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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

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While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.

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Triple-stacked

Last weekend, I spent a couple of hours re-shelving my hardback books so that my purchases since the last re-shelving were in their proper place – alphabetical by author, and chronological within author, of course. As is always the case, as soon as I’d finished I found a couple of books I’d missed… By double-stacking the books on the shelves – I’m slightly worried a single shelf may not be able to take the weight of all my Alastair Reynolds hardbacks and my Kim Stanley Robinson ones – I actually had a two shelves left free. And then I realised I’d not done my most recent book haul post, so I was going to have to unstack some of the shelves to dig the new books out to photograph. Oh well.

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Some non-fiction, two of which are research material for Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The Thresher Disaster is the second book I have on the incident. Tethered Mercury I only learnt of when I visited the Mercury 13 website, so I immediately tracked down a copy on abebooks.co.uk and ordered it. The Art of Malcolm Lowry is a series of essays on the author and his works.

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New paperbacks: I’ve had The Call of Cthulhu for a while, and I decided it was time to complete the set – hence, The Dreams in the Witch House and The Thing on the Doorstep. A couple of months ago, I read The Warlord of the Air and was mostly impressed – at least enough to buy a new copy of it plus The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar in these nice new editions.

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Just two graphic novels this month – number 16 in the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, The Secret of the Swordfish, part 2. This is early Edgar P Jacobs and nowhere near as good as later ones. Goddamn This War! is Jacques Tardi telling frontline horror stories about World War I. Grim stuff.

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Some for the collection… A first edition of Prospero’s Cell popped up on eBay so I snapped it up. There’s only a handful of Durrell’s books now that I don’t have in first edition. Disguise For A Dead Gentleman is DG Compton in an earlier guise – under the impenetrable pseudonym of Guy Compton – as a crime fiction writer. This is a Mystery Books Guild edition, which is all I can find. The Book of Being completes the Yaleen trilogy – I have the first two books already as Gollancz first editions. Three Corvettes is not a first edition, but it’s an early reprint, in relatively good condition, and was cheap. Nor is The Collector a first edition, but a late 1970s reprint. But it is signed.

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Some new hardbacks. I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading his short stories in Interzone back in the 1980s, but he’s not been especially prolific: three novels and two collections, the first collection back in 1990 and What The Doctor Ordered published only this year. Needless to say, I got quite excited when I stumbled across this new collection from Centipede Press, and ordered it immediately. Marauder is Gary Gibson’s latest novel and I believe is set in the same universe as the Shoal Sequence. Shaman is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, and I really must get around to reading The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dream one of these days. And finally, Iron Winter is the final book in Steve Baxter’s Northlands trilogy.

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Lastly, some charity shop finds. Lightborn was on both the Clarke and BSFA award shortlists in 2011. The Cruel Sea I bought as a reading copy, as the signed hardback I have is a bit tatty. Of course, as soon as I got home I discovered I already had a reading copy. Oh well. I have both Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light in hardback, but Orthe was cheap so I bought it as a reading copy as I’d like to reread the books one day. I read American Tabloid years ago and I have The Cold Six Thousand on the TBR, so Blood’s A Rover will complete the trilogy. Selected Poems by TS Eliot, er, does what it says on the tin. And last of all, I went back to the charity shop and picked up the other Mailer 1970s paperbacks, The Deer Park and American Dream. So we’ll see what they’re like…

Incidentally, since swapping from Amazon’s to Foyles’ affiliate scheme a couple of months ago, I’ve not made a single penny. Meanwhile, my Amazon links have made me £7.40 over the same period. So I’m having a little difficulty understanding why no one else can manage an affiliate scheme that’s as easy to use, and as effective, as Amazon’s…

Oh, and there’s no way I can physically triple-stack my book-shelves – not that I think they’d stand the weight anyway. But the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to do something. I’ve already got some books up for sale on the Whippleshield Books online shop here, but it’s not like people are rushing to buy them…


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Sunday meme

Okay, so SF Signal posted this last Sunday, but I was in Berlin then, with no access to a computer. And yes, I had an excellent time, despite the weekend’s inauspicious start: getting up at 2:30 am, wandering down to the kitchen to make breakfast and stepping on a slug; and then getting to the airport and realising I’d left my credit and debit cards at home (fortunately, I had plenty of cash). Anyway, the meme…

alanya_coverMy favorite alien invasion book or series is…?
Probably the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, although Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy runs a close second. Duchamp’s five novels – Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto – document the arrival on a near-future Earth of an alien mission which will only talk to women. Supporting character turned chief villain Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s best creations. Jones’ White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café cover similar ground, but from a more global perspective. It also features, like Duchamp’s quintet, an extremely well-drawn antagonist in Braemar Wilson. Both series are intensely political and among the smartest books in science fiction.

ascentMy favorite alternate history book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: I’d say Ascent by Jed Mercurio, but naming it as alternate history might constitute a spoiler. It could also be argued that the superb Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is alternate history. I think I’ve read my fair share of Hitler-victorious alternate histories, and I suspect there are very few changes remaining to be rung on that particular trope. Not being American, I’ve little interest in their civil war and how it might have ended differently. Stephen Baxter’s alternate take on the US space programme, Voyage, appeals for obvious reasons. And many sf novels of the past written about exploring Mars and the Moon may not have been written as alternate history, but they pretty much qualify as it now. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century sf novels about twenty-first space travel, such as those by Steele or Bova, suffer from being, well, not very good. Sadly, early and alternate space travel doesn’t seem to be an area of the genre that has attracted writers with much in the way of writing chops. Which is a shame.

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey, the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. Everything that came after is just the twitchings of a dead subgenre.

redplentyMy favorite Dystopian book or series is…?
Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. If you read Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty, you’ll see that not everyone thought the USSR was a dystopia. And for all the UK’s fabled streets of gold, it’s starting to look more and more like a dystopia each day to those of us living here. As for reading about dystopias… I don’t think it’s been done especially well in science fiction – but then Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow. Some of DG Compton’s works from the 1970s might be considered dystopian, such as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and in Ascendancies, he manages to find a dystopian story in a near-utopian society. JG Ballard wrote plenty of novels and short stories which might qualify, but no specific title springs to mind – it’s probably best to consider his entire oeuvre as dystopian fiction. And you can’t really go wrong by reading them all.

equator3My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?
AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens), which mixes California noir and pulp sf and just about manages to get away with it, is one of my favourite sf novels. It’s completely bonkers, of course; but it’s one of van Vogt’s more coherent works. Which isn’t saying much. Recently, I’ve read some early sf by women writers and found it much better than the so-called classics I read as a kid – these days, I find EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov near-unreadable. There’s also an early Brian Aldiss novel, Equator, which I really like, though it’s more like spy fiction with added aliens than science fiction per se. Which may be one reason why I find it so appealing.

My favorite hard sf book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: it’s probably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I don’t read that much hard sf as such. When I need my real science kicks, I read books about space or deep sea exploration. There are very, very few hard sf novels which come even remotely close to emulating the authenticity those books possess.

nature-beast-richard-fawkesMy favorite military sf book or series is…?
I don’t have much time for military science fiction, though in the past I’ve read my fair share – including David Weber, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Jack Campbell, David Feintuch, John Steakley, and probably a few others. The only such books left on my book-shelves, and which may well get purged should I ever get around to rereading them, are Richard Fawkes’ Face of the Enemy and Nature of the Beast, which I remember as quite interesting. Also worth a go is Shariann Lewitt’s debut novel, Angel at Apogee, and her two Collegium novels, Cyberstealth and Dancing Vac. And if any of CJ Cherryh’s books qualify, then they’re certainly worth reading.

kairosMy favorite near-future book or series is…?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve always been a fan of John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels and short stories, but do they count as near-future? Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, a favourite novel, was near-future when it was published, but that was back in 1988 – and these days it reads more like alternate history. The same might well prove true of Ken MacLeod’s excellent Intrusion a decade from now. Another excellent near-future novel is Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, though despite being two decades old it has yet to become alternate history – perhaps because it doesn’t feel like it’s set in a near-future which might well happen.

The_Caryatids_Bruce_SterlingMy favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?
To be honest, I’m not interested in how Americans would react should their society collapse, nor do I believe that every single person on the planet would react in that way. Which pretty much discounts ninety-nine percent of post-apocalyptic novels. The only one that springs to mind as different is Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which shows the world – all of it – coping with the aftermath of climate crash and nation-state failures. Perhaps the best of the more traditional post-apocalyptic novels is Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, in which mysterious aliens save isolated pockets of humanity. It reads like a masterclass in sf and deserves to be back in print.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…?
Science fiction’s treatment of robots has always been silly. They’re either human in all but name and yet treated like slaves, or blatant signifiers for slaves. In remarkably few sf stories do they actually resemble real robots.

ceres-storm-david-herter-paperback-cover-artMy favorite space opera book or series is…?
I’ve always enjoyed Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though I think the individual parts are not as impressive as the sum of them. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty has always been a favourite space opera too, and I remember being impressed by Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire when I read it many years ago. Likewise David Herter’s Ceres Storm, which I read back when it was published in 2000. I really must reread it one of these days…

My favorite steampunk book or series is…?
I don’t read steampunk. There’s nothing in it that appeals to me. Airships? Pfft. Give me supersonic jets every time. Brass? Useless metal. And anyway, steel is more emblematic of the British Empire than brass. Difference engines? NASA didn’t put twelve men on the Moon using clockwork computers, did they?

My favorite superhero book or series is…?
I used to read superhero comics by the likes of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, but went off the whole genre several years ago. I can no longer think of anything nice to say about the genre.

Millennium(1stEd)My favorite time travel book or series is…?
I’m more likely to read and enjoy an historical novel than I am a time travel one. I can’t off the top of my head think of any time travel novels that I hold in especially high regard. I remember enjoying Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, which is set in 1940s Hollywood. And Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships takes Wells’ The Time Machine and runs with it… and runs… and runs… I’m a big fan of John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’, and I still have a soft spot for the film adaptation Millennium, despite its godawful production design… which does mean I really like the novel written by Varley of the film adapted by Varley of the short story written by Varley…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?
I don’t read YA books. I am no longer sixteen, and haven’t been for a few decades.

My favorite zombie book or series is…?
I don’t read zombie books. I don’t even like zombie films. Maybe one day somebody will do something interesting with the trope, but I’m not holding my breath.

foss_foundation-coversThe 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?
Last month, I foolishly agreed to read and blog about half a dozen classic sf novels, so I have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation to look forward to over the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I have some reading for SF Mistressworks, and I hope to sneak in a few more recent genre novels as well, but I’ve yet to decide which ones. In fact, when you have a TBR of around 700 books, it’s often difficult to pick what to read next and I can sometimes spend ten or twenty minutes feeling really indecisive as I wander from one bookcase to the next…

And now I’ve finished this I’ll no doubt think of books I should have mentioned. Oh well. The more observant among you might also have noticed that all the links on this post go to Foyles using their affiliate scheme (except for the one link to a DVD). I found it relatively easy to use – a little fiddlier than Amazon’s, but not unworkably so. We’ll see how it works out.


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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 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…


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Whoops, my finger slipped…

There you are, browsing your favourite online purveyor of books and, oh dear, you seem to have bought a bunch of them. That’s what happens to me. Well, that, and being unable to pass a charity shop without popping in to see if they have any decent books on sale. The end result is a book collection which continues to grow and mutate and evolve like some bookish monster out of Quatermass. Or something.

Anyway, here’s the latest additions…

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Some small press goodies: both Downside Girls, a collection by Jaine Fenn, and Entanglement, Douglas Thompson, I bought at Novacon. Unfit for Eden and Eater-of-Bone are both from PS Publishing.

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A few recent first editions – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine I’ve already written about (see here); likewise Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (see here). I suspect John Varley is long past his best, but I’ll give Slow Apocalypse a go anyway. Mary Gentle’s Black Opera has been getting some positive notices. I only have the first of Jaine’s Hidden Empire novels, and Queen of Nowhere is the fifth – so it’ll be a while before I read it.

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Some books for the space collection. Riding Rockets and Dragonfly are both signed. I’m told Mullane’s autobiography is a really good one. The Burrough is about the Mir space station. Living in Space was dirt cheap on eBay.

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I love how Haynes have started producing these Owners’ Workshop Manuals for all sorts of things – not just the Lunar Rover and International Space Station here, but also the Millennium Falcon, Avro Vulcan, Thunderbirds, RMS Titanic, USS Enterprise, and even Dan Dare’s Spacefleet Operations. Not, of course, that anyone will ever get to own one of those. Apollo 15 NASA Mission Reports is exactly what it says on the cover. I have quite a few of the books.

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Some books bought at Novacon: Tyranopolis, AE van Vogt; The Quy Effect, Arthur Sellings; and Metaplanetary and Superluminal, Tony Daniel.

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As I’ve got older I’ve found myself appreciating Ballard’s fiction more and more. So I’ve been buying the nicely-packaged 4th Estate paperbacks. Only three more after Hello America and I’ll have the lot. Throne of the Crescent Moon is an ARC, which I’m reviewing for Interzone. I’ve also interviewed the author.

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Charity shop finds: Dancing Girls, a Margaret Atwood collection; Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three was, apparently, mystifyingly shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold may not look like my usual reading fare, but it’s based on Lawrence Durrell and his relationship with his wife when they lived on Corfu; Richard Powers is an author I’ve fancied trying for a while now and The Echo Maker was a fortunate find.

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I recently won a competition on the Gollancz blog, and this was the prize: a package of SF Masterworks – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Synners, Unquenchable Fire, Riddley Walker and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Many thanks.

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These are for SF Mistressworks and were bought at Novacon. I’ve already reviewed Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (see here). I had a copy of Mary Staton’s From the Legend of Biel and read it many years ago, but gave it away. I fancied rereading it. The Wall Around Eden is from The Women’s Press. I’ve already reviewed a Pamela Sargent anthology and collection, so The Shore of Women will be her first novel to be reviewed on SF Mistressworks.

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Jacques Tardi’s bandes dessinée are really very good. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec volume 2 is completely bonkers. I suspect there won’t be a volume 3. New York Mon Amour is a collection of noir stories set in the titular city and despite the setting there’s something distinctly non-American about them. The Fantagraphic editions are nicely put-together, but annoyingly the books are all different sizes. Argh. ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven I bought on the strength of fond memories of the strip in 2000AD. I shouldn’t have bothered: it’s cobbled together from war movie clichés, often with dialogue which doesn’t even reach those heights. Ah well.

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These bandes dessinée are much better. Atlantis Mystery is an original Edgar P Jacob’s story, and very text-heavy. The story is complete tosh too. The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 1 and part 2, is of much more recent vintage, and is a mish-mash of Tintin-esque mystery-adventure and Dan Brown Biblical conspiracy, with a secret Nazi cabal thrown in as the villains. (Incidentally, Amazon’s database looks completely buggered on the Blake and Mortimer books – it has Atlantis Mystery and The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 2 down only by volume number, not title; so title searches won’t work.) Welcome to Alflolol is the fourth of the Valérian and Laureline series to be published in English by Cinebook.


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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

I like stories that play around with the structure of their narrative. I like reading them, I like writing them. I particularly like the way they allow you to hide things, so you can drop them all on the reader at the end and blow their mind. I call that the B-52 Effect – not after the bomber but after the drink, which you knock back and it sort of goes whoommppfff when it hits your stomach. If I can do that in my fiction, then job done.

While I was thinking about interesting narrative structures, it occurred to me it’s not something genre fiction does often, but when it does it generally does it quite well. And I tried to think of ten excellent novels that boasted interesting narrative structures. But I could only think of five:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), has perhaps the most common form of non-linear structure used in genre fiction, comprising two separate narratives – one of Byron’s fictional novel, which is also glossed with historical notes; and the second narrative is an email exchange set in the present about Byron’s life and his novel. One narrative informs the other and is in turn informed by it. I like that.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000), shares a similar structure to Crowley’s novel, in that the main narrative is – perhaps – a fictional work about the title character, and this is wrapped within another narrative which comments on Ash’s narrative and is in turn changed by her narrative.

Use Of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1991), famously has two narratives intertwined and chronologically opposed – one moves forward in time, like your average normal linear plot; but the other alternates with it and moves backwards in time. It makes for a mind-blowing climax, but sadly it’s a single shot: once you know the ending, you’re not going to get that B-52 Effect again.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974), equally famously has a non-linear structure narrative, with alternating chapters set on each of the story’s two worlds, Anarres and Uras, but not in chronological order. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, the chapters if re-ordered chronologically would go: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968) is, given that I’ve only read eight of Compton’s seventeen sf novels, the only one I’ve read so far that isn’t a two-hander. Most have a pair of protagonists, typically one male and one female, and the viewpoint alternates between them. Interestingly, in The Steel Crocodile the sections overlap so the reader sees events from both viewpoints. Synthajoy, however, has a single POV. At the start of the book, the protagonist is in an institution being “cured” after committing a crime. The narrative then starts to seamlessly slide into the past and describes the events that led up to the crime, and throughout the novel drifts back and forth between the two narratives. It is very cleverly done.

There are surely other genre novels with narrative structures other than the bog-standard linear beginning-to-end plot, but I’m having trouble thinking of good ones. There are fix-up novels, of course, though there’s nothing especially interesting in that as a structure. And both The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Icehenge comprise three loosely-linked novellas, and are both very good and cleverly done. Literary fiction is much more adventurous in this regard and two examples leap immediately to mind: Cloud Atlas and Girl Reading. Anyone else have any examples worth mentioning?