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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…

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Maintaining a positive balance on the TBR

I try to read more books than I buy each month – or buy less books than I read, I guess it depends on how you look at it. Otherwise, the To Be Read pile would just continue to grow, and it’s already stupidly large. And this month, I’ve actually been quite good, and not bought a silly number of books.

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Four recent sf novels. They were actually published in 2016, but I only got around to buying them this year. Pirate Utopia is the first novel-length work from Sterling since 2009’s The Caryatids (which I liked a lot). The Corporation Wars 2: Insurgence is the, er, second book in a trilogy. Daughter of Eden is the third book of a trilogy. And Survival Game is the sequel to 2014’s Extinction Game.

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The more astute among you may remember a Sursum Corda appearing in a previous book haul post. That was Volume 1. This is, er, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Because someone on eBay was selling both volumes at a good price, and I’d been having trouble finding a copy of the second volume (I think the first was published in Canada and the UK, but the second only in Canada). Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space is the fourth book in the University of Ottawa’s critical series on Lowry’s work.

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Some bandes dessinées. The World of Edena started out as an advert for Citroën, but Moebius expanded and expanded it over the years. I wrote about it here. The Living Weapons is the fourteenth episode in the long-running Valerian and Laureline series, which I also wrote about here. There is a film adaptation by Luc Besson due for release, I think, later this year. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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The Silent City is for the Women’s Press SF collection. I was pleased at how good condition it proved to be in, because with some of these eBay sellers you never can tell. I thought Ouředník’s Europeana very good indeed when I read it back in 2006, and though I thought his next, Case Closed, not quite as good, I still liked it a lot. So it was about time I picked up third book by him, The Opportune Moment, 1855, published in English by Dalkey Archive. And… I’ve just discovered he’s written nineteen books, in Czech and French, but only the three I have have been translated into English – and both Case Closed and The Opportune Moment, 1855 were actually originally published in the same year.


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Reading diary, #43

For reasons that probably made sense when I made the decision, I’m keeping the reading diary numbering scheme going, even though it’s a new year. Not that I posted 42 reading posts in 2016, anyway. This year, I’m also going to document the country of origin of the books I read, as I plan to read geographically more widely in 2017 than I have done in previous years. This will likely mean less science fiction, although the percentage of my reading that can be categorised as genre has been steadily dropping for a long time. I still call myself a sf fan, and the genre usually offers me something as a reader I don’t get from other modes of fiction, or even non-fiction. But. There’s also a lot that sf is mostly very, very bad at, and I want to read books where those things are done well. And, I’d like to hope, that feeds into my own writing – which is, of course, predominantly science fiction…

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001, USA). And speaking of things that sf does badly… I read this book for SF Mistressworks, and its protagonist and narrator is, quite frankly, the most ineptly-drawn British character I have ever come across in fiction. See my review on SF Mistressworks here for some choice quotes. I forget where I stumbled across mention of the book, and its sequel Wayward Moon, but the cover art looked quite appealing… A cheap copy of Wayward Moon in good condition appeared on eBay, I bought it… but no good condition copy of Heart of Stone followed and so I ended up buying a tatty one just so I could read the book. And having now read that tatty paperback, I think I would have been overcharged if it had cost me a penny. I will probably one day read Wayward Moon just to complete the pair on SF Mistressworks, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it…

princes_of_airThe Princes of the Air, John M Ford (1982, USA). Ford is one of those sf authors whose books are held in high regard by a small number of discerning people. He’s perhaps best remembered for his Trek novelisations, but everyone who has read his non-Trek output has only good words to say of it. True, his alternate history/fantasy The Dragon Waiting was in the original Fantasy Masterwork series, but pretty much everything he wrote is long out of print and most of it was never even published in the UK. Having read Ford’s collection, Heat of Fusion, several years ago and thought it very good, I’d kept a weather eye open for his other non-tie-in novels, and The Princes of the Air popped up on eBay for a reasonable price some time last year, so I bought it. And I’m glad I did. This is well put-together stuff, even if it does borrow overmuch from the models it uses. But, to Ford’s credit, those models are plucked from more high-brow sources than your average science fiction novel. The title refers to three young men who decide to make the most of themselves. One is indentured to become a diplomat, if he passes all his training; the other two are so practiced on battle simulation VR games, one as a tactician, the other as a pilot, that they soon find work for themselves in those roles. But then there’s a plot to seize the throne from the queen, and the three work together to foil it. The chess references are a bit heavy-handed, but there was something else the book kept on reminding me of as I read it, and for the life of me I can no longer remember what it was. The plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays? Something like that. The world-building is put together well but feels a little dated. Ford’s prose is cut above the average, and he’s clever in subtle ways – the diplomatic language, for example, is rendered as iambic pentameter. The Princes of the Air has a sort of Tron-ish feel about it: good for its time, but very much the product of an earlier decade. If you stumble across a copy, it’s worth giving it a go.

valerian_14Valerian and Laureline 14: The Living Weapons, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1990). I’ve been buying these translations of Valérian et Laureline since Cinebook started publishing them, although I really should get the original French ones… But Cinebook are now up to volume 14 (originally published in 1990) of the current twenty-two books. This is good stuff although, to be fair, the shortness of each individual episode does mean the quality of the story can be a little variable. This is one of the less good ones… Valerian and Laureline land on a planet, not entirely in control, and hook up with a circus, each of whose four members have talents that make them closer to weapons than entertainers. There’s an ongoing war on the planet, and one war leader hopes to use the circus to “end war” – by winning it comprehensively of course, the sort of solution that Trump and Putin and your usual right-wing morons cannot see beyond – but Valerian has another plan… and, er, so he does it. Ironically, the “living weapons” eventually end up joining the Moscow State Circus. If only Gorbachev had known they were there, maybe he could have made glasnst actually work. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is what is meant when science fiction is described as an “ironic” mode of fiction…

peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (2014). The last Gibson novel I read before tackling this one was Virtual Light back in 1994, although I’d read the Sprawl trilogy and Burning Chrome prior to that. I then sort of lost interest in what he was writing, and it’s only in recent years that I decided to give his novels another go… So when I spotted The Peripheral in a charity shop, I bought it and it sat on my bookshelves for about six months before I picked it up and started reading it… I believe The Peripheral is more science-fictional than the novels Gibson has been writing since the late 1990s, given he’s no longer published as genre – not, of course, that The Peripheral was published as category science fiction anyway – but this novel’s story is, I believe, more overtly sfnal than the rest of Gibson’s output of the last decade or so. There’s a really cool idea at its core, although the mechanics of it are left unexplained: a mysterious server on the Internet (there’s a running joke it’s located in China) in the early twenty-second century allows people to communicate with the past. But only just less than a century into their past. And any intereference in that past causes it to branch off, and form a “stub”. Meanwhile, in near-future small-town USA, a young woman substitutes for her brother in what she thinks is an online game… but she’s actually flying a drone in twenty-second century London, working security for the sister of a famous performance artist. And she witnesses that sister being murdered by nanobots. Which kicks off a police investigation in London, a symptom of a struggle for power between two immensely wealthy factions, and which then leads to heavy interference in the near-future USA in order to protect the witness (like making her and her family the richest people in the country). (The title, incidentally, refers to the android avatar the young woman uses when visiting the future (to her) London.) About halfway through the novel, it’s revealed – although there are some pretty heavy hints – that eighty percent of the world’s population had died during the latter half of the twenty-first century, thanks to climate crash, economy crashes, epidemics, etc. You’d think with all this going on, I’d have been more impressed with The Peripheral. But… Everyone in the novel is near-superhuman – in the US, they’re ex-special forces or something; in London, nanotechnology gives everyone something like superpowers. No one in the book comes across as a human character. And then there’s callousness with which people are treated – this a book with a high bodycount. There’s even mention that in the twenty-third century, interfering in “stubs” is a hobby. In other words, those people enjoy fucking up the lives, often fatally, of more than six billion people. Which, I guess, makes them little different to the immensely rich today. But I don’t want to read novels in which stuff like that is treated casually, novels which set their stories in worlds which operate with all the morality of a computer game. Science fiction has always been a genre which seems happy to dehumanise every one except the protagonist and his, or her, band of hardy chums. That’s one way in which science fiction seriously needs to grow up. But it’s disappointing to see a writer of Gibson’s stature seemingly subscribing to that view.

edenaThe World of Edena, Moebius (2016). I’m a big fan of The Incal, although I’ve never really made an effort to track down Moebius’s solo work, possibly because it’s so hard to find in English-language editions. I’ve mentioned before, for example, the beautiful collections published in Danish I saw in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen (and, I discovered last Christmas while showing them to one of my nephews, actually published by Faraos Cigarer’s own imprint). Which is a bit of a long-winded way of getting around to the fact that last year Dark Horse collected all of Moebius’s Stel/Atana bandes dessinées and published them in a 350-page collection under the title The World of Edena, and I spotted it on Amazon but they had run out of stock so I ended up buying it from an eBay seller and saving myself a fiver… The original Stel/Atana story was written for Citroën for an advert in 1983, but Moebius expanded it a great deal over the years following. Basically, Sten and Atan visit a friend on an asteroid community, but it crashes onto the giant featureless planet it orbits… where Stel and Atan discover a giant pyramid, around which is a city 700,000 years old containing members of all the intelligent races in the galaxy, living and extinct. It transpires the pyramid is a giant spaceship and Stel is the pilot it has been waiting for. It transports everyone to the paradise planet of Edena… Once forced to live off the land, Stel and Atan develop secondary sexual characteristics and Atan proves to be Atana, a woman. The two are separated and the rest of the story describes their attempts to find each other, which are prevented by the masked inhabitants of the Nest, who are a particularly cool invention, and especially their semi-godlike creator, the Paternum. The action takes place both in dreams and on Edena itself, and it sometimes gets a little confusing. And even the final twist, with its deliberate attempts to leave everything unresolved, doesn’t quite work… But the artwork is gorgeous throughout, the Nesters are brilliant, and it’s clear from page one this is high-quality bandes dessinées which any self-respecting fan should own.

chernobyl_prayerChernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997). So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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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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30 words on 30 books

I shamelessly stole this idea from Pornokitsch, who did the same yesterday. Since I’m not doing my readings & watching posts this year, I thought thirty words on the last thirty novels I’ve read might be a good way of mentioning my recent reading. But 30 words is actually harder to do than it looks…

Final Days, Gary Gibson (2011)
Discovery on planet orbiting distant star reached by wormhole suggests future is fixed and immutable. World starts to fall apart. Nice Apollo re-enactment but otherwise not that much stands out.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946)
Tom Sawyer-ish Frankie daydreams of brother’s wedding. A GI mistakes her age, wants to get frisky. Lovely writing, though it’s hard not to suspect Frankie is wrong in the head.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, Jacques Tardi (2010)
Graphic novel adaption of French thriller set in the UK. Assassin like father like son. With guns. And gore. Not much more to be said. Tardi is definitely worth reading.

Bodies, Jed Mercurio (2002)
Incompetent doctors get away with murder on the NHS. New houseman is horrified. He learns to work with the system. A favourite writer but it will scare you off hospitals.

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss (2004)
First human colony disappears, rescue mission discovers aliens protecting them. Mix of hard sf and space opera. Nice heroine, not so interesting aliens. Oozes competence without suggesting more. Review here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963)
Should have been a film with Dirk Bogarde. 1960s wastrel goes begging for cash and sparks family crisis. Great wit, great writing, and an astonishing postmodern interlude. Recommended. Review here.

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
Freak alien resembles humans. They want to conquer her planet and fall in love with her. She scuppers their plans. Somewhat old-fashioned sf, though protagonist well-drawn. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar (2010)
Literary and pulp potage which stripmines steampunk tropes. Orphan adventures, starts cleverly in Victorian Lizard London but loses steam about halfway through before Bond-esque Vernian finish. The first of three.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008)
Man recovering from terrorist bomb explosion dreams himself into alternate self in a world where WWII never ended. Very cleverly done, alternate world very real, great writing. Recommended. Review here.

Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Princess pilot, a hot-shot of course, proves to be catalyst which rejoins three sundered races on three separate planets. Interesting debut, though perhaps a little over-egged. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (2009)
China prospers while rest of world in financial crisis. Interesting window on Chinese society, though unsatisfactory as a novel – the plot is explained in a final chapter info-dump. Review here.

The Fall, Albert Camus (1957)
Pompous ex-lawyer monologues at stranger in Amsterdam bar and over several days tells him of his somewhat boring fall from grace. Mercifully short, though there’s some insightful writing in it.

Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell (1956)
It’s a book of poems. And they were selected. By Lawrence Durrell. He did this several times. Except when he wasn’t collecting his poems for his Collected Poems. More here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994)
A story told through several stories – including a superb pisstake of Taggart, and a righteous skewering of Jeffrey Archer. Superbly done, though perhaps needed the stories tying together more. Recommended.

Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey (2011)
Solar system shenanigans as alien virus wreaks havoc for corporate profit. Who needs New Space Opera? Regressive: no diversity, old school sexism, implausible villainy. Mostly right physics. Avoid. Review here.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Men repeal rights of women, so they secretly develop women’s language. Interesting linguistics, good female characters, though characterisation of men not so convincing and world-building weak. Review on SF Mistressworks.

This Island Earth, Raymond F Jones (1952)
Manly engineer saves the galaxy by demonstrating good old US engineering know-how. Womanly PhD does his ironing and cooking. Happily they don’t write them like this any more. More here.

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler (1944)
Mixed-up femme fatales don’t fool Marlowe in hunt for rich man’s missing wife. Not the cunningest murder-mystery plot and Marlowe often gets away with murder. Strong on place and time.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987)
In Hungary, writer hires housekeeper, who proves to be old school peasant and a right character. Fascinating portrait of housekeeper, thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon to be major film. Review here.

The Unorthodox Engineers, Colin Kapp (1979)
Collection of sf shorts in which lateral thinking engineers solve seemingly intractable problems. Dated, problems not especially unsolvable, nor especially original. Entirely forgettable, in fact. Hard book to find, though.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
Story not as good as Nemo’s though text is more pleasingly detailed. Science horribly dated, of course, and often wrong. Characters bizarrely emphatic – except for phlegmatic Icelandic guide. Historical document.

Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
Novella set on human-colonised Europa-like planet with interesting socialist society. Woman and male tourist find themselves on unintended journey after seaquake. Promises more than it delivers but still worth reading.

Kamikaze l’Amour, Richard Kadrey (1995)
Kadrey channels Ballard and Shepard in rock star epiphany in California overrun by Amazonian jungle. Not sure how original was 17 years ago but is not now. After Metrophage, disappointing.

Smart-Aleck Kill, Raymond Chandler (1958)
Collection of four shorts. Simple direct prose, strong on place and time, though plotting something of a direct line and characterisation sketchy. More for noir fans than normal readers, possibly.

Embassytown, China Miéville (2011)
Truthful aliens get hooked on impossible Ambassador’s speech. World falls apart. Narrator teaches aliens to lie and saves planet. Interesting ideas but old-fashioned science fiction. Likely award-winner. Sigh. Review here.

Dr No, Ian Fleming (1958)
Bond in Jamica. Again. Racial stereotype has evil plan to do evil. Bond foils, with help of trusty local. He nearly dies in the process, but he gets girl. Again.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
Seminal bande dessinée allegedly cobbled together from failed Dune film project. Light and dark Incal combine to save galaxy from evil Darkness. Completely bonkers. Lovely art. Everyone should own copy.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1997)
Character study of true life murderess from 1840s. Clevery done – never quite determines innocence or guilt, though very detailed on life and crime. Lovely writing. Possibly Atwood’s best novel. Recommended.

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Hot flushes and giant aliens that live inside planets. Cartoon aliens that want to conquer galaxy. Hit and miss comedy, but too fantastical for sf. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.

The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett (1974)
By-the-numbers swords and planets. Manly hero brought up by animals battles way across barbarian planet to save mentor. Been there, done that. Yawn. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.


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Words invade a home book by book

In the past six months, I’ve given away several hundred books, and yet the ones remaining seem to take up more and more space. Admittedly, some authors’ books I’ve been steadily replacing paperback copies with hardbacks… But that can’t be the only reason. However, some of the following may go some way to explaining it:

Some signed firsts: Gothic High-Tech and One Who Disappeared I pre-ordered ages ago, from Subterranean and PS respectively. Intrusion was the only book I bought at the SFX Weekender, and since Ken was there he signed it for me. Pacific Edge is for the KSR Collection, and the Spider Robinson Author’s Choice Monthly joins the others I own (currently twelve). I can’t say I’m a fan of all the writers they published, but there are several excellent ones.

I bought The Quiet War from a seller on abebooks.co.uk, who had it down as a hardback. When it proved to be the trade paperback, they gave me a refund. There’s a copy of Players on coldtonnage.com for £50; I got my copy for £5 on eBay. Windows – a US hardback, it was never published in the UK – is for the Compton Collection. And Arkfall and Machine are two recent books by women sf writers. I thought Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken excellent (see here), and I’ve heard good things about Pelland’s fiction (shame about the cover-art, though).

Some new paperbacks. If Embassytown is shortlisted for the Clarke, I’m going feel a little silly. I guess I’d better read it then. Rogue Moon joins the rest of my SF Masterworks collection, though I reread the book only a couple of years ago. I do like the design on these 4th Estate Ballard books – The Crystal World makes it six I now own.

Charity shop finds. My Name is Red becomes March’s book for this year’s reading challenge (see here). I’m still determined to work my way through the 007 books, despite thinking they’re not very good – hence The Spy Who Loved Me. And I’ve quite fancied trying some of Gerard Woodward’s novels for a while, and last weekend I found three in a charity shop: August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth.

This is the last lot from my Dad’s collection of Penguin paperbacks. A bunch of Raymond Chandlers: Playback, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, Smart-Aleck Kill and Killer in the Rain. A couple by Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and Ultramarine. One by David Karp (did you see what I did there?). Another Camus – The Outsider; one from the Dance to the Music of Time – The Kindly Ones (a popular book title, it seems) – and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

This is the third time The Incal has been published in English – first by Titan Books, then by Humanoids Associates, and now by SelfMadeHero. But this new edition is much nicer than previous ones, so even though I have the Humanoids paperbacks I had to get this one.

2000 Fathoms Down is for the underwater collection (that’s a collection of books on underwater topics, rather than a collection of books located underwater, of course), and I’ve seen so many positive mentions of Delusions of Gender I thought it was about time I bought my own copy.