John DeNardo posts these regularly on SF Signal and I usually have a go at them. This week it’s the following eight questions:
1. The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
Technically, it would be Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, a novelisation of the TV series, which my parents gave me as a Christmas present in, I think, 1974. But the first category sf novel I read was Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, which was lent to me by a classmate in my first year at prep school – so that would be either late 1976 or early 1977.
2. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
I guard my Top 20 jealously and, sadly, it’s mostly not sf, fantasy or horror. No genre book has made it into the list during the last couple of years. However, if I were to run a category genre-only Top 20, then the last book I read which might make the grade would probably be… Extra(Ordinary) People, a 1984 collection by Joanna Russ, if only because it contains a story, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a new favourite. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here. If I were to restrict myself to novels, the last three genre reads with the most stars from me on GoodReads were, in no particular order: Europe in Autumn, The Violent Century, Rapture and Ancillary Justice.
3. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
That would be Palimpsest by Cathrynne M Valente. I’d heard a lot of positive things about it, and was quite chuffed to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. But the reading didn’t go very well at all. I baled around page 100, unable to put up any longer with the over-writing. I think it was something about a character being able to taste a snail’s foot in his mouth or something.
4. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
I have my favourites – who doesn’t? Paul Park has a new novel and a collection coming out this year, which has made me very happy – doubly so, in fact. Sadly, Gwyneth Jones doesn’t seem to have anything due out in the foreseeable future. A couple of years ago, I’d heard a US publisher had contracted for a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (as by Ann Halam), but I’ve yet to see it mentioned anywhere online. I’m also eagerly awaiting David Herter’s new sf novels/novellas from PS Publishing.
5. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
But I’ve read everyone! Ahem. Of course, I haven’t really, just rather a lot of them – but many of those I’ve not read have been a matter of choice. I don’t think there’s anyone I’m ashamed I’ve not read – because if I was, I’d have read them; or at the very least I’d have one of their books on my humungous TBR pile. PC Hodgell, for example; or Michael Cisco… I own books by both but have yet to read them. Which reminds me, I really must get around to purchasing a copy of Laurie J Marks’ Fire Logic, as I really want to read it. Um, in fact, now I think about it, there’s a whole bunch of authors I want to read but have yet to buy anything by…
6. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
Easy. The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here, and have been singing its praises ever since. Sadly, it’s currently out of print; but it really needs to be introduced to a new audience.
7. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
Where do I start? Many of my favourite genre novels were highly regarded when they were published, but they’ve never been reprinted since. One or two are now in the SF Masterworks series… so I can hardly claim they’re still under-rated. Instead, I will chose something completely out of my comfort zone – a fantasy novel: The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (1991). It was never published in the UK, had two reviews on publication (in Locus and amazing Stories), has zero reviews on GoodReads and two on Amazon (including a 5-star one by Katherine Kerr!), Kirkus called it a “formless hodgepodge of a book”, and the first five pages of Google are links to places to buy the book rather than online reviews… I think it qualifies as under-rated.
8. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:
There’s a lot of recent sf I think is horribly over-rated – just look at the Hugo Award and Nebula Award shortlists for the past few years. But many of those books I’ve not actually read myself, so my opinion is chiefly the result of other stuff written by those authors. However, I have read Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, and it was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for 2012, and made it into the top 5 on the Locus Poll for that year. I thought it was terrible, and I refused to read its sequels. I now hear it’s been optioned for television. Sigh.
I’m not sure what triggered it, but the day before yesterday I was reminded of the first science fiction novel I can recall reading. And that got me thinking about the first album I remember buying, and the first film I remember seeing in a cinema. So I decided to write a blog post about them.
I remember reading books on Norse mythology and maritime mysteries, and by Joan Aiken, as a kid, but the first sf novel I remember owning was… Doctor Who and the Zarbi. We were living in Dubai, in a villa in Jumeirah, and my parents gave it to me for Christmas. So it must have been 1975. Because the previous Christmas we were in Qatar, and the following September I started at boarding school in the UK. During my first year at boarding school, I was introduced to “proper” science fiction by a kid in my class called Silver who lent me Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Then a lad in the year below me named Hopkinson lent me an EE ‘Doc’ Smith novel – one of the Lensman series, I think – and I started buying sf novels myself. In fact, several years later I bought all seven of the Lensman books – the Panther paperbacks with the Chris Foss cover art. I still have them.
I know I saw several Disney films in the main hall at Doha English Speaking School – my clearest memory is of The Jungle Book – but the first film I saw in a cinema was Where Eagles Dare, also in Doha. I remember the cinema was open air and that we sat on folding chairs, and I can remember watching the movie on the screen quite clearly. The film was released in 1968, but it was unlikely to have been available in the Gulf until several years later. We left Qatar in 1974, so it was either that year or the previous one. In which case, I’ll have been seven or eight years old. Of course, Where Eagles Dare is now a Sunday afternoon perennial on television, so I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen it since. The first genre film I can recall seeing is Planet of the Apes. After leaving Qatar, we moved to Oman and lived in a villa in a small camp outside the Sultan’s palace in Seeb. We would often visit the army barracks at Rusayl, where there was a film club. They’d project films onto the end of a barracks block, in a small area fenced off with barasti and provided with folding chairs.
One of the first bands I can remember owning an album by was Deep Purple. But that was a pirate cassette – you could buy them openly in the Middle East during the 1970s; and, in fact, right up to the mid-1990s. They usually cost less than £1. I remember them being Dh 4/- each during the 1980s when there were about six UAE Dirhams to the Pound Sterling. The first legitimate album I can remember buying was a LP, and I bought it in a record shop on Clumber Street in Nottingham. The shop has long since gone and I no longer remember its name. The album was Cat Stevens’ Foreigner, and I still have it. I don’t listen to it that much, though. The album was released in 1973, and I’m fairly sure I bought it before I started at boarding school in 1976. So I’m guessing it was either summer 1975 or summer 1976 when I purchased it. It might have been the year before.
A message from our sponsors: today’s trip down memory lane has been brought to you by science fiction, the literature of the futures of yesteryear.
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…
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
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.
The 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.
I saw Martin Lewis and Niall Harrison tweeting about this in response to, I think, this post from Aidan Moher. And since I love me a good book-related meme, I thought I’d have a go. It would have been too easy to pick the books I admire the most and claim they have influenced me in some fashion – which no doubt they have. But they’ve hardly directed my reading, or helped form my taste in literature, or shaped my conception of science fiction. Of the following five books, three I do indeed admire. But two are bad. They all, however, led to what I read and how I read it.
Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein
The first sf novel I recall reading was a novelisation of Doctor Who and the Zarbi, which my parents bought me for Christmas. For years afterward, I received Dr Who novelisations for Christmas and birthday. I’d also buy them with my pocket money. I think I had about two dozen by the time I eventually grew out of them. However, the first proper sf novel I read was by Robert Heinlein. I remember it quite clearly. It was 1976, I was in Form 3A at prep school. A lad in the same class pulled a book out of his desk and gave it to me because he thought I might like it (I think we’d been discussing Dr Who or something). It was Starman Jones. I loved it. Later, a second former introduced me to the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and from then on I was hooked on science fiction. And I’ve been reading it ever since – but not Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith.
Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
Some time during the mid-1980s, the family went on holiday to Paris. We stayed in a flat belonging to a director of the company for which my father worked. I vaguely remember buying an English book in a book shop somewhere in the city. It was Driftglass, a collection by Samuel R Delany. I bought it because I was reading The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star, a Delany double, and I thought it was brilliant – especially ‘Empire Star’. Delany’s fiction showed me that sf wasn’t all Heinleinesque rational men heroes and Asimovian cardboard-cutouts characters, it didn’t have to privilege the central idea at the expense of everything else, it could be beautifully written. I was a big fan of Delany’s writing for many years, but nothing blew me away as much as ‘Empire Star’ had done… until I read Dhalgren. It was just so completely not everything I thought sf was – it was wilfully irrational, it was immediate and real and dirty, it wasn’t about manly, or intellectual, white men doing manly and intellectual things in space or on some alien planet… Dhalgren is still one of my favourite novels, and I’ve probably reread it more times than any other book I own – yes, even more times than Dune.
Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams
I’ve never been a fan of Williams’ books, though I’ve read several of them over the years. I think Knight Moves might be the first book by him I read, however. It was published in 1985, and I’m fairly sure I read it in 1988. I’d joined the British Science Fiction Association that year, or perhaps the year before, and when Paperback Inferno – the BSFA’s paperback review magazine as was – put out a call for more reviewers, I volunteered. Andy Sawyer, the editor, asked me to send him a sample review, so I did a demolition job on Knight Moves. I can remember almost nothing of the book – except that I thought it was terrible – but as a result of my review of it I became book reviewer for the BSFA… and I’ve been reviewing books and commenting on science fiction ever since.
The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
As a teenager, my first choice of reading had always been science fiction, but I didn’t always have access to it. When I spent the holidays with my parents in the Middle East, my reading was often limited to the books they owned. Which meant I read some right crap – Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Nelson DeMille, Eric van Lustbader – and a few good books (though none of the titles immediately spring to mind). When I moved to Abu Dhabi in 1994, one of the first things I did was join the Daly Community Library. It had only a small number of science fiction titles, so I was forced to widen my reading. That’s how I discovered Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat, Rose Tremain, Lawrence Norfolk, Hanan al-Shaykh, Helen Simpson, Margaret Atwood, and several other authors I still read. One of the books I took out of the library was The Alexandria Quartet. But I didn’t actually get around to reading it, and eventually took it back unread. So I bought paperback copies of the books on a visit to Dubai. I read it, and immediately became a fan of Durrell’s writing… and subsequently a collector of his books. Durrell is not the first author I hunted down first editions of their books so I’d own them all – that would probably be Gwyneth Jones – but my book collecting certainly turned more serious as a result of reading Durrell. so much so, in fact, that I now own a first edition of Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, which is extremely rare…
Moondust, Andrew Smith
I was only three when the late Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon – in fact, the only Apollo mission I recall watching was ASTP in July 1975. But I was very much fascinated by space exploration as kid. I remember having a large poster of a Saturn V and an astronaut on my bedroom wall in Dubai. But then I become more involved in science fiction and lost my interest in science fact. Every now and again, I’d read something related to space exploration – one year as a Christmas present, I was given one of those big Octopus coffee table books on the topic; while I was living in Abu Dhabi, a local book shop stocked a number of Apogee Books’ NASA Mission Reports, and I bought several of them; I read At the Edge of Space by Milton O Thompson, about the X-15 programme, and found it surprisingly interesting. Then, five years ago I read Moondust. I no longer recall what prompted me to read it. But it re-ignited my interest in space exploration, and especially the Apollo programme. So I started buying books on the subject – often signed first editions. I created a blog, A Space About Books About Space, to review the books I bought. I built up quite a library – and it’s still growing – on human space exploration and spacecraft. And all those books have also come in really useful in my science fiction writing (just look at the bibliography in Adrift on the Sea of Rains).
Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:
First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).
On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.
Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.
I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.