Sci Fi Shortlist Update – Hugos and Clarke Awards

Long Way to a Small Angry PlanetLast night the Hugo Award short lists were announced, much to my amusement. I don’t quite get how people can get so worked up about what is essentially a good and kind message (what the bad guys call SJWs) in fiction that they sabotage an award. Nuts. Anyway, many more eloquent comments are available than could come from my brain, so check out HUGOPOCALYPSE II: Where Do We Go From Here? From Nerds of a Feather for example.

So the shortlist for best novel is:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit) – not interested after finding problems with the first one
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc) – not read, but come on!
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (Orbit) – interesting and valid nomination, on my to-read list
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) – ditto
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey) – not as good as most people claim. Weird!

For more on the Hugos:

And so tonight, the Clarke Award shortlist was announced:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe – already read this one
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – already read this one
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

This seems like a pretty good list, although I’m gobsmacked that Adam Roberts’ novel isn’t on it!

And as a reminder, the other awards I pay attention to which have been announced:


  • Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight
  • Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden
  • Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings – read this one, which won
  • Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon
  • Justina Robson: Glorious Angels

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood – read, which won
  • Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection, by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts – read

Kitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore, by Sara Taylor – read
  • Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan – read
  • The Night Clock, by Paul Meloy – read
  • Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson – read, which won

So, I still plan to read most of these that I haven’t read, and produce my own list and award!

So come the announcement of the Clarke Award winner later this year, I’ll be announcing the inaugural ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks.

Watch this space.

A journey: Favourite re-reads – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI’ve read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell twice before. I remember vaguely picking it up when it first came out in 1997 – I suspect as a result of a review from SFX which was one of only a handful of sources of science fiction book reviews at the time – and about 10 years ago. It seems like it will be one of the books I need to come back to every ten years or so. So I picked up my smelly, dog-eared and stained Black Swan paperback edition and settled back with a smile on my face.

The Sparrow is, at a fundamental level, an alien first-contact novel. However, when you consider that this story is about Emilio Sandoz and a mostly Jesuit party who are party to the discovery of alien life, and who subsequently travel to the planet Rakhat, you realise that this is about God, religion, faith, colonisation, acceptance and more. The narrative has two time-streams. The first is on Emilio’s return to Earth, a physically and emotionally destroyed man. He is facing charges of murder and prostitution on the alien planet. He is the only survivor. The Jesuits are also under scrutiny for his behaviour. The second stream starts with the pulling together of the core group of friends who eventually find love and the alien signal. They travel to Rakhat where they make contact with two sentient species. Russell skilfully plays the narrative time streams off against each other, as you warm to the characters and feel their joy and pain and tragedy.

The first 100 pages

It was remarkable how easily I recalled all the characters and the plot within the first few pages. When Sandoz is helped by Brother Edward and John Candotti and has his braces fitted, I started to recall the trauma of the journey to come. The story flooded back to me. And when he meets Ann and George, and eventually Jimmy and Sophia, the initial warmth and comfort of the characters was replaced by dread, as I recalled their fate. It is a testament to Russell’s writing that in the opening chapters of this book, you fall in love with the characters (again, for me) and really enjoy spending time with them regardless of the story. The characters in the ‘after-the-event’ time are perhaps less well-rounded and while not cyphers, you never connect with them on any emotional level.

Within the first 100 pages, there are hints of tragedy and signposts to much worse, but the actually science fiction and alien elements are largely missing from the story (Sophia’s AI work excepted). While clearly and proudly science fiction, it only dwells on these certain elements in passing. This is a story about people and their love.

100-200 pages

The next 100 pages opens with a litany of abuse against the Jesuit church. I wondered if this was Russell’s personal attack on religion, but then I remembered that it is fiction and the views expressed in any book aren’t necessarily those of the author. And then…

Then Russell writes the warmest and loveliest description of friends becoming a family, even with what happens to poor Jimmy (I’d not fully recalled the plot towards the end), I have ever read, just before they are all brought together before god and alien contact. Although there is the duel narrative structure, this line in particular is very linear storytelling and fairly obvious in hindsight, but so wonderfully written it does matter?

An interesting parallel comes to light in this section. All the characters from the time of discovery of the alien signal have the correct experience (astronomy, linguistics, engineering, computer programming, medicine) and relationships with each other. Sandoz and others start to believe this is the work of god, bringing them together. Is any author, god, then? In all books, characters and plots must have the required coincidences to make the story work. Life isn’t a story because it isn’t full of these coincidences but all fiction must. Is Russell acknowledging this? I think so. Turtles and fence-posts.

There is a scene on p188 of my copy when the crew first board their vessel, where Anne and George attempt to complete a mission of their own in zero g. Rarely does a book make you smile at the dialogue and interaction of a bunch of fictional characters as The Sparrow does. It is so convivial and warm. It is like a favourite pie in winter or ice cream in summer. And yet Russell signposts the tragedy ahead a few passages later. Perfect storytelling.

And at this point, 2/5 of the way into the book, we still don’t know why the book is called The Sparrow.

200-300 pages

As I passed the half way mark it occurred to me that there can’t be many alien contact novels that can get to this point without actually contacting the aliens. [Spoiler alert] Around this point, one of the main characters dies. However, he was never really one of the main, main, characters so while the method of his demise was unexpected, the fact he was the first to go wasn’t a surprise. Bit of a red shirt moment, and doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it counters the rest of the narrative. When others die, there is deep and prolonged grief. While this character who dies was never core, his death appears to be too quickly forgotten.

300-400 pages

And now to the main course. Russell explains the alien cultures as experienced through Sandoz and the team. It made me consider how tricky it must be to invent an alien culture in fiction. It needs to be alien yet comprehensible to the reader. It needs to be plausible but different enough to be interesting. It was fun when Russell includes the Star Trek reference to make that point. There is no point in having aliens who all speak English and act like us. Russel takes proper zoological and ecological theory and weaves a believable yet alien civilisation. Of course, many, many other science fiction authors have also achieved this, but still, it can’t be easy.

And then, when DW – Sandoz’s father figure – falls ill the dread returns. Having read the book before I know he dies, but I couldn’t recall quite how…

As the 400th page approached, one of the main issues with re-reading a novel comes to the fore. You  know something bad is coming – there are still 6 of the main characters to die – but you can’t quite remember the precise moment, or page. Every event, every new chapter might bring death.

400-501 pages

Re-reading an old favourite is a mixed blessing. I must have read a fair few hundred books since I last read The Sparrow. I’m 10 years older. You always bring something of yourself to every novel you read. Different experiences in real life and in fiction. I was glad I’d forgotten (even mis-remembered) how DW had died. However, as everything really tragic happens in the last section of the book, this time round his and the rest of the crew’s demise felt a little rushed. Even though the plot demanded it, the explanations of how the contact had changed the aliens, and how the aliens had changed Sandoz could have played out a little longer. I was still gutted by the finale, although due to my years of reading, the dramatic conclusion was a little less shocking than it was 20 years ago. And as for the title, it is only revealed on page 499: Matthew 10 v29. Apparently.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Sparrow. It every bit as good as I remembered. The characters every bit as warm and the writing as engaging and as thought-provoking. I only wish Russell had continued writing SF (sequel aside). There is so much depth to her story, although it didn’t make me think much about god and religion, or faith. It did make me think more about how our actions affect others, even the seemingly harmless ones. Even when we think we’re doing a good thing. We cannot know how other people think or will react to us. Russell seems to understand this both personally and culturally.

The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award, which it thoroughly deserved.

Let’s get metafictional: Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

Christie Malry's Own Double EntryMeta from the Greek meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘self’. Fiction from the old French meaning ‘arbitrary invention’. Metafiction, then, is a self-aware invented creation. Something made up that knows it’s made up. One of the best known works of metafiction, I would suggest, is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which is a book about the failed attempt of a reader reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. The chapters alternate between this plot and the opening chapters of books the reader is reading. The book is aware it is being read.

I’d heard about Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) by B S Johnson from a podcast. Possibly my sort of thing, I wondered? Not exactly speculative fiction in the usual sense, but I liked the way the book was described, and the more I heard about B S Johnson, the more I felt like this book would appeal to me. Johnson is not very well known, generally, and I imagine not at all known in the science fiction, fantasy and horror fandoms. However, I think he will be appreciated by readers of speculative fiction. Not only is Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry a cutting satire that is self-aware, but Johnson is deliberately pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be.

It is a relatively short book – the edition I read was 180 pages, many of them text free. And the plot is fairly straight-forward. Malry is a fairly disenfranchised young man who gets a job in a bank in order to be close to money – which he sees as the main path to happiness in life, along with sex. He soon realises he needs to be a bookkeeper or accountant in order to trace money. After enrolling on a course, he finds himself working in sweet factory, in the wages department. He meets a girl, and they fall in love, having lots of sex. He devises his very own double-entry bookkeeping system, which he applies to his own life; “crediting” himself against society in an increasingly violent manner for perceived “debits” owed to him for being maltreated.

Once I read the opening few pages I knew this book was for me. I immediately saw what Johnson was doing with Malry and could find myself agreeing with his logic. For example, he has no choice about how he walks down a path. He agrees with society that he can’t walk on the road for fear of being hit by a vehicle, but is perturbed by the fact he can’t walk any other way, as there is a building in the way which has no relevance to him. Society, therefore has debited him in taking away a perceived choice. Despite free will and in the UK at least, the illusion of democracy, we don’t have a choice. We have to contribute to society in such and such a way. We have to behave in particular ways and journey through life in acceptable behaviours. There are many things in life I can’t do because it’s not my choice, even though no harm would arise from my chosen actions to myself or anyone else, and society might even benefit.

Thematically then, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry hit all my buttons. I wonder if Chuck Palahniuk had read this book before writing Fight Club (1996)…

So this would have been a good book for me. However, the metafictional elements notched it up another level. Into great book territory. I crave to read (and hear and see) the different and the unusual. And yet here was Johnson pressing my buttons only a few years after I was born. Not only does this book know that it’s a story and has a reader, Johnson, lets us know that we know. He even talks direct to Christie in a chapter towards the conclusion. Let’s look at the evidence:

Early on, Johnson the story teller is indicating to us as the reader that what we do and don’t need to know about Christie’s life and past. Not so unusual, maybe. However, it is in chapter 3, when we meet his mother, that the full extent of Johnson’s intentions are laid bare. [Spoiler]. Christie’s mother talks to him in actual dialogue about her role in the novel. This role is nothing more than both as narrative and metafictional exposition. When that role is complete, she dies. In a single chapter. Awesome use of fiction in my opinion. Indeed, other characters, for example Christie’s girlfriend – known only as The Shrike throughout – are aware they are but characters in Christie’s novel and behave accordingly. Interesting solipsistic conceit, I think. I often think about how other people perceive me in my life, and wonder about the reality of the lives of others. Are they bit parts in my story, filling in the cracks of my reality?  So as well as character knowing they are in a story, and Johnson appearing in a scene talking to Christie about the book, the style and presentation can also be called metafictional. I particularly enjoy the title of chapter 20: Not the longest chapter in this novel. Which itself is more than a quarter of the length of said chapter. One of the best comments is when Christie complains Johnson is using too many exclamation marks. Johnson also admits to the reader that he is often making stuff up as he goes along – as we all do in life.

The metafictional elements are amusing enough, but combined with the satirical swipes at society’s obsessions with money and sex (and remember this was 1973 and is equally relevant today) makes Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry one of the wittiest stories I’ve ever read. Combined with the textual elements addressing free will and a person’s place in the world, almost make this – thematically only – science fiction, although I’d certainly call it a horror story. It sits comfortably on the same shelf as Dick, Vonnegut and Ballard.

No book is self-aware, of course. No book understands itself. It is the author, when writing it, who is talking directly to the reader. True enough of works of metafiction. But then, doesn’t that apply to all fiction? Is all fiction, by definition, self-aware? In traditional fiction, characters behave in ways real people never would. Whereas I can see myself making Malry’s choices, Kirby, the main character in Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls (2013), goes after the man who attempted to murder her, herself. No-one would do that except a character in a story. So Kirby, and all other fictional characters, must act like she is in a story, and not like a real person. While Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry brilliantly wears itself on its sleeve, all authors behave in a similar way to Johnson, whether they admit it or not.

Some elements of this feature originally appeared here:

Keeping my mind open: Genre-fiction short lists and awards update (2015)

At the end of February I appeared on the Brum Radio Book Club, talking about science fiction. I mentioned that it was science fiction short list season. For the full text that I recorded and to listen to the show see:

Since the recording, the BSFA and the Kitschies have announced their short-list while the Clarke Award have released their submissions list. This is a terrific time for me, as a genre reader, as I pick up book recommendations that I wouldn’t always come across from the likes of SFX or Twitter. I try to read as many of the short-listed books as I can, that suit my tastes (too many books out there to read something I know I won’t be interested it!).

Starting with the BSFA, their shortlist for best novel is:

  • Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight
  • Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden
  • Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings
  • Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon
  • Justina Robson: Glorious Angels

I’ve not read any of these, although I might check out the McDonald especially as I enjoyed The Dervish House. The Hutchison is intriguing. I’ve tried reading Robson in the past and not got on with her and I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first in Beckett’s Eden books so I might give that one a miss. While The House of Shattered Wings appears to be the book most up my street, I naturally take against anything that declares itself to be book one in a series. Still, it’s on my to read list. Whether it makes the leap from the list to the shelf is touch and go. For more on the BSFA:

Moving on to the Kitschies. These are my favourite awards. They always introduce me to new writers, as they have a debut novel category. In their main shortlist known as Red Tentacle, the books are:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection, by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

I’ve already read the brilliant The Thing Itself. I waxed lyrical on the radio, and also on BookGeek. I’ve already got the Atwood on my shelf, and plan to read it before Easter. Both the Wilcken and the Jemisin are not books or authors I’ve heard of. They may have to wait in line, unless one beats Roberts to the prize.

The Golden Tentacle goes to a debut novel from this list:

  • The Shore, by Sara Taylor
  • Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan
  • The Night Clock, by Paul Meloy
  • Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson

I’m half way through The Shore as I write. It is a hard book to love but an easy book to admire. I hope it all comes together as it promises. I’ve got the Logan and the Meloy on my shelf. I’ll be reviewing The Gracekeepers for BookGeek in a few weeks’ time. Blackass sounds interesting and I’ve added it, and the Thompson, to my to read list. The winners are announced tomorrow. For more information on these shortlists and awards see:

I usually try to read as many of the Clarke Award shortlisted books as I can, although this has dropped off in recent years. To date, they have announced 113 books on their submission list, and while they make it clear it’s not a long list, I’ve only read or plan to read 19 of them. I certainly hope these make the short list:

There’s a very interesting discussion on the list over here: It will be a while before the winner of the Clarke Award is announced although the shortlist is expected on April 27.

I expect the usual bickering once winners are announced. Such and such isn’t science fiction, or such and such only won because a woman wrote it or has a gay character. Nonsense and tosh of course. I can’t stand the social media bullshit that surrounds the awards, but it is a price to pay for the democracy of opinion and voice. All I know is that I will take some of these books, and some I’ll enjoy and some will inspire, and in some I might find new favourite authors. And for that, I thank all those involved in putting these awards together, for they help to keep my eyes open. Keep my mind open.


Image credit: Share Alike Some rights reserved by Eddi van W.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis (1938)

Out of the silent planetCS Lewis is best known for being the author of the Narnia series of novels (written between 1949 and 1954) and also for being a Christian apologist. What is not so well known outside of the science fiction fraternity, if such a one exists, is that he wrote a highly influential trilogy of science fiction novels, starting with Out of the Silent Planet in 1938.

It is alleged that Lewis decided to write the story after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), but must surely also owe a debt to A Martian Odyssey (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912). However, in the edition I read, the 2001 Voyager Classics edition (which is combined with the follow up – Perelandra – which I haven’t read as yet) the introductory note from Lewis indicates that the debt of creativity belongs with HG Wells. Which unfortunately gives the game away regarding the plot, to some extent.

The story of Out of the Silent Planet begins with a gentleman walking in the countryside. Before long he has found himself, significantly via his own acts of kindness, in the house of a scientist, and intervening on behalf of a poorly educated boy. The gentleman is Professor Ransom, a middle-aged man on a walking sabbatical. The scientist is Weston. With him is an old adversary of Ransom’s, an adventurer called Devine. Before he realises, Ransom is drugged and aboard some kind of space-ship, somehow in space. He finds himself on a planet known as Malacandra. Apparently he is an appeasement or sacrifice for the natives, known as sorns. On arrival, however, Ransom escapes his human captors. He then has a series of short and almost perfunctory adventures where he meets two other intelligent races of the planet; the hrossa and the pfifltriggi. Each of the species has particular characteristics.

The sorns are very tall and very slender humanoids, and which are surely the origin of the pseudo-scientific aliens in modern culture known as the Greys. They are the scientists and thinkers of the planet. The hrossa which resemble stretched otters, with their love of water and boating. They are poets and musicians; the creators. The final race, the pfifltriggi, are the builders. The resemble insectile frogs. Ramsom is introduced to another race, while being pursued by his erstwhile captors, the Eldils – who are beings apparently made of light. They have a prime, or leader, called Oyarsa who summons Ransom to explain himself and his presence on what we by now know is Mars.

So not much of a plot, it would seem. However, the making of this story is the writing, the characters and the allegory. It certainly has a place in the pantheon of respected and influential science fiction stories for a number of reasons.

Despite only brief appearances, Weston is a reasonably interesting character and symbol of the scientific and potentially godless world that Lewis perhaps foresaw. Devine is less so, more of an in-between character. While Ransom is the decent everyman, explaining to the reader the morals and dilemmas of the story. Oyarsa, towards the conclusion of the novel, describes Weston has having “the mind of an animal,” and his mind is filled with “fear and death and desire”. And this is perhaps key. Weston, fearing for his life, argues that the advancement of human civilization justifies any action that would conventionally be termed “immoral”. Even his death would be fine providing it would eventually lead to the conquest of Mars and the eventual population of space by humankind. Lewis is possibly showing that the blind following of scientific progress is immoral and salvation is found in a god, or spirituality at least. For it is a thinly veiled symbol that Oyarsa is an angel, and a high one too. Oyarsa describes space as heaven and that all the planets have a guardian angel such as he. Only Earth does not, as there was once a battle between the ‘bent one’ (Satan) and the ‘old one’ (God), and that since Maleldil the Young (Christ) no-longer rules. So now Earth is the Silent Planet, with no god, but amoral man who will take another’s life as easy as he would take some food.

The allegory is an obvious one, especially from the viewpoint of history. The good follow a spiritual, inclusive path, while the immoral pursue science at any cost. Lewis wasn’t shy about promoting Christianity and morals. Out of the Silent Planet is possibly the first true science fiction story to address the issue head on. Certainly, the giants that Lewis’ stood upon almost always avoided it, with the exception of those describing religious systems within potential utopias.

And it definitely is science fiction. Unlike the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs on Barsoom, there is no fantasy or mystery here. The human travellers arrive on a space-ship, which while it is not specifically explained, is the product of science and not magic. Even the angels are just another species in the heavens and not supernatural beings. What is interesting, however, that even now, even in an established genre in the late 1930s, and almost without exception (Lindsay, Voltaire and Stapleton notwithstanding) the science fiction writer’s imagination had not escaped the terminal velocity of Mars.

Lewis is an eloquent writer, as his subsequent success perhaps proves. The characters, both human and non- are interesting. There is a complete lack of female characters of significance, which is always sadly to be expected from the male authors of this time. Perhaps Lewis and others simply didn’t know or understand enough about women to write about them properly, or perhaps I’m being too much of an apologist for outright sexism. The descriptions of the Martians and the planet itself are noteworthy. The three main species find themselves in other stories by other authors in time. Meanwhile, Ransom’s descriptions of being on a strange planet and how he felt about the aliens are unusual and evocative.

On reflection, the world building and universe mythology that Lewis creates, while thinly disguised, is complex and engaging. The language and writing draw you in. It is only the simple and to be honest, not very interesting, series of mini-adventures that Ransom undertakes (albeit rarely of his own choosing) that really lets the story down. Lightweight narrative clashing with heavy moral preaching leads to an unbalanced and unsatisfactory literary science fiction meal.


All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the birds in the skyThere are two ways, in fiction, to introduce something new and different to a reader; in style or in content. A creator, someone with a story to tell, and who wants to be the difference to everything else out there in a crowded speculative fiction market, must make a choice. The most accessible way to introduce something new and different is to write a traditional prose story, but with new and engaging content.

There’s nothing particularly new about a clash of ideologies within a narrative, but mash up some genres and critique binary thinking and you have All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Books and stories that defy labelling and mess with traditional boundaries of genre are becoming, thankfully, a lot more common. Which is probably an issue for booksellers, but for me, I can’t get enough. Over recent years I’ve praised the likes of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (science fiction and Arabic mythology), the Dog-Faced Gods series by Sarah Pinborough (noir crime fantasy) and The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (fantasy crime time travel and magical science fiction respectively). Into this mix comes the glorious All the birds in the sky.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of popular science fiction and all-things-geeky website i09. All the birds in the sky is her debut novel, having previously had short fiction published on and Strange Horizon. She has also been a juror for awards panels including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and for the Lambda Literary Awards. She is known to identify as a trans woman. All the birds in the sky is essentially a story about binary concepts and at first glance is pretty much black and white within its tropes: the protagonists are Patricia, a witch who as an affiliation with nature, and Laurence, a scientist who doesn’t. Woman, man, magic, science. If this was all the book was – a traditional science versus nature, man versus woman tale, it wouldn’t have the emotional wallop and interesting genre-blending insights that it does. It would have also descended, possibly, into a saviour or ‘the one’ theme, which it thankfully avoids.

Patricia is introduced to the reader when she is six years old. She is suffering a little from younger sister syndrome. An experience with a wounded bird brings her to a Parliament of Birds and a Tree. There is a mysterious question that she must answer in order to become a witch: Is a tree red? This question comes up at significant periods in the book. Ignorantly, I kept imagining it would be something to do with perception and it should be read, and therefore when it is dead and made into a book. I was delighted at the reveal. Meanwhile Laurence is a child-genius who builds a two-second time machine which helps avoids his bullies but has little else of merit. He is stifled by his parents, so runs off to a rocket launch where he meets Isobel and Milton, both of whom would play important roles in his life. Patricia and Laurence meet during adolescence at school. They are both having a rough time of it. They become friends, almost through necessity. They find out each other’s secrets, but Laurence especially, has a problem dealing with Patricia’s magic. Laurence, on the other hand, has been building a potential AI and it is Patricia who has a significant part to play. School days, in the book, aren’t given too many pages here, which I thought was a clever move. This is no Harry Potter, after all. Our protagonists are estranged and in their early adult life now.

Patricia is coming to terms with her powers and helping people, while being chided by her peers for being too aggrandising. Laurence has cast aside the AI project and is working with a group of equally genius scientists in a think tank. Meanwhile, the world is heading for oblivion. It is with this backdrop that most of the narrative unfolds. The magician and the scientist exist in different worlds, but they keep clashing and drifting apart, like waves on a beach. There are misunderstandings and reconciliations, relationships with other people and with each other. A forgotten plot point comes back to the fore, and you realise it was always there, just skilfully hidden. Patricia and Laurence are both outsiders who are drawn together through the pull of something much bigger than defined boundaries. They are mistrustful of each other’s natures but their feelings outweigh that mistrust. They both make plenty of mistakes and turn one way when they should have kept going straight on. And all the while, the birds are telling Patricia that it’s too late.

There are binary ideas throughout the book. For example, within the opposing camps, there are divides into two. In the magic camp, there are the Tricksters and the Healers – even to the point of having their own versions of Hogworts. The science types are less polarised, although the factions move between saving humanity or destroying it. There is no good versus evil or right versus wrong here. Females aren’t better than males – Patricia and her clan don’t think to ask an important question which as devastating consequences on Laurence. Males aren’t better than females. Laurence messes up a perfectly fine relationship due to his own insecurities. Both magic and science have flaws. And so they should. There is never an easy solution, never a clear route to success.

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing makes this book so very accessible. It is often said that it is very difficult to make something look easy. Anders’ previous experience in writing and living as transgender in a geek work might be the effort that makes this book a joy to read. My only real criticism is that this is very much a book of the moment. It does read, sometimes, as an ‘issue-of-the-day’ book, exemplified by the use of terms such as mansplaining. If some words and ideas fail to establish themselves beyond the zeitgeist, it could date the book quickly. The dialogue occasionally straddles the faddish and the genius. When it works, it is very naturalistic and honest, especially in the relationship scenes. Other times it is witty, which kinds of covers up some clunky exposition about wormholes and doomsday machines and such like. Which brings me to the world building. Considering that the world is going to an environmental and political hell-in-a-handbasket and considering that there are numerous complex muddy characters, there’s a significant lack of exposition. Characters don’t explain everything, either. When Patricia and Laurence are talking about dimensions, they both agree it is like the concept of Plato’s Cave. Anders doesn’t feel the need to explain that to the reader. She has faith in them that the either know, or they’ll go and look it up. This is common throughout. Certainly, there are hardly any info-dumps. Another one of the reasons why this book works. The superstorm (the main subtext is climate change) has devastating effects, for example, but Anders doesn’t tell us from a distance. It impacts characters’ lives, not just at the moment, but later in the book too.

Laurence makes a sacrifice that reminded me a little of Will and Lyra make at the conclusion of His Dark Materials. This passage elevates All the birds in the sky beyond just an interesting and successful endeavour in genre-busting speculative fiction, and into the realms of simply great storytelling. It’s what tugs on the heartstrings and moves the story beyond a clever entertainment. This book, it turns out then, isn’t about boy meets girl or magic versus science. It is not a fantasy; not a science fiction. It is a genre label-free zone. And it’s about all the messy, muddy colours that human lives actually are, and the natural if not vital conflicts within relationships.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Brave New WorldI write this on St Valentine’s Day (2016). I’ve been witness to conditioning and conformity as one of the many annual rituals comes and goes; for society, consumerism, capitalism and normalcy. Aldous Huxley first published Brave New World in 1932, a year after it was written. I listened to the BBC unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Michael York. It is a book I’ve read at least 6 times but the first time I’ve listened. I’ve spoken about it before here: My Book of My Lifetime so this won’t be as deep a description as usual in this series.

Briefly, the plot focuses on a few characters in London, in AD2540, which is known then as 632 A.F.—”After Ford”. Bernard Marx is a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning. He’s very smart, but he’s not happy with life. He’s not normal in terms of physical stature, for his caste. Lenina Crowne works in a hatchery, and loves live. She is perfectly conditioned and perfect in every way. Bernard knows and understands how society works, and why it doesn’t work for him. However, he is infatuated by Lenina.

The world that they exist in is governed by the World State. Following on from Henry Ford’s ideas of consumption of disposable consumer goods, mass production, homogeneity and predictability (and he is now a messiah figure), society is stable, resulting from social conditioning and hypnopaedia, or sleep-teaching. There are five castes who are conditioned to know their place in society. At first glance, this appears to be a utopia. Everyone gets what everyone wants. But can anyone think for themselves?

The cracks in the society are shown when Lenina agrees to go with Bernard to a savage reservation – a place where the old values of family and religion persist. There they meet Linda and her son John. Their true identity is revealed and they return with the couple back to civilisation. Lenina falls for John, and John for Lenina, but he cannot abide her ways. When Linda dies, everything falls apart for John and Bernard.

The conditioning process that opens Brave New World and that continue to be explored are genuinely shocking today. Imagine reading this story in 1932! Social conditioning wasn’t as obvious in 1931 as it is today, and yet we are led to believe that we have more freedoms now than ever before. And yet, for those that behave in any outsider manner – not celebrating Valentine’s Day, not looking forward to Christmas as so as the summer sun sets, standing up for public libraries, creating art – life isn’t easy. The normal folks can’t understand the choices made. In Brave New World, of course, there is no choice. Citizens are sleep programmed to behave in their consumer fashion. Bernard, and his friend Helmholtz, are so intelligent that they can only be different, however. Which brings about the only real problematic area of the plot. Someone of Bernard’s intellect shouldn’t really find Lenina as attractive as he does. Although I suppose there may be some conditioning left in him. He is, however, a deeply flawed character, as exemplified with his relationship with Helmholtz. This is one of Huxley’s themes: beauty trumps intellect. Again, John falls for Lenina when he really should know better. Emotion is uncontrollable.

Another slight gripe, but maybe a result of the times Huxley lived in, is the lack of diversity within the story, which is a shame. Not so much in race, but in gender and sexuality. If everyone belongs to everyone else, why are gender and relationships so binary?

In Chapter 5 when Bernard talks to Lenina about being alone, this is what makes Brave New World so important. It fired my own individualism and lack of conformity when I was younger. Being the outsider alone! The main theme of the book is that it’s better to be me and unhappy than conform and be happy. Huxley hit upon the very definition of ignorance is bliss.

Huxley examines a lot of humanity throughout the book. The worship of Ford and the rapturous delirium of the ‘orgy’ in the solidarity meetings within this rational and technologically advanced word indicates that Huxley thought that humans need that religiosity in their lives, for example. Even the World Controller admitted as much later in the book when discussing religion with John. Another, again from that same passage, is that science and art (truth and beauty) are the twin crutches of freedom. And how! Much could be written – and has been – about the intricacies of this wonderful book, and how it is still relevant today. In Brave New World the citizens are not free to choose, but they are happy. In our real world, we are free to choose, and yet we choose to conform. And we are not happy.

The only other flaw in this book is one that crops up in so much early science fiction. Despite it set so far in the future and Huxley extrapolating and dreaming up so much of the horrors of our future, there is no evolution of communications technology. Bernard still needs to go to the post office to use a telephone and look people up in a phone book. I wonder why, amongst all things, science fiction authors fail to consider communications tech?

Brave New World is such a leap forward in the science fiction novel, even from the likes of Stapleton and Wells. It is a properly told story with fully rounded characters and a plot that makes sense. Huxley took the art of writing a science fiction story in a brilliant new direction. The seamless shift between the world building introduction to the book and the main narrative in the early chapters is masterful storytelling, quite unlike anything before it. And as for the brilliantly shocking ending…