The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938)

AnthemIn the author’s introduction to Anthem, Rand states that is story was written in 1937. It was originally published in 1938 but the edition I read – the 1995 Penguin Modern Classic edition – is the 1946 publication. Rand states that the occasional word was changed but the mood, “spine and spirit” were not changed. I’m not sure what the spirit of this novella is. I have mixed feelings.

I try not to take any prejudice into anything I read in this series, but that is literally impossible. I knew I found Gulliver’s Travels boring and I knew I loved Frankenstein before reading them again for this series. Through reputation alone, I had some trepidations but was generally intrigued when I picked up Anthem. As usual, I refrained from reading any introduction or notes not written by the author.

The story of Anthem begins with a confession of sin from the first person narrator – writing by candlelight in a tunnel that he discovered –  who refers to himself as ‘we’ and states “our name is Equality 7-2521”. All the characters are named in similar terms. Union 5-3992, Liberty 5-3000 and Similarity 5-0306 are examples. The latter belongs to the World Council. We are in a city in the distant future, but it is a low-tech one. Candles and glass are the apex of technology. In some distance past, known as the Unmentionable Times, something catastrophic happened with only a few survivors. This world has grown from some ashes that Rand never defines. Equality spends the first few pages describing the society he lives in: Children are raised in a collective, away from parents; careers are assigned (he is a street sweeper) even though he was good at science as a child; everything has a council (Council of Vocation, World Council of Scholars and many others); everyone lives and works (even plays are about toil) for their brothers and sisters – who are kept apart except for the Palace of Mating, and no-one has an individual life. This is a true authoritarian dystopia – men are punished with lashings or death without a trial.

350px-Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195306Our protagonist witnessed a public execution aged 10 and this seems to be the catalyst for change. He loves the Science of Things. He is curious. He shouldn’t be. And so when he discovers his tunnel, rather than tell his superiors, he keeps it a secret and works on a potential society-changing discovery. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl he sees by the side of a road (Liberty 5-3000). Their love is forbidden but grows slowly in any case. He names her the Golden One, even though individual names are also forbidden. He determines to present his discovery to the World Council of Scholars, dreaming they will accept him into their bosom. They reject him. He escapes the city, and with his Golden One, discovers a house full of books from the Unmentionable Times. He believes he will become a god-like figure of liberty to all men, and is worshiped by his mate. They rename each other Prometheus (him) and Gaea (her). He reveals the final forbidden word.

There are so many parallels in Anthem and books both before and to follow its publication. The lack of individualism and coded names reflect We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) – both authors lived in Russia. The collectivism and child-rearing away from any parental love feel similar to Brave New World (1932) by Huxley (the scenes when Equality is a child and wakes in the dorm in particular). The general dystopian society and the forbidden love that frees the man and woman may have influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). People are worn out at 40 harks back to The Fixed Period (1882) and forward to Logan’s Run (1967). And Anthem generally must have spurred many subsequent dystopic fictions

However, most of the classics in any genre are both derivative of, and influencers for, many other works. Standing on the shoulders of giants or turtles all the way down, however you look at it. That isn’t my issue with Anthem. I enjoyed pretty much the first two thirds of the story. It took a page or two to get used to Rand’s harsh style. However, once it picked up pace, some of the prose was quite poetic (“the sky is a soggy purple” being my favourite description). The story is a classic of course, boy meets girl, boy wants to shackle the chains of the oppressive authority and his curiosity naturally leads him to a way of doing so, girl falls into subservient love without knowing anything about boy – except maybe a spark she sees in herself; Rand never explains her backstory or hints at why she’s rebellious like Equality.

However, once Equality escapes and the Golden One catches up with him in the forest I found the tone oddly uncomfortable. We becomes I as the narrator reads the books he finds. I personally believe that the liberty of the individual is the most important tenant in life. Rand, for a short while, follows this path. The collective is a failure and the individual must rise. Freedom and liberty are what must be victorious. I kind of get that. However, it soon seems that the newly Christened and singular Promethues is looking to achieve god-hood over his fellow man (he calls them sons and his “chosen friends”); he will show them the error of their ways and lead them into the light. The final reveal left a bitter taste in this reader’s mouth.

There is a lot to admire about Anthem. While barely an original word or thought, it is like a smart and interesting remix of previous fictions and philosophies, and also demonstrably influential. It is not a Utopian rant or a polemic despite its philosophy, and has the bones of a story to it. It is of course, proper science fiction – examining a potential future while discussing the nature of man. I enjoyed reading it for what it was, up to the final point, and can see how Rand’s mind must have been working.

 

Image credit:By Popular Publications / Lawrence Sterne Stevens – http://www.philsp.com/mags/famous_fantastic_mysteries.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46698666

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

The Somnambulist and the Psychic ThiefThe fantasy and science fiction written in Victorian times has a very male bias. Often, novels only feature women as cooks or maids or worse. In modern, more enlightened times, much of the fantasy and science fiction set in Victorian times are a whole let misogynist. Which can only be a good thing. In The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, the protagonists are female and male detectives, and while some characters within this novel act surprised by Miss Lane’s chosen profession, the fact that she’s a woman is not a barrier to a cracking page-turner of a mystery.

Miss X is a leading light in the Psychical Society and Miss Lane is her friend and collaborator, until the latter discovers the former is a fraud. She ups sticks from Scotland and heads to London, not at all convinced she knows what tomorrow might bring. En route from the train station to an employment bureau, she finds herself swiftly in the employ of Mr Jasper Jesperson, detective, and with a room alongside the same and his mother. Times are tough, and cases aren’t so forthcoming. With some imagination and charm, the detectives almost conjure up a case out of nothing, from their landlord in exchange for rent. They are to look into a somnambulist and to find out why after many years the sleepwalking has returned. Soon, the detectives are investigating the disappearance of several mediums while a new star in the spiritualist world, America’s Mr Chase, is taking London by storm.

Tuttle’s story is a genuine mystery, set against the backdrop of the London’s society being fascinated with all things spiritual; mediums, ghosts, ectoplasm, disembodied heads and other psychic phenomena all get a moment to shine in the novel. The mystery itself is not really the point of the book. It is a who-done-it, but the point isn’t to figure it out so much as to enjoy the company of the story. Tuttle sends us on a clever misdirect for most of the book, with the re-introduction of Miss X and her replacement for Miss Lane; Signora Gallo is a psychic who can ‘read’ a person from personal objects, especially jewellery.

The villain of the piece is fairly clear as is the role of the somnambulist, and the climax no huge surprise. Victorians loved a show; a big climax, and Tuttle doesn’t disappoint. Said climax, set in a theatre has a few surprising turns but with the expected conclusion.

Some things don’t add up or are glossed over. The original case of the somnambulist was meant to pay the rent, but that issue is never mentioned again. When Miss X joins the case, mid-way through the story, there is some initial trepidation from Miss Lane, but the whole abandonment issue from the prologue and associated psychic fraud is barely acknowledged. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is told in first person by Miss Lane. It works really well as we only know what she knows and understands. We deduce clues pretty much as and when she does. However, in the last quarter of the book, events take an unpleasant turn for Miss Lane. Tuttle must explain what is going on to the reader so introduces diary entries ‘from the personal notebook of J.J. Jesperson Esq.’. This felt a little shoehorned, and might have worked better if introduced earlier.

However, these are minor issues within the book which don’t really dent the enjoyment of the story. Tuttle is as skilled in prose as she is in characterisation. Spending time with Mr Jesperson and Miss Lane, and the rest of the characters, was a delight. Their relationship – a bit of a Mulder and Scully – is expertly drawn. They are both flawed and they both know it too – Miss Lane admits she has to work on many elements of her personality and skillset. There are hints of further developments which need to be discussed in future tales – see the cat in the tree! The prose was an easy read, with the plot cracking along at a terrific pace. Tuttle writes it in the formal style you would expect in a Victorian detective novel, and it feels effortlessly precise. Tuttle’s skill is that the storytelling appears effortless as the plot moves around London and the cast of characters. I was never bored reading this book. I especially liked the fact that the main character was a female detective and that is wasn’t laboured on that she was a woman in a man’s world. Just an interesting, smart and pragmatic character doing her thing. There were plenty of other interesting characters for Lane and Jesperson to encounter, both male and female, and it was refreshing to see them characterised as just people, some interesting, some good, some flawed, but never made an issue of.  The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is less of a thought-provoking complex mystery, and more of a fun dance through spiritualism and Victoriana with a lot of heart and soul.

 

Originally published: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/07/the-curious-affair-of-the-somnambulist-and-the-psychic-thief-by-lisa-tuttle/

Highlights from the first half of 2016

The Thing ItselfAs the 6th month of 2016 passes like one of Douglas Adam’s deadlines, it is time to report on my favourite books, comics and media so far. Why? Why not…

So far I’ve read 22 fiction books this year, plus 4 non-fiction, a couple of novellas and I’ve listened to 5 novels on audio too. For the full list see here. So here are my favourite 5 novels from 2016 so far, in no particular order (not including books I’ve read before):

The Thing Itself by Adam RobertsAll the birds in the sky

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B S Johnson

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Arcadia by Iain Pears.

Well, that was actually the order I read them. So a little porkie there…The most enjoyable of the bunch was Anders’ debut. Such a joy to read with some great characters. Not often do you come across the story of a witch versus a mad scientist! Arcadia was brilliantly written and fascinating. Atwoods’ was technically great and a superb concept with some bonkers ideas. Johnson’s is an older book and I came across it via the Backlisted postcast. It is an experiment in metafiction and anti-capitalist in tone, and right up my street indeed. My favourite thus far however is Robert’s magnificent look at aliens, AI, rivalry, history, religion, abuse of power and middle age.

Other reading highlights include a couple of old favourites: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I’ve also enjoyed Joe Hill’s The Fireman and Making Wolf by Tade Thomson – which is not my normal cup of tea. I also enjoyed the bonkers Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Which reminds me, I’ve almost finished my Vonnegut read. Reading (or listening to) all of his books in order. Only got Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus and Timequake to go. I’ll then write my Vonnegut reader…

Talking of future plans, I hope to embark on a Winter of Weird later this year. Reading 100 weird fiction short stories in 100 days – let’s see how that one goes.

Some comics I’m enjoying at the moment include:

Paper Girls by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey

The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

MonstressI’ve just started reading William Gibson’s Archangel, Beau Smith’s Wynonna Earp, and Rob William’s Unfollow. All of which have promise and I’m looking forward to reading more. However, my absolute favourite so far is the amazing and beautiful Monstress written by Marjorie Liu with art by Sana Takeda. Seriously, check it out! I was disappointed by no new issues of Ellis’ Trees and The Dying & The Dead from Jonathan Hickman.

In the moving image world, I’ve not seen as many new films or TV shows as I’d like. Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and The Lobster are standouts for me. On the telebox, loved the second series of Daredevil, thoroughly enjoying ploughing my way through iZombie, and quite enjoyed catching up with season 1 of The Flash. I was quite disappointed by season 3 of Arrow and I’m giving up on it. The same is true of Agents of SHEILD. Failed to grab me. My absolute favourites were season 2 of Better Call Saul and season 4 of House of Cards. Awesome TV.

I plan to have read most of the major awards shortlisted books in time for the Clarke Award winner announcement in August, but what else should I be looking out for? Let me know…

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of TimeOn the day – June 24 – that millions of UK voters chose fear over hope and ignorance over reason, I finished Clarke Award nominated Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It ends on a note of hope, because the opposing factions finally communicate and develop empathy. But it takes the destruction of most of humanity to get there. To be honest, I was rooting for the spiders.

In the far future, humans are terraforming planets, but rather than populating these new homes themselves, they plan to send down monkeys with a nanovirus in the hope of speeding up their evolution. Something goes wrong above one particular planet and although the nanovirus makes landfall, the monkeys don’t. Cut to a few thousand years later. Humanity has all but died out, from their own stupidity it seems (fact or fiction?). There are several ark ships – potential generational spaceships with thousands of sleeping inhabitants looking for a new home.

On the particular planet this ship – the Gilgamesh – comes across, the nanovirus has been busy. It infected a female hunting spider. Instead of killing a male, she worked with him to catch their dinner. Consequences. From 8mm to 50cm; from unthinking arachnid to sentient species, thousands of generations later, the spiders encounter the last of the humans and war is inevitable.

Tchaikovsky’s story is an odd one indeed. It alternates two stories in two time streams. In one, most of the same humans come and go out of sleep stasis to deal with the various issues involved in finding a new home – mutiny, potential destruction, a false dawn, potential love and offspring. The main character is a classical historian called Holsten Mason (he knows about the Old Empire) who manages to live hundreds of years but is dragged out of sleep whenever the plot needs moving along. The second story is over thousands of generations of spider evolution, featuring the direct descendent of the original thinking spider and her allies. The spiders discover their awareness, a kind of religion – their creator who is a mad human-AI hybrid is a satellite in orbit and communicates with them – that comes and goes, technology, and warfare (with each other and with ants). Other species are also affected to a greater or lesser degree, which adds an interesting perspective.

Not too keen on Tchaikovsky’s writing style, especially on the human story. I didn’t buy it. The characters spoke in the vernacular of today, despite being hundreds of years older than the dying Old Empire, which is meant to be in our distance future. The language and the characters just aren’t that interesting. I felt little empathy towards Mason and the last of the humans, which is a huge fail in a story about the desperate search for survival and a home. It almost felt like a debut novelist’s uncertain draft, pre-editing.

Which is odd, because everything about the spider’s journey was fascinating. Tchaikovsky’s ideas on evolution and these sense of language he uses are spot on. The arachnids can’t talk of course, but developed complex language through touch and movement. I believed the lives, the trials, the stories of the spiders much more than in the human chapters. The spiders had real agency and the chapters had something to say about tribalism, sexism and gender politics (reversed from what you’d expect), warfare, superstition and religion of the uninformed, and to a lesser extent, the power of science. Spider cities fight for dominance. The female leaders struggle to over-come their animalistic cannibalism when a male becomes smart and successful. Unthinking ant armies march all over the world despite the deaths of thousands. Strange signals in the sky are misunderstood and are argued about even when the meaning becomes clear. Technology only advances significantly in times of war and struggle. Great stuff.

And so I’m conflicted. A vote to leave means I miss out on Tchaikovsky’s interesting and eloquent story of spiders. A vote to remain means I put up with the dreary and disengaging story of humanity and its pathetic squabbles. I wanted the spiders to triumph and was disappointed, when in the last few pages of a 600-page book, hope beat fear, communication beat tribalism and empathy beat instinctive hatred.

 

Top 10 women in modern fantasy worlds

I like my fantasy not so much swords and sorcery and a tad more modern, but I do like magic and mystery, monsters and mirth. For me, fantasy is not some wish fulfilment or quest to obtain the all-problem solving doodad or girl’s (or boy’s) heart. Which is odd, as I grew up with the Hobbit and Greek myths. Maybe it was my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The magical in the mundane, the unreal in the real. Fantasy is an exploration of those things outside of science and reason (although not always, clearly). Fantasy doesn’t always need magic but it definitely needs spirit and soul. It needs something that can’t easily be explained by rationality and evidence.

Books explain personalities that I don’t readily have access to. Books are my windows on how other people think. However, I’ve been alone in London, as Kalis is. I’ve been lost in a good book – see Thursday next. Of course I haven’t been trapped a mansion with a vampire or battling my ex-friend the mad scientist as the end-of-the-world approaches, but these are all women I’ve learned something from.

As I am who I am, I find myself drawn to these characters, written mostly by men, which probably says something, although I’m not sure what.

So, not in any particular order here are my top 10 female characters in modern fantasy fiction (I’ve taken modern to be any time since I’ve been alive).

Bellis Coldwine from The Scar (2002, China Miéville)

TheScar(1stEd)

Defining quality: Fortitude, plus she’s a librarian (albeit reluctantly, and she destroys a book…hang on…)

Kalix MacRinnalch from Lonely Werewolf Girl and sequels (2007, 2010, 2013, Martin Millar)

Kalix

Defining quality: Independence (and reluctant tolerance) but oh so much more. I love Kalix!

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (1995–2000, Philip Pullman)

Amber Spyglass

Defining quality: Moral compass (and curiosity and loyalty and…and…everything)

Tara Martin from Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012, Graham Joyce)

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Defining quality: Faith in the magical.

Thursday Next from The Eyre Affair and sequels (2001-2012, Jasper Fforde)

EyreAffair

Defining quality: Love (of books, of her family, etc)

Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y (2006, Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y

Defining quality: Scholarly fascination.

Sunshine from Sunshine (2003, Robin McKinley)

Sunshine

Defining quality: Bravery (and loyalty and magic…)I love Sunshine as much as Kalix.

Zinzi December from Zoo City (2010, Lauren Beukes)

ZooCity

Defining quality: Determination

Nao from A Tale for the Time Being (2013, Ruth Ozeki)

Tale for the Time Being

Defining quality: Beautiful solitude.

Patricia Delfine from All the Birds in the Sky (2016, Charlie Jane Anders)

All the birds in the sky

Defining quality: Empathy with the natural.

All these women bring something to my table. Who else should I seek out?

Arcadia and The Book of Phoenix: Critical thinking about science fiction and enjoying the fluff

Book of PhoenixThinking critically is an important life skill. Having your own opinions and being able to back your arguments shows you’ve understood your subject. I always think that you can’t describe one side of an argument without at least acknowledging other options. I can argue that this is green without understanding the rest of the colour spectrum. Fandom is full of opinions, and many are informed and interesting. Many less so. I’ve decided to apply these concepts to the last two science fiction books that I’ve read: both Clarke Award shortlisted Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Critical thinking (2015) can be defined as “disciplined thinking, by a rational agent who is able to evaluate the information available to them and the relationships among pieces of that information, and analyze and synthesize the results in the process of developing their views. Key to critical thinking is the awareness of the process, of one’s own biases and the biases of others, and the ability to see multiple sides of a scenario, rather than responding from emotion or “going by the gut.””

Everyone lives within a personal bubble. People rarely think consider viewpoints beyond those that immediately affect them. A farmer might be pro-EU, for example, because she gets a good subsidy. She might, however, have ideological reasons opposing a non-elected European institution deciding on that subsidy. I’m reminded of the Asian story of the bug in the rug, as found on Harmonic by Hex. I love science and logical and pragmatism. I love storytelling and imaginary worlds. I love fairy tales and heroes. I know my bias, both emotionally and politically.

ArcadiaI sometimes think about critical thinking before I start reading a book, especially if I’m planning to review it. Sometimes, however, I want to enjoy the book without thinking too much about its contents. Sometimes I want just the gut pleasure. At times, I start thinking critically about books only after I’ve started reading them. Arcadia is a complex tale of time travel and alternative, fictional realities, and how a variety of characters interact with either other through these periods and realities. It is also very much as story about storytelling and the production of fiction. Henry Lytten used to be a spy but now he’s an academic who scribbles away trying to create the perfect fictional world: Anterwold. Lytten’s fiction begins with the character of Jay, a young boy who one day thinks he meets a fairy. This fairy is Rosie, Lytten’s friend, who has stumbled into a portal made by another of his friends, Angela. Lytten doesn’t know that she is from the future and has created this fictional universe based on his writings. It gets even more complex that, and Pears writing is sublime. It is one of my favourite novels that I’ve read for a long time, although didn’t pack the emotional punch I’d hope it would, as it built towards the climax.

Arcadia is generally known as a kind of pastoral utopia, which has a connection to the ancient Greek region of the same name. I’m not sure which came first and I don’t want to look it up. This is key. I don’t want to think too much about Pears novel. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, much like one might imagine the enjoyment of a pastoral utopia might feel like.

I’m not for a second suggesting Arcadia is fluff. Far from it, but I enjoyed it as something light, not something I had to think too deeply about; it was something I could get swept up in and enjoy the lives of the characters. I suspect it is Pears writing, rather than the story itself, that made me feel like this. It wasn’t overly analytical and the science fiction bits weren’t too sciencey. The issue with time travel and alternative worlds and physics in fiction, is that unless you are an expert in the fields discussed, it is hard to known if they make sense. Without giving the plot away, the cause and effect created by Angela’s machine and Henry’s fiction world are so wrapped up in knots, it is impossible to say if they made sense. For me, anyway.

But of course there’s nothing wrong with some fluff every now and then. My favourite fluff are the early books of Robert Rankin for example. After all, you need a little bubble-gum to with the broccoli sometimes.

The Book of Phoenix has almost the opposite issue. While half the size of Arcadia, it appears to be more densely packed with meaning but with not a whole lot of plot. It is a delicate Persian rug, one which I can see but not necessarily understand. The story is about an accelerated human; a woman called Phoenix, who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. As she discovers herself and her past, she also awakens her powers, including the truth of her creation. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. She escapes, finding an usual seed en route. She ends up in Africa where she learns some truths before deciding to take out the company that created her and her kind. Her revenge is total. There are some interesting characters and ideas, and especially when writing about the relationships between characters, Okorafor’s writing is charming. It feels almost like a superhero – or supervillain – origin story, without being so explicit.

The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression. Americans and their corporations taking Africans and their lives as if they mean nothing. An American life is worth more than an African life. A white person is worth more than a black person. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. I can’t really think critically about it, textually. I have no frame of reference. I’m not oppressed and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been directly culpable of oppressing anyone else, although I do benefit from being a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, whether I like it or not. Plot-wise, not a lot happens. Phoenix travels about, learning bit and bobs and makes a few decisions, before moving to the next place. As a piece of fiction, I can say it’s far from the greatest I’ve read, but I did enjoy reading it, and spending time with Phoenix.

 

When I read about so-called fans arguing about the relevant merits or lack-thereof of this book or that author, I suspect that they’ve either missed their critical thinking training, or missed the point. A book can entertain without any depth of meaning. A book can oppose your worldview and be a valid work or art. Some books are all about the characters or a situation. Others are about story or plot. Others still are about the process of writing or reading. People, fans, forget this. They argue vehemently that their opinion has validity and none other does. A recent thread on Reddit tore apart The Sparrow. I should have countered, but I couldn’t face the argument, to be honest.

Many people who read The Book of Phoenix won’t think about it critically, I suspect. Which is fine, of course. I wanted to, but couldn’t. I have no personal understanding of racial oppression. I don’t know if Okorafor’s perspective is fair or valid. Of course slavery is heinous and corporations do take at the expense of people. All this is true, but I don’t think I can appreciate her writing critically.

I didn’t want to read Arcadia critically; in case it didn’t make sense. I wanted the story regardless of accuracy and the opinions of Pears.

I enjoyed both books but for very different reasons. The Book of Phoenix won’t be making by best of books of the year by some distance, although Arcadia might.

 

Critical thinking (2015) In: J. Mcray (Ed.) Leadership glossary: Essential terms for the 21st century. Mission Bell Media, Credo [online]. Available at:http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mbmlg/critical_thinking/0 [Accessed: 3 June 2016].

Brum Radio Book Club – me on the radio again

So I was on the Brum Radio Book Club again, which was cool. You can listen here: https://www.mixcloud.com/BrumRadio/brum-radio-bookshow-featuring-joanne-harris-and-carole-and-john-barrowman-27516/

Or the transcript of my bit is here:

ArcadiaHowdy, this is the forgotten geek, otherwise known as ianjsimpson, back to report once more from the world of speculative and science fiction. The last few months have seen most of the major science fiction book awards announce their shortlists and in most cases, the winners too.

There was the usual who-ha regarding the Hugo’s in the US. For those who don’t know, these are what might be called the Oscars for science fiction. There’s always some controversy surrounding these awards, as some old fashioned, right wing fans and writers known as the rabid puppies try to dominate the shortlisting slates, much to the chagrin of regular fans. If you have a look on my blog – the forgottengeek.wordpress.com – there are links to some interesting analysis.

In the UK, the Kitschies announced their winners over Easter. Margaret Atwood won for best novel with The Heart Goes Last. In this wickedly clever novel, Atwood considers a social experiment, where desperate members of society are offered a stable job and decent housing. The payoff, however, is they have to spend every second month in prison. The protagonists house share with others who are in prison when they are ‘out’. We are in a near future dystopia here, and Atwood’s satire is biting. Featuring groups of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley impersonators, not only does Atwood comment on the commercialisation of the penal system, but on the dangers of role play and the nature of love. A worthy winner. Back to the Kitschies, and the debut novel award went to Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson. Set in a fictional African nation, the protagonist lies to impress old friends when returning home for his Aunt’s funeral. Investigating corruption, sexual identity and cultural mythologies, Thompson’s book is something a little different for those who like their fiction just on the speculative side.

The winner of the British Science Fiction Association award went to Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings. Which is odd, because it isn’t science fiction but a blend of religious and far-eastern mythology set in a future Paris. Dragons from the east and fallen angels conspire and plot in a post-apocalyptic Notre Dame. Ah, that’ll be the sci-fi element. The prose is a tad overwrought at times, but the plot is intriguing and the characters are interestingly complex. The delight, however, lies in how de Bodard weaves the various fantasies into a coherent and satisfying story.

The Clarke Award winner will be announced in August. Check out my blog for the full short list. Having read half of them thus far, and currently ploughing my way through Iain Pears beautifully written Arcadia, I wouldn’t like to call this, although I’d love it to go to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Beckie Chambers. Never has a story about a diverse bunch of characters on a space ship been so joyful!

Outside of the shortlists, and perhaps the most eagerly awaited book of the summer is Joe Hill’s The Fireman. Despite being a doorstop, this is a less epic, more intimate study of life in a cult during the apocalypse. The book I’m most intrigued by in the coming weeks, however, is The sudden appearance of hope. This is the third book – cough – by Claire North. It is the story of a girl who no-one ever remembers. Which makes her dangerous. If North’s previous – Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – are anything to go by, this will be an imaginative and brilliantly written page turner.”