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100 books, part 5

100 books that “shaped your world”… Sounds easy enough. Until you start thinking about titles. I could have just banged out a list, and not worry about whether some of the books actually deserved to be on it. But no, I had to put together an annotated list – which meant I had to give a reason why each book made my 100. You can find the earlier parts of my list at: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. But I’ve also included a full list of the 100 Books That Shaped My World at the end of this post. Because this is the last post on the topic, and it covers…

The 2010s

I spent all but the last ten months of the decade living in South Yorkshire, buying far too many books online and from local charity shops. It all got a bit out of hand. When I put everything in storage and moved, I filled 85 boxes, mostly with books. I also sold about 15 boxes of books, and gave away close on 100 paperbacks. The good thing about this was it actually financed my move north. Even so, I was still a little surprised at how much I’d amassed.

I did, however, read plenty of books this decade. Just shy of 1500, in fact. My reading tastes also changed. As the 1990s and 2000s had progressed, I’d found myself reading more and more “literary” fiction, although science fiction still formed the bulk of my reading. During the 2010s, I started reading more British postwar fiction, and treasuring the prose of a number of such writers.

But I wasn’t just drifting toward fiction that wasn’t genre, I was also starting to be put off by current genre writing. Twenty-first century science fiction, especially US sf, began to privilege sentiment over rigour. And then there was the somewhat florid prose, and the over-use of metaphors in an attempt to add invention to over-familiar sf tropes. Changes in the publishing industry also meant editors chased debuts – because at least debuts weren’t “categorically killers”… yet – and the decline of marketing budgets pushed most of the promotion online and onto the authors themselves, and reviewers, bloggers, fans and readers. Which made it all tribal as fuck. The growing dominance of fantasy also limited the science fiction considered commercially viable, and in recent years several popular works have melded the two genres.

Of course, writers whose works I liked and admired were still published, and I discovered new writers whose books I liked and admired, and, even though I’ve been reading science fiction for close on 45 years, there’s still plenty of old science fiction for me to explore (even if its appeal is often somewhat limited).

This is, of course, a purely personal perspective. The science fiction genre has changed – this is hardly surprising – not only artistically but also in the way the publishing industry treats it. Some of those changes have worked for me, some haven’t. But it’s probably telling that only three category sf books from the 2010s appear in the list below, and one of those is in a negative capacity.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father had been a big fan of Lawrence’s fiction for much of his life, even going so far as to drag my mother to Taos to visit Lawrence’s shrine during a visit to the US. I think perhaps because of my father’s reverence for Lawrence, and what I imagined 1920s prose to be like, I sort of avoided reading him. But for some reason I decided to give Lady Chatterley’s Lover a go, and immediately fell in love with the book and Lawrence’s prose. So much so, in fact, that I tracked down Lawrence’s other books. But even that wasn’t enough, and I spent a long time hunting down copies published in the 1970s by Penguin, with white covers and Lawrence’s name in orange, as shown to the left. I now have twenty-eight of them. I’m still working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961). I can’t remember what prompted it – possibly watching the terrible BBC TV series The Deep – but deep sea submersibles, particularly historical bathyscaphes, became another “enthusiasm”. It took me a while, and it wasn’t cheap, but I tracked down a copy of Seven Miles Down, the only book written about the record-breaking descent to Challenger Deep, some 11,000 metres deep, by the Trieste in January 1960. Two people have since equalled that dive – James Cameron in 2012 and Victor Vescovo in 2019. The enthusiasm fed into my fiction, and the Trieste appeared in a couple of short stories and the third novella of the Apollo Quartet. I also collected several books on submersible and undersea habitats.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). I consider Compton one of the best prose stylists UK science fiction has produced. He was not one of UK science fiction’s best plotters (which, as I suggested in a recent Reading diary post, may be why he switched from writing crime to science fiction). But it’s not just Compton’s prose I find so impressive, he was also superb at writing characters and he liked to experiment with narrative structure. All of which are on display in abundance in Synthajoy. The book is told entirely from the POV of its protagonist, but her story drifts back and forth seamlessly in time, building up the story from both present and past. Compton’s best books all exhibit a very 1970s aesthetic, which I admit I also find appealing. Compton’s books led me to the works of other British sf authors of the 1970s, some of whom I had read in previous decades, but now I found myself appreciating them, especially those whose novels were explicitly British.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992). This book makes my list not because it’s a good book – which it is – or because I’m a fan of the writer – I haven’t actually read all that much by her – no, it makes my list because it was the first book reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Back in 2010, there’d been a conversation online about the fact so few British women genre writers were in contract with publishers in the UK. So I put together a list of 100 science fiction novels by women writers that had been published prior to 2000, a sort of response to the SF Masterwork series published by Gollancz. And after the list, it seemed like a good idea to build a website which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000. So I did. And it certainly changed my reading. Not only did I seek out sf novels by women to review for SF Mistressworks, but I also made an effort to balance my reading between male and female writers, and not just in genre fiction.

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991). When I was at university in Coventry, I remember visiting a bookshop/cafe called The Wedge. They had a carousel filled with books published by The Women’s Press, most of which, I seem to recall, were the sf titles in their distinctive grey design. I didn’t buy any, I wasn’t into that sort of science fiction at that time. But after kicking off the SF Mistressworks website, it occurred to me The Women’s Press sf titles would be good books to review. I had a read a few in the years since graduating from university, but now I decided to collect them. And I built up quite a collection: 45 out of 52 titles (including the two YA titles), both the grey cover design (A and B format) and the ones with the black-and-white striped spines. Correspondence was the first title published by The Women’s Press I read specifically because it had been published by them. I went on to read many more – again, because they had been published in The Women’s Press sf series.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011). I’m not sure it’s fair to say these two books “shaped” my world, but I bought and read them because of the social media buzz attending them. I thought them both good, but one better than the other, and I did read both trilogies through to the end. Of course, there have always been books published that generate excitement within fandom, but the ones I remember from the early 1990s were by authors with proven track records. Both Ancillary Justice and God’s War were debuts, and the buzz promised they were something different. They’re both space operas, of course, but very different in their approach to the subgenre. And, it had to be said, to me they felt like they were indeed doing something new with space opera, something interesting. There was nothing unique about that – Colin Greenland had done the same more than twenty years ago with Take Back Plenty, but his re-imagining of space opera seems to have ended with him. The success of Leckie’s and Hurley’s books – especially Leckie’s, which seemed to win every English-language sf award on the planet – promised real change in the subgenre. It could be argued Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet also fit the same pattern, but its online buzz felt manufactured, and I hated the book and thought it badly-written, derivative and mostly cheap sentimentality. But the Hurley and Leckie showed the power of social media in genre fandom, and that still influences my reading to some (albeit diminishing) degree.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002). Herter is an author I picked up on after reading his debut, Ceres Storm, published in 2000. He makes this list for two reasons. First, even though I bought Evening’s Empire when it was first published, it sat on my bookshelves for nine years before I eventually got around to reading it – and then I picked it as the best book I read that year. It’s not the book I’ve owned the longest without actually reading, but it’s a good example of one. The second reason is that Herter was quite open about his writing plans. He wrote an East European fantasy set in Czechoslovakia post-WW1, and a dark fantasy based on Something Wicked This Way Comes… but, sadly, the ambitious space operas he blogged about have yet to appear. It is, perhaps, one of the downsides of social media.

Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010). As I remember it, I stumbled across a website with photographs of Yugoslavian monuments to those who died in World War 2. Further research led me to an ad for Kempenaers’s exhibition of photographs of many of those monuments, not all of which had survived intact. The exhibition published a book of the photographs, which I bought. And that sort of sparked off another “enthusiasm”, this time for architecture, specifically East European and Soviet Modernism, and Oscar Niemeyer. To be honest, it was all pretty much eye candy to me. While the engineering of exploring space and underwater I find fascinating in a technical way, buildings and architecture not so much. But I do enjoy looking at pictures of the sort of buildings that seem to embody the enthusiasm for, a celebration of, the future that at some point around the middle of last century seemed humanity’s reward for its discoveries. Er, despite the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946). Among the things my father left behind when he died was a collection of about one hundred Penguin paperbacks he’d bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of them directly from the publisher (there was a receipt in one). I’d read one or two of the books over the years, but few of the authors in the collection had appealed to me. But I took my pick of them, intending to give the authors I’d not read before a go. The Member of the Wedding was the first book I read of the ones I took. It wasn’t… to my taste. But it did not alter my plan to work my way through the collection. And that proved an excellent decision – as can be seen below. Twice.

Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011). Like the Leckie and Hurley mentioned above, this book received a lot of online attention. And even more so when it was turned into a television series. Many people recommended it to me because, they felt, it was the sort of science fiction I liked: near-future hard sf. I fucking hated it. I thought the book was terrible, with deeply embedded, and unquestioned, right-wing sensibilities. The attempt at diversity struck me as little more than a thin glaze. And the plot hinged on an act so heinous it should have been unthinkable to any civilisation that claimed to be, well, civilised. It was also American as fuck. I tried watching the TV adaptation, but gave up after one too many mentions of torture. Leviathan Wakes made me realise I was no longer willing to put up with the right-wing bullshit endemic in space opera which science fiction fandom, and the general sf-reading public, seems happy to accept.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961). Among my father’s Penguin paperbacks were three by Malcolm Lowry – this collection, Under the Volcano and his debut, Ultramarine. I was aware of Under the Volcano, although I’d never read it; but I knew little about Lowry, his life or his other works. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place was… interesting. Until I got to the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. It blew me away. I read more Lowry, learnt of the semi-autobiographical nature of his fiction. I loved that. I loved his discursive prose style, his use of meta-narratives. He became a favourite author, and I began to collect his books – in first edition. I have now read all of his fiction, except his last unfinished novel, La Mordida.

Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011). One of the things I dislike about the online culture surrounding books and fandom is that everything seems to be given five stars in reviews. It’s bad enough that many online reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hyperbole, but the tendency to give everything top marks has meant retailers’ ranking algorithms now count only the number of reviews, and don’t weight them by the number of stars given. Potentially, giving a book five stars is only setting up a future reader for disappointment. Which does not mean every now and again a book comes along that rightly deserves five stars. Girl Reading was one of those books. And, astonishingly, it was a debut. Sadly, Ward has yet to follow up on Girl Reading. I’ve been eagerly awaiting a second novel from her for eight years.

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989). I started collecting copies of the Women’s Press sf titles partly because some of the books interested me, but also partly because they were ideal material for the SF Mistressworks website. Slonczewski was not an author I had read before, although her name was known to me, chiefly from her novel A Door into Ocean (also in the Women’s Press sf series). I had not expected much of The Wall Around Eden, but I was delighted to find the novel was put together like a precision-built watch. Many of the books I read, I read critically; but this was the first time I found the actual craft present in a novel to be the most impressive thing about it.

Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974). Another read prompted by SF Mistressworks. Once I looked into it, I discovered there had been several female-only science fiction anthologies published over the years. Women of Wonder was not the first, but it was a prominent pioneer. And yet there are people who insist that women writing science fiction is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s a bullshit position. Women have been writing science fiction – very successfully – since it was invented. And there were many women who wrote novels and stories in early centuries which fed into what became science fiction. But, somehow, women sf authors were written out of the genre’s history, probably by the cyberpunks of the early 1980s. That rewriting of genre history was one of the inspirations behind SF Mistressworks. I went on to read – and review – several female-only sf anthologies, and found a number of authors whose longer works I then sought out.

HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012). This was a book that generated some small buzz among my circle of acquaintances on social media, despite not being genre – and most of my circle are genre writers and fans. It is, in fact, WWII history. And yet it’s also about the author and about the process of writing the history book. Its ostensible subject is Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi bigwig and war criminal, one of the men responsible for the Holocaust, and, during the period covered by HHhH, Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. But it’s not Heydrich, or Operation Anthropoid, the attempt to assassinate him (which succeeded more by accident than design), that puts HHhH on this list. The Nazis have never been an “enthusiasm” of mine. But I have always been a fan of experimental narratives – not so much experimental prose, like stream-of-consciousness, but narrative structures other than straightforward linear. HHhH helped crystallise my interest in such narratives – and helped explain why some books I had read in previous years had appealed to me so much. It’s something I’ve continued to explore, both in my reading and my own writing.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I think this was also a recommendation. Or perhaps I saw a review of it in a newspaper. There was another book with the same premise – a person who lives through several alternate variations of their life – which proved much more popular, particularly in genre circles, and that was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. But I fell in love with Erpenbeck’s dry reportage-like prose. If I had become disillusioned with genre’s turn to over-written and sentimental prose, then the clarity and emotional distance of Erpenbeck’s novel – albeit translated – was exactly the sort of fiction I wanted to read. And I went looking for it.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939). And speaking of clear prose, Henry Green is surely a master of it. I found this omnibus of three of his novels in a charity shop, but it was around six years before I got around to reading one of the novels. And then I was sorry I’d not read it much sooner. Green’s prose is among the best I’ve read. And, astonishingly, he makes no concessions towards his readers. Everything – the plot, the characterisation – is conveyed through dialogue. Coming from a science fiction background, a genre which feels a need to explain everything, a genre which has developed a number of techniques for lecturing the reader, not just in invented worlds and “facts”, but also in information the reader could easily find out for themselves, this was something to definitely striking. It might seem that mainstream fiction, or even crime fiction, or thrillers, do not use exposition, but of course they do, it just occupies a different place in the narrative. Green’s novels showed me that stripping back exposition to the bare minimum did not have to handicap a narrative.

Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). Nocilla Dream came to my attention via a review on a friend’s blog, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to give it a read. Like the Binet above, Nocilla Dream uses a non-standard narrative structure – in this case, short unrelated sections, only some of which are narrative. It is also pretty much the antithesis of Green’s fiction, in that some of the sections are pure exposition, pure dry reportage, not always related to the fictional narratives. There’s more, of course, to Mallo’s book, which is the first of a trilogy, and which spawned a literary movement, the Nocilla Generation, in Spain. I plan to explore the other Nocilla Generation writers, and have so far read only a novel by Álvaro Colomer, titled, coincidentally, Uppsala Woods, but few of the books have been translated into English, and Spanish is not a language I speak or read. Perhaps I should try learning it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931). This was another book from my father’s Penguin collection. I knew of Faulkner, but knew nothing about the man or his fiction. An early twentieth-century US author – and while I had read one or two of them many years before, I couldn’t say any had really appealed to me. But The Sound and the Fury did something those other US novels had not done: it used an experimental narrative structure. It told its story through three limited POVs, none of which were actually central to the plot. I was hugely impressed. Books with complex narrative structures interest me, and it’s something I’m keen to explore in my reading. Faulkner’s prose is also wonderfully sharp. I have already read more Faulkner.

Here is the full list, for those of you like lists in, er, list form:

1 The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970, UK)
2 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960, UK)
3 Destination Moon, Hergé (1950, Belgium)
4 Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972, USA)
5 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951, UK)
6 Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965, UK)
7 Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953, USA)
8 Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951, USA)
9 The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965, UK)
10 Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952, USA)
10 Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971, USA)
10 Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951, USA)
13 Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg, eds. (1974, USA)
14 Dune, Frank Herbert (1966, USA)
15 Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977, USA)
16 The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950, USA)
16 The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967, UK)
18 The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979, UK)
19 The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984, USA)
20 The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968, UK)
21 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975, USA)
22 The Right Stuff, Tom Wolff (1979, USA)
23 The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978, UK)
24 Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975, USA)
25 The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983, UK)
26 Radix, AA Attanasio (1981, USA)
27 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980, USA)
28 Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980, USA)
29 The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984, UK)
30 The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983, USA)
30 Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975, USA)
30 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981, UK)
33 Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985, USA)
34 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988, UK)
35 The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980, USA)
36 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975, USA)
36 The Fith Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972, USA)
36 The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950, USA)
36 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969, USA)
40 The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990, UK)
41 Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990, UK)
42 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990, UK)
43 Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991, UK)
44 Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter L Wilson & Robert A Wilson, eds. (1989, USA)
44 The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989, USA)
46 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988, USA)
47 Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991, UK)
48 Iris, Wiliam Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990, USA)
49 A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965, UK)
49 How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980, UK)
51 Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987, USA)
52 C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986, USA)
52 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992, USA)
54 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957, UK)
55 An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997, USA)
55 Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel, eds. (1997, USA)
57 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993, USA)
58 Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996, USA)
59 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953, UK)
60 The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978, UK)
61 The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998, UK)
62 The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985, USA)
63 The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974, USA)
64 The Mechanics of Wonder, Gary Westfahl (1998, USA)
65 The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA)
66 Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987, UK)
67 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowski & Moebius (1980, France)
67 Valérian and Laureline 4: Wlecome to Alflolol, Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (1972, France)
69 The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980, UK)
70 Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999, UK)
71 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007, UK)
72 Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005, UK)
73 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005, USA)
74 Poems, John Jarmain (1945, UK)
75 Postwar Military 4: Avro Vulcan, Andrew Brookes (1985, UK)
76 The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott (1966 – 1975, UK)
77 The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961, USA)
78 First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, USA)
78 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974, USA)
78 Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973, USA)
81 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928, UK)
82 Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961, USA)
83 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968, UK)
84 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992, USA)
85 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991, UK)
86 Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013, USA)
86 God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011, USA)
88 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002, USA)
89 Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010, Belgium)
90 The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946, USA)
91 Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011, USA)
92 Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961, Canada)
93 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011, UK)
94 The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989, USA)
95 Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974, USA)
96 HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012, France)
97 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012, Germany)
98 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006, Spain)
99 Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK)
100 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931, USA)


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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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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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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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New Year, new books

It would have been nice if I could have made a New Year’s resolution to buy no books in 2012. But that was clearly impossible as there were a number of 2012 releases I wanted. I’ll just have to try and limit my purchases instead. Sadly, I’ve not been entirely successful in that regard – only one month into the year and look what’s been added to the bookshelves all ready…

Three new releases: Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds, In the Mouth of the Whale, Paul McAuley, and Dark Eden, Chris Beckett.

Three for the collections: Homage to QWERTYUIOP, Anthony Burgess, which is signed; The Steel Albatross, an underwater thriller by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, which is also signed; and Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell, from 1956, which is not signed.

Another of Jacques Tardi’s bande desinée: Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot is an adaptation of a French thriller novel and pretty good. Mission to Mars is for the Spacebooks collection, and also for research for a short story.

A bunch of paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection… Twilight in Italy is travel-writing, ‘À Propose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Other Essays is, er, non-fiction, and The Woman Who Rode Away is a short-story collection. I think I have quite a lot of Lawrence on the TBR now. JP Donleavy, on the other hand, I have never read before and know very little about – so I’ll give A Singular Man, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, and The Onion Eaters a go. He doesn’t appear to be in print in this country anymore.

And more paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection: another McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart, a collection, though I wasn’t that much taken with her The Member of the Wedding; a pair of Camuses (Cami? Camopodes?) Exile and the Kingdom and The Fall; and a collection of essays by Orwell, Decline of the English Murder. To the left is Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, a Women’s Press sf paperback kindly donated to the SF Mistressworks collection by Una McCormack, for which much thanks.

And three non-fiction works from my father’s collection: The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks is biography, of a sort; Leavis’s The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit are both literary criticism.

Two books for this year’s reading challenge – world fiction (see here): The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung, from China, and which you can see from the bookmark that I’m currently reading; and The Door, Magda Szabó, from Hungary. High-Rise joins the other nice 4th Estate paperback editions Ballards on my bookshelves.

Some science fiction… A pair of SF Masterworks: RUR & War with the Newts, Karel Capek, and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon. Colin Greenland’s Spiritfeather, one of the volumes from the four-book Dreamtime YA series published in 2000. There was a bit of a fad for Brit sf authors contributing to YA series at that time – not just Dreamtime, but also The Web, which boasted books by Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Peter F Hamilton, Eric Brown and Pat Cadigan. And, finally, Mission Child, Maureen McHugh, a charity shop find I plan to review for SF Mistressworks.

And here is The Monster Book for Girls, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror from theExaggeratedpress, which looks very nice indeed, but also…

… contains my story ‘Dancing the Skies’, which is the ATA/Spitfire story, which required much research on the Air Transport Auxiliary and WWII fighters and bombers.


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Women in sf reading challenge #5: China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh

China Mountain Zhang has been on my radar for a number of years – it’s one of those books I’ve heard many good things about, but have never really got around to buying or reading. Until now. And, in one of those moments of serendipity that confirm you’ve chosen the right time to do something, no sooner had I picked the book for my reading challenge then I found a copy in a local charity shop. It could simply be, of course, that I’d not been looking for it before, but since I’d been wanting to read it for many years I don’t think that’s the case.

Whatever. I’ve now read China Mountain Zhang. And I’m very glad I have done so. It is a very good novel. Zhang Zhong Shan is an ABC, American Born Chinese – except he is not really: his father is Chinese, but mother is Latino and he was genetically-engineered to appear pure Chinese. He is also gay. He works as a construction technician in New York in a United States dominated culturally, economically and politically by communist China. Zhong Shan translate roughly as “China Mountain” and is also the Mandarin equivalent of the Cantonese Sun Yat-sen. It is considered a name worth remarking on: as Zhang himself says, “To be named Zhang Zhong Shen is like being named George Washington Jones” (26).

China Mountain Zhang is the story of Zhang, opening in New York on a construction site, and finishing in New York with Zhang working as a freelance organic engineer. In between, he spends time on Baffin Island and at university in Nanjing. The narrative also breaks away from Zhang on several occasions to tell the stories of Angel, a kite-flyer in New York, and Martine, a settler on Mars. Though both narrative threads seem unrelated, by the end of the novel they have touched, or have been touched by, Zhang.

Not one of the characters changes the world though their lives do so. But neither is this a novel of accommodation – no one changes to in order to fit better. In fact, Zhang finds himself less employable, having qualified as a construction engineer, than he had been as a construction tech. And despite homosexuality being illegal in both the socialist USA and China, Zhang never questions his sexuality.

And yet he questions his racial identity repeatedly. He is not really Chinese, though he appears to be. His mother named him Rafael, and he still uses the name among some of his friends. As China Mountain Zhang opens he has been invited to the home of his foreman Qian to meet his daughter. Qian is Chinese but has fallen from grace and been exiled to the US. He does not know that Zhang is not wholly-Chinese, nor that he is gay. Trapped in the identity he presents to Qian, Zhang reluctantly meets Qian’s daughter, San-xiang, and takes her out. They become friends, of a sort – she imagines more to the relationship than is ever going to be the case.

In a later break-away narrative, Xan-siang, who is not attractive – “She is astonishingly ugly. More than ugly, there is something wrong with the bones of her face” (p12) – has cosmetic surgery to correct her appearance… only to fall victim to a predatory man. Her ugliness had protected her, and now she is pretty she does not have the social skills to cope with the attention her looks now cause. Her story is the one unhappy one in China Mountain Zhang.

But before that, Xan-siang runs away from her parents and goes to stay with Zhang. Her father tries use to this to force them into marriage, so Zhang reveals he is half-Hispanic. Qian fires him. Which is how Zhang ends up working on Baffin Island. There, Zhang’s identity – racial or otherwise – is mostly irrelevant. The scientists of the station are more interested in their jobs. However, Zhang’s six-month stint there does qualify him for special entry into a university in China. Which is where he qualifies as an organic engineer. The sections set in Nanjing don’t seem to quite gel as effectively as those set in New York or even on Mars. Zhang is a foreigner, though he does not look like one, and his personal interactions appear mostly limited to his tutor, also gay and with whom he has a relationship. Admittedly, China Mountain Zhang is Zhang’s story, told from his point of view, so perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps too it’s because Nanjing follows Baffin Island, and Baffin is a very limited environment.

Martine’s narrative, set mostly in her holding on Mars, initially seems to belong to a different novel. A link with Zhang eventually appears, but it is peripheral. Martine is an ex-soldier, now land-owner, on a collectivist Mars. A chance encounter with a new settler and his young daughter – both are living in dorms and have no credit and so cannot afford a parcel of land – brings Martine out of her self-imposed seclusion. There’s actually little in the narrative thread which demands it be set on Mars, other than a need for a society on which China has little or no direct influence.

There is a strand of utopianism to China Mountain Zhang. The world McHugh has built is by no means perfect – homosexuality is illegal, for example – but neither is it as unfair or unequal as the real world. It is, however, mostly prosperous and advanced – I think the story is set somewhere near the middle of this century, though I don’t recall an exact decade being named – but the world of the book has settlers on Mars, and people can “jack” into tools and computer systems. Inasmuch as it carries the story,  I found it convincing; but then I’m not wedded to capitalist ideals so I will happily accept a world built on alternative principles.

China Mountain Zhang was very well regarded when it first appeared. It was short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula, and went onto win the James Tiptree Jr Award and Lambda Award. Not bad for a first novel (in fact, it came top in the Locus Poll that year for Best First Novel too). On the strength of China Mountain Zhang, I certainly plan to seek out and read more of McHugh’s fiction.

(This review has been cross-posted on the SF Mistressworks blog.)