers of literary fiction. That still makes it essential for sf readers, however.

47 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
Surprisingly, working scientists are not especially popular as protagonists in science fiction. This novel is about one. And science. It is also brilliant.

48 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
First contact is a genre staple. This novel – the first of the Marq’ssan Cycle quintet – is not the first in which the visiting aliens choose to speak only to women, and which subsequently prompts a global crisis. It is, however, notable for a near-future world in which the ultra-rich rule openly and cruelly. Elizabeth Weatherall, PA to the chief villain of this book, goes on in later volumes to become one of the genre’s great villains in her own right. Go read all five books.

49 The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Post-apocalypse is such a well-established subgenre that recently most such novels have been by writers of literary fiction. And this is the best of those. It’s also much better than any genre post-apocalypse novel. Sadly, the trope has now been so over-used it’s become banal. Someone needs to do something different with it.

50 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
We look at the world today and see impending climate crash and the collapse of national economies… but no sf novel except this one has dealt with such a scenario. It’s for good reason that Sterling was one employed as”Visionary in Residence” at a Californian university. Essential reading for the near-future.

And that’s it. I think I’ve covered all the major bases. Not every book in my list of fifty is a blinding piece of literary genius – this is science fiction, after all… But I think my choices show a good spread of themes and subgenres, and every book is certainly worth reading. I couldn’t get everything in, however. Some choices were just too hard to justify. For example, one subgenre of sf I was keen to have on my list was early space travel. Unfortunately, I’ve not read Garitt P Serviss or Willy Ley, and there’s a reason why High Vacuum (1956), First on the Moon (1958) and The Pilgrim Project (1966) are forgotten. So, no early space travel. Instead, I have Voyage as my entry for realistic space fiction (as if I’d really pick Bova, or Steele, or their like).

Finally, it has been a little dismaying putting together this list to discover how many of my selections are out of print. Some have recently been made available after many years OOP, either in the SF Masterworks series, or as ebooks through the SF Gateway. Respect to both for that. But others on my list have languished in obscurity since their original publication. This, I feel, doesn’t invalidate their, er, essentialness. After all, books don’t stay in print because they are essential, they stay in print because they’re popular, because people keep on buying them.

We have no real agreed academic canon in genre fiction, no fixed list of sf novels which teachers and lecturers turn to when designing courses on the subject. Yes, there are several books that people point to when the word “classic” is mentioned, but most of those are artefacts of the genre’s history. They were not chosen because experts in the subject have over the decades deemed them the best science fiction has produced in its eighty-seven years. Perhaps it’s good that sf is democratic in that regard… but when it elevates Foundation, Starship Troopers, the Lensman series and the like to greatness, I have to wonder…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,099 other followers