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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.)