The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Skylark of Space by EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1946)


By Frank R. Paul – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

Originally written as a serial – which is more than obvious from the narrative structure – from 1915 to 1921, and published in 1928 in the Amazing Stories magazine, The Skylark of Space was first published in book form in 1946. Which is interesting.

With a name like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, pulp science fiction author was perhaps the only career that would make sense for Edward Elmer. And with writing this from the period that saw the publication of many of HG Wells’ novels, the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other similar scientific romances, and the boom of pulp crime fiction, it is no surprise that this episodic story feels like it comes from lots of different influences.

I listened to a 2008 audiobook edition, unabridged, and narrated by Reed McColm. I often wonder if there is a difference of emotional reaction when listening to a novel instead of reading it, for the first time. Listening to audiobooks of a novel I’ve already read is one thing, but without a control – which of course is impossible in this situation – there is no-way of knowing. Reading Smith’s novel might not have been as entertaining as listening to it. I enjoyed McColm’s OTT performance, especially the dialogue from Dick Seaton. Would I have enjoyed the book with the voices from my own head?

Smith’s story begins with scientist Richard Seaton accidentally discovering a new type of energy in combining pure copper with a newly discovered element “X” (which is suggested to be a stable element in the platinum group). I love that during the first half of the 20th century, the letter ‘x’ was routinely given to new and exciting fictional discoveries. With his millionaire friend, Martin Crane, Seaton builds the titular space craft. Antagonist DuQuesne realises what Seaton has discovered and wishes to be the first to build a space ship. At any cost. And thus a bitter and deadly rivalry begins. DuQuesne tries to sabotage Seaton’s plans, and kidnaps the scientist’s fiancé – Dotty. Seaton and Crane have a secret and are soon pursuing DuQuesne’s ship. Any more narrative description would spoil the fun for those new to Smith’s universe, but suffice to say that a series of space adventures ensue, with much daring-do and plenty of saving-the-day and getting-the-girl.

Smith’s use of language is priceless – an early example is when Seaton first approaches Crane with his idea of building a space ship: “I’ve got a thing on the fire that will break him right off at the ankles”. I defy anyone not to smile at such use of language. We are in pure pulp science fiction here. The novel’s plot is faintly ridiculous, populated by ludicrous characters. However, science – albeit not altogether plausible science – is front and centre in most of the book. The main characters are scientists and run around with automatic guns and play tennis with incredibly rich brainiac playboys. Seaton, a materials scientist lest we forget, has an impossibly perfect fiancé who just loves everything he does and is. The first third or so is pure pulp – conspiracy, crime and lots of successful leaps in the dark. The rest of the novel is pure science fiction – space ships, mysterious objects in space, aliens and war.

I wonder, and I can’t find any earlier examples (considering the writing period), if Smith is the first person to use the phrase science fiction in a piece of science fiction? Smith also mentions computers in the story, and proving that this is proper science fiction, talks about Einstein, chemistry and gravity in proper context. However, it is the moment when the characters are in space when Smith uses the term Roche limit (a term I’d heard of but didn’t know, and subsequently researched as being to do with celestial mechanics) without explaining what it is, that the ‘properness’ is underlined. It felt like I was reading something that was written by someone who understood science, it’s place in society and how to incorporate it with an adventure story.

The first landing on an alien world is exciting and is perhaps a misleading note of things to come. The visit by Seaton and crew is brief, but they encounter giant monsters, over-sized bugs and dinosaur-like predators in a battle-royal. The next encounter is with a hyper-intelligence that has no material existence. The episodic nature – which felt like a precursor to Star Trek – quickly culminates in an extended stay on the planet of Osnome where the search for copper ends in war and weddings, before they return to Earth heroes, with even more wealth than they started with (which was substantial).

To be sure, this is a proper writer’s fantasy. The nerds are heroes who have anything and everything their heart’s desire, both professionally and romantically, and get even more of the good stuff as the novel progresses. The bad guys all get their comeuppance or turn out to be heroes too. You can’t take anything seriously, or the whole universe falls apart. Just one, ‘yeah but hang on’ thought and your enjoyment of the story would end.

Which brings us to Smith’s depiction of women. As with most of the male authors of the time, and despite the fiction of Virginia Woolf in particular, the depiction of the female characters is deplorable. Dotty, and the other female character of significance, Peggy, are little more than eye-candy and fluff. They have no agency. They are victims. They are captured so Seaton and Crane can go after them. They have no intelligence. Dotty doesn’t like scientific jargon and is only interested in the kitchen and bedrooms within the space ship. Her only moment of significance is in actually naming the Skylark. Meanwhile, Peggy is ‘only’ a secretary and only ‘good for making notes’. Of course they are both perfectly beautiful, and can’t resist their men (Seaton and Crane respectively). It is such a shame that the enjoyment of the pulp adventure is spoiled by the depiction of women.

Listened to not read

There is a lot of joy and significance in Smith’s The Skylark of Space. It is unsurprisingly episodic and doesn’t flow too well. The creation of the space ships comes too easily. There is little time spent in space and on the first discovered planet, and too much on the war on Osnome. The wedding section at the end was way, way too long and pointless.

You see. Once you pick at a hole, the entire fabric unravels. My enjoyment becomes tainted. The fun becomes blackened, as if burnt. On the surface, The Skylark of Space is an enjoyable romp and decent science fiction (in the sense that scientific principle drives much of the narrative, and Smith doesn’t shy away from proper science), but scratch that surface and there’s nothing but misogyny floating in a hollow shell.

The Comfort of Books

I never venture far without a book in my bag. I find it slightly disconcerting if I don’t have one near, even if I won’t need one for a particular journey. Someone once said to me that I hide behind books. There is possibly a sliver of truth in that, but I think I take comfort in them. They are my windows and mirrors: a glimpse on the world, and a reflection of me. They allow me to experience emotions I might not otherwise and allow me to find a community of people just like me.


These are some of the books I easily find comfort in, for particular reasons.

The world is without doubt a mysterious and complex place to live in. There are as many ideologies as there are pebbles on a beach. We all see the world differently and whatever we have inside us alters the view of the world outside the window. Most people read books that reflect their particular viewpoint – or is it their viewpoint is shaped by the books they read?

BeteOn the beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is a bleak apocalyptic novel, offering a worldview of the cold war but also how people feel about death. In Shute’s story, set in Australia after a nuclear war, the protagonists know they will almost certainly die, sooner rather than later. Death is something rarely discussed in society, so fiction allows that exploration in comfort. What it means it live and exist in the world is perhaps the primary concern of science fiction. The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig features an alien on earth who takes the identity of a university lecturer. However, the book is mostly centred around the home life and how humans suffer in the mundane. Mental illness is one of the hardest things for anyone to comprehend and Haig helps with magnificent storytelling and prose. There are dozens of books about political philosophy that I find push my buttons, from the obvious classics Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the more recent Bete (2014) by Adam Roberts, which investigates human rights and how society treats nature. Political fiction is one of the most personal choices there is. I recently read BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) which I found ideologically spot on, and a perfect experiment in fiction.

But how do other people see me? Indeed, how do I see myself? How do other people see you? Perhaps surprisingly, there are so many books out there that reflect part of my personality or mirror my feelings or beliefs. The much missed Graham Joyce released The Year of the Ladybird in 2013. Set in 1976, the story is about a young man, working over summer while at college, trying to figure out his relationship with his Dad and trying to understand love. Meanwhile, the wonderful Kalix the Werewolf series (which kicks off with Lonely Werewolf Girl, 2007, Martin Millar) is about someone alone and lonely on the streets of London, far from where she was brought up. Kalix struggles to fit in, with anyone, and fails to understand the world she lives in. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books also spoke to me as she uses magic to explore London.

on the beachImagine a selection of characters with traits and experiences at the edge of imagination: sentient creatures that fly; artists and scientists exploring form and the limits of knowledge; ganglords and demons; hive minds and multi-dimensional beings. I think I have a decent imagination, but nothing compared to the world China Miéville creates in Perdido Street Station (2000). How can these things, these beings come to life in a fiction. Miéville’s skill is that in the Bas-Lag universe, the bizarre and the perverse seem normal. I can experience, through him, what he thinks it would be like to be a de-winged flyer or to experience an hallucinogen secreted by giant moth-like beings. But I can also experience how a scientist works and how an artist thinks. In fiction, I can experience fear while being safe. I can be creeped out while knowing there’s nothing hiding under the bed that wants to hurt me. House of Leaves was also published in 2000. I would suggest it was produced – as opposed to written – by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is an extraordinary work and I’ll bang on about it relentlessly if I need to. The plot summary is complex and perhaps unnecessary to know in detail. A self-confessed unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though there is no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed. The book is mostly a report on the fictional film which contains the description of a family moving to a house in Virginia. The house changes. There are doors and spaces that shouldn’t exist. It is changing size. Meanwhile, the family starts falling apart. It is hard to describe the narrative, but the feelings it engenders are easy: amazement at the achievement, wonder at the imagination and being genuinely creeped out but the prose. I really find an odd sense of joy in Danielewski’s achievement, and solace in knowing these things aren’t real. Maybe.

Hitchhikers-Guide-171x300But if I’m not in the mood to be freaked out, books of course, bring humour like no other medium. While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1985) works well on radio, and less so on TV and film, for me it shines in print. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Utter and hilarious genius. Books take you on so many journey’s and Adams’ one is full of wit and verve, and is also damn proper science fiction too. Not just a pastiche or a piss-take.

Another safe space for me are old favourites with beloved characters. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) features such heart-warming, joyful relationships between the central characters as they head off for first contact with aliens, that I just love spending time with them. Despite knowing what happens, I re-read the book every 10 years or so. When you think that there are so many books out there, re-reading – especially more than once, might seem like an odd thing to do. But it is about comfort and familiarity for me, and not just exploring new things. So reading a favourite is like drinking proper hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows. I will always be happy to pick up Never Let Me Go (1995, Kazuo Ishiguroor Ammonite (1993, Nicola Giffith) for example.

Reading is, perhaps, the most solitary of pursuits (which suits me), but sometimes it is vital almost, to know there are other people out there who feel just like I do. A couple of recent books that I’ve talked a lot about before exemplify this. All the birds in the sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders and A long way to small angry planet (2015) by Becky Chambers – which are both about accepting the differences in people – have received such a community buzz that it is simply awesome to know that a bunch of strangers enjoy the same things you do, and probably think in similar ways too.

The great and still missed Bill Hicks had a routine:

“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”

That’s one reason, and brilliant reason at that, to read. But the main one is to find comfort. That’s me in the corner. Behind a book. Not hiding, living.


Image credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Toffee Maky

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.