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The habit of moderation

I have always believed in that old saw: moderation in everything, including moderation. Except when it comes to book-buying. You can never have too many books. You can, however, own more books than you can comfortably read – but, again, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Sooner or later, you will read those books. It may take a few years, perhaps even a decade or two, but it’s not like you’re never ever going to read them. Because otherwise what would be the point in buying them?

So here are some books I intend to read at some point…

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Given my love of the film, it was only natural that I’d want to read the book from which it was adapted, All That Heaven Allows; but it was bloody hard to find a copy. I managed it though. For my next informal reading project, I’m trying books by British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century I’ve not read before and who could arguably be considered “forgotten”. The Remarkable Expedition doesn’t actually qualify on two counts: a) it’s non-fiction, and b) I’m a fan of Manning’s books anyway. A Month Soon Goes, The Bridge and Devices & Desires, however, all certainly qualify. Finally, some more Joyce Carol Oates, a charity shop find, The Female of the Species

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Some genre by female writers: I’ve not been as completist about collecting the new un-numbered SF Masterworks as I was the numbered ones (so I should be grateful, I suppose, that they are un-numbered), but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever was a definite want from the moment it was announced. After last year’s awards massacre by Ancillary Justice, which I famously liked, I couldn’t not read Ancillary Sword. And after liking the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the same is true of The Mirror Empire. While working on Apollo Quartet 4, I made reference to a story by Josephine Saxton… but I didn’t have a copy of it. So I found a (signed) copy on eBay of The Power of Time, which contains the story, ordered the book, it arrived the next day, I read the story… and discovered it was a serendipitous choice for my novella. The Other Wind was a lucky charity shop find.

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I’m a fan of Palliser’s novels, but I hadn’t known he had a new book out – he’s not exactly prolific, five books in twenty-five years – so Rustication was a very happy charity shop find. I’ve been working my way through the Bond books, hence The Man with the Golden Gun, although I don’t think they’re very good. Kangaroo is another one for the DH Lawrence paperback collection. And Strange Bodies was praised by many last year so I thought it worth a try (despite not being that impressed by Theroux’s also highly-praised Far North).

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Some crime fiction – actually, I don’t think Ghost Country is crime, although Paretsky is of course best known for her VI Warshawski series of crime novels. Murder at the Chase is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set Langham & Dupree novels. I’ve seen the film and the television mini-series, so I thought it was about time I read the book Mildred Pierce.

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I read the first part of Sanctum a few years ago but never managed to track down English translations of parts 2 and 3. I was going to buy the French omnibus edition at one point, but then spotted this English version on Amazon one day. It has its moments, but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. Valerian and Laureline 8: Heroes of the Equinox is, er, the eighth instalment in a long-running sf bande dessinée, and they’re very good, if somewhat short.

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On genres, modes, distances and invention

I won’t say where, or on what, I was at the time but this weekend I was thinking about definitions of hard science fiction for a podcast, and my thoughts spiralled out from there to definitions of science fiction itself. And it occurred to me that sf narratives break down into three rough forms: encountering the Other, embracing the Other and rejecting the Other. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to hold true. Think of a random sf novel, like… Dune. That’s embracing the Other – both Paul Atreides becoming a Fremen and learning to  use his new-found powers.

Since its earliest days, science fiction stories have been characterised by distance just as much as they’ve been characterised by science and/or technology. Alongside the Gernsbackian tales of new inventions which would improve the lives of all were stories of alien places and the strange peoples found there. Distance is a signifier for the “exotic” (in both meanings of the word). Before science fiction, they told tales of the South Seas.

The further away a place is, the more Other it is – it’s a simplistic formula, but this is pulp fiction, after all. The difficulty of the journey is less important than the distance travelled. There are very few Shangri-Las hidden in inaccessible mountain valleys, or their galactic equivalents, but lots of worlds on the rim of the empire or the edges of the galaxy. Travel itself is not uncomfortable, but does take time. Real spacecraft are small and cramped, with no amenities. Sf’s starships are interstellar ocean liners with cabins and restaurants and promenades. This is because the journey does not matter, it is only a metaphor. If there are hardships, they are associated with either finding the destination, or at the destination itself. Off the top of my head, the only sf story I can think of in which the journey itself is an obstacle is Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (in Gwyneth Jones’ Buonarotti stories, and her novel Spirit, there’s a similar effect with interstellar travel, but it does not make the journey an obstacle). No doubt there are other stories, though I maintain such stories are rare within the genre.

But then, there’s not much that’s Other about the act of travelling from A to B. Even in the Le Guin story mentioned above, the means of making the journey affects the travellers’ perceptions of their destination, making the act of encountering, or even embracing, the Other so much harder and more prone to misunderstanding.

Space opera, of course, is traditionally predicated on rejecting the Other, as is military sf. The drama in both subgenres typically derives from conflict, either from within the world or from without. And the further the enemy is from known space, the more Other they generally are. Even when they’re humans, they’re typically barbarians from the edge of the empire – though that may simply be science fiction ripping off the history of the Roman empire… which it has done far too many times.

The same argument might well apply to fantasy, even though it is a different genre. I suspect there are more narratives of rejecting the Other in epic commercial fantasy than of the other two forms. Given its generally consolatory nature, this is no surprise. Other modes of fantasy may well be more evenly distributed – I’m not as well read in fantasy as I am science fiction. It might well be that the same argument does not apply to fantasy, given that it is an entirely different genre to sf.

Science fiction is not, and has never been, a branch of the fantastic. You can’t categorise fiction by the degrees of invention it exhibits. All fiction by definition contains invention, whether it’s literary fiction with made-up characters , fantasy with made-up worlds, or science fiction with made-up science and/or technology. Nor can you categorise by trope… because first you would have to define each and every trope. And lay out the conditions under which each trope is fantasy and not science fiction, or vice versa. If a fantasy novel has a dragon in it, then it does not follow that all novels containing dragons are fantasy. And so on. Science fiction is a fundamentally different genre to fantasy, and it’s an historical accident that the two are typically marketed alongside each other.

 


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17,500 words or more

A few weeks ago in a review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ – see here – sf critic Paul Kincaid mentioned it was one of his favourite novellas. He also provided a link to an earlier post on another blog giving his favourite science fiction novellas – see here. So, of course, I started thinking about a list of my own… and immediately hit a couple of snags…

I like the novella, I think it’s an interesting length. It gives you the freedom to experiment you don’t have in a novel, and the room to experiment you don’t have in a short story. The four books of the Apollo Quartet are novellas, and I plan to write further at that length. But. Novellas are not as common as short stories – because they’re harder to write and harder to sell – and, as I tried putting together a list of ten favourite novellas, I discovered that few of them are all that memorable. It’s likely down to pure numbers: I’ve read so many short stories that I can quite easily think of ten which have stayed with me over the years. But ten novellas? Have I read enough for a critical mass of favourites to form?

The first few choices were easy. But then I had to resort to various collections and anthologies to prompt my memory. I also discovered that some of my choices were actually novelettes…

I hate the novelette.

It is a completely useless category. According to the Hugo Awards, a short story is up to 7,499 words, a novelette between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and a novella between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Anything over that is a novel. Back in the day, magazines apparently offered different pay rates for short stories, novelettes and novellas, and some magazines – well, Asimov’s and Analog – still list stories by category in their table of contents. But the novelette as a category serves no useful function for readers. There are short stories and there are novellas. Why do we need something in between? So the Hugo and Nebula Awards can hand out more awards to the voters’ friends? Most genre awards only have a short fiction category, they don’t even make a distinction between short story and novella…

But, as I said earlier, I like novellas, and I think it’s important to recognise them in the annual awards merry-go-round. But, please, kill the novelette. Expunge it, exterminate it, marmelize it, remove it from every ballot and magazine TOC.

Anyway, my favourite novellas… After some research, I managed a list of ten, all of which were categorised as novellas by isfdb.org. But restricting myself to stories of 17,500 to 39,999 words meant I’d been forced to chose some novellas I would be hard-pressed to call favourites. So I thought, sod it. I don’t care if some of them are novelettes. I reject the bloody category anyway. Which is how I ended up with the following ten novella/ettes…

‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1959)
One of the things about a favourite piece of short fiction is that you can remember where you first read it. This was in an anthology called The Future Makers which I was given as a present one Christmas or birthday back in my early teens. The story itself is a piece of spy fiction with added aliens, and there’s something about its 1950s thriller template that makes it more memorable than it would be otherwise. It was also published separately as a novel under the same title.

‘Empire Star’, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Delany was one of my favourite writers during my teens and twenties, and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. Dhalgren remains a favourite novel. But I remember being really impressed by the Moebius strip-like structure of this novella when I first read it. And it still impresses me on rereads. I first read it as one half of a Sphere double with ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, and I’m pretty sure it was while on holiday in Paris with the family in the early 1980s.

‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading one of his Eight Worlds short stories, but I can’t actually remember when I first read him. Having said that, ‘The Barbie Murders’ is not an Eight Worlds story but an Anna-Louise Bach one – although like many of the former, it’s set on the Moon. There is something very creepy about the story’s central premise – a cult in which all the members have had themselves surgically remade to resemble Barbie; and Varley uses this idea to ask questions about identity. I also think this is one of those stories which exists in that Schrödinger’s-Cat-like area between utopia and dystopia.

‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
I read this is The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection, and it’s probably the premier work of time paradox fiction in the genre. It originally appeared in an author collection, Novelty: Four Stories, and has even been published as a standalone novella.

‘Identifying the Object’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
This story (it’s one of ones on this list that’s actually a novelette) first appeared in Interzone #42, December 1990, under the title ‘Forward Echoes’. It’s the story that turned me into a collector of Gwyneth Jones’ fiction, Later, she amended it and it was published under its new title as the title story in a chapbook by Swan Press of Austin, Texas. The story takes place in the same world as Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, Buonarotti stories and Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
I first read this in the collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, and of the four novellas in that collection, it’s the one that stood out the most for me. There are a lot of stories set in the Ekumen which could have made it onto this list, but most of them aren’t really long enough to qualify as novellas.

‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
I read this in the issue of Asimov’s in which it appeared, March 1996. In my contribution to the Acnestis APA a couple of months later, I described it as “brilliant” and wrote that “if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, then there’s no justice”. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Hugo as a novelette and the World Fantasy Award as a novella (which proves my point above), and shortlisted for the Tiptree.

‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
Science fiction is full of Big Dumb Objects, from Niven’s ringworld to Clarke’s Rama, but most are associated with quite dull pieces of fiction. Reed’s ‘Marrow’ is told with a very clinical, detached voice, which only heightens the impact of the BDOs which furnish this novella. There’s the Great Ship, a slower-than-light starship the size and shape of a gas giant, and there’s the title world itself, which exists at the core of the Great Ship. This novellas was later fixed up into a novel of the same title.

‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
When I first read this in Interzone #124, October 1997, I characterised it as one of Watson’s occasional completely-off-the-wall stories, the ones he churns out every now and again that are even more bonkers than his usual output. It’s about jigsaws, Vidkun Quisling, Nazi occultism, and getting naked in an Oslo park. I liked it a lot, and it was certainly memorable. And then it re-appeared as the first section of the novel Mockymen, and it seemed even more mad, and I liked it even more. It reads like fantasy, and to use it as the opener for a sf novel (about aliens invading Earth) demonstrates such an insane view of genre that it’s hard not to admire its brazenness.

‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
I read this as a standalone chapbook published by Phoenix Pick, which I’d purchased after being mightily impressed by Gilman’s fantasy Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social world-building Gilman does in the novel that, I think, most impressed me. It is certainly a novella that has haunted me since I read it.

So there you have it, ten pieces of long short fiction of novella-ish-type length. I suspect if I were to try the same exercise a couple of years from now I might come up with a slightly different list. But this will do for now. And I’m serious about getting rid of the novelette.


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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

Everyone loves lists. Contentious lists are even better. So here’s one: the ten absolute best science fiction novels ever published – written by sf authors, published by sf publishers. These ten books show what the genre is capable of when it aims to be more than mindless escapism. They are fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, meaningful, inventive, rigorous, and sf from the first word to the last. They are, in chronological order:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972). A collection of three novellas – but not a cheat, as the three are linked and form a novel together. This is the sort of science fiction that can be read and enjoyed, and then carefully puzzled through to determine what was really going on. Wolfe is a tricksy writer, and in The Fifth Head of Cerberus he’s at his tricksy-est.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974). Donald Wollheim once claimed that the benevolent dictatorship was the government of choice of sf fans. That’s clearly what comes of reading too many space operas with interstellar empires and the like. And yet sf also has a history of documenting the road to utopia. All that benevolent dictator stuff is nonsense, of course – it’s as much fantasy as the Competent Man as hero. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to it. The Dispossessed is a political book – it’s even subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” – and it’s political in a way that makes you think, that shows you what sf is really for.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975), is definitely science fiction – it’s in the relaunched SF Masterworks series, for a start – even though it’s proven extremely popular outside the genre. Sometimes it reads like a novel of its time, sometimes it seems almost timeless. But every time you read it, it’s different. It is also the most profoundly literary book in this list, and from an author who is steeped in genre.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Yes, so Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas arguably kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing in 1987, but to my mind the movement didn’t really gel until the appearance of Take Back Plenty three years later. I remember the buzz the book caused – and I remember on reading it discovering that it was as good as everyone said it was. I reread it a couple of years ago, and it’s still bloody good. So why is it not in the SF Masterworks series, eh?

The Martian trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996), is a bit of a cheat as it’s three books. While many are full of admiration for the first book, Red Mars, but not so keen on the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars, I maintain that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You need to read Green Mars and Blue Mars after you’ve finished Red Mars because the first book only poses a small handful of the questions the three books ask and attempt to answer.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000). This is the biggest book on this list – it contains nearly a million words. It is, with Red Mars, one of the most rigorous too. Rigour is important in sf – you can’t just make shit up as you go along (but you can, of course, as Iain Banks is fond of putting it, “blow shit up”). The bulk of the story may be set in an alternate mediaeval Europe, but it is not fantasy. It is clever, it is visceral, it is also physically heavy.

Light, M John Harrison (2002). They say Harrison is a writer’s writer, and the prose in Light certainly suggests as much. Light is also one of those novels that’s often described as one which “redefines” science fiction. Which it does. Sort of. But not by coming up with something new, only by shedding new light on those genre tropes being over-exercised at the turn of the century. They say that sf is a genre in conversation with itself, which makes Harrison one of sf’s sharpest conversationalists.

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004). I need only repeat David Soyka from his review of this book on sfsite.com: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’ve never believed sf should be predictive, but if any sf writer could be called an “architect of futures” then it would be Bruce Sterling. And in The Caryatids he has produced his most inventive and meaningful conversation with the future yet. It is the best book he has written. So why hasn’t it been published in the UK? Why is there only a US edition of this excellent book?

These are not “seminal” sf novels, they are not “classics”, they are not even especially popular. But they are “best” in the true meaning of the word – i.e., “of the highest quality”. If you haven’t read them, you should do so immediately.

Now tell me which books I’ve missed off my list. No mainstream authors slumming it in the genre, please. And I don’t care what impact a book had in, or outside, the genre. It has to be, in your eyes, one of the best-written science fiction novels ever published. And that doesn’t mean the “most entertaining”, or any other excuse used to justify flat writing, cardboard characters, or simplistic plotting. I’m not talking about fit for purpose; I’m talking about excellence in writing, in prose, in literature, in genre.