The joy of reading strange new worlds.

The intention of fiction is to transport the reader to another world, a one that simply can’t exist in our real lives. Even contemporary or literary fiction exists in a fantastical bubble where lives and events follow narrative plot structures and (usually) the conclusion brings about some form of ending to the story. It is the simple joy of reading these tales that draws readers back to imagined worlds, or persuades them to open a new book in the hope of discovering a strange and new world.

Dragon
Some rights reserved by johanferreira15

Consider genre fiction. There are many familiar worlds and locations to excite the imagination. From Narnia to Middle Earth, Hogwarts to Wonderland, these are familiar places. It is easy to find wonder in these safe and classical fantasy worlds. Strange forests inhabited by giant spiders, uncharted waters with lurking monsters and mystic misty mountains abound. The same is true for science fiction: Ringworld, Iain M Bank’s Culture universe, William Gibson’s cyber-punk future, and Wells’ far future of Morlocks and Eloi are amongst many imaginations worth repeated visitations.

Recently, and perhaps not coincidently, worlds familiar to our own yet unconventionally different from the classics have begun to emerge. These are new places in which to find pleasure, explore and to get lost in. Fresh and intriguing fantasy realms and potential futures. These are books so terrific that they stay with you long after the characters’ stories have concluded. You want the book to end so you can find out what happens but you never want to finish it! You won’t find the traditional tropes of genre fiction here.

Day FourSarah Lotz has created something exciting and innovative in her books The Three and Day Four. This is a universe very much like our own. It is familiar, yet just a degree or two off-centre. Events and people seem to be plausible. We have an evangelical cult and a spooky Japanese forest for example (The Three), and the cruise ship and the beach they find (Day Four) which are unsettling indeed. The fantastical elements don’t contain the ghosts of horror novels but the situations the characters find themselves in send shivers down your spine. There are no space ships but despite Lotz’s universe being just like our own, feels alien. Not in the way a traditional invasion story might feel, but something less tangible. In both novels, it is the pay-off in the endings that make the Lotz world such a fascinating place to visit.

The Golem and the DjinniWe think we know all about Golems and Djinns, but nothing can prepare you for the pure pleasure to be attained in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Published in 2013 and criminally under-read, it features both a 19th century New York where magic is real and a distinct, evocative Arabian imagination-scape. This isn’t the magic of traditional fantasy. There are no wizards with staffs and long, grey beards or teenagers with wands. This is an ancient magic. Real and steeped in tradition. The reader sees these versions of our world through the lonely eyes of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni). These are characters of ancient civilisations. Whereas Middle Earth has a written history, The Golem and the Jinni has real mythology. It is hard not to read this in sepia imagination and, perhaps, some inherited understanding. Wecker portrays her world in such a way that despite the loneliness and tragedy, it’s a place you love to visit.

A different kind of Arabian fantasy is portrayed in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. The fictional Middle-EasternAlif ‘City’ is a gateway, between the world that we think we know and the world of Islamic supernatural creatures and myths. The magic in Wilson’s story is almost that of technology. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with primeval spirits and vengeful jinn calling the shots. It is a blending of genres. You don’t readily find science fiction in fantasy novels and you rarely get wondrous mythological creatures in near-future cyberpunk. The journey through the City’s streets and alleys engenders a desire to visit somewhere like Cairo that you can almost taste the desert dust in your throat as you romp through the adventure.

You might say that Wilson’s is a new kind of urban fantasy, whereas Kate Griffin’s is a fresh take The Minority Councilon classic urban fantasy. Her Matthew Swift books (Madness of Angels, etc) are pure magic for anyone who has even lived in a dark and sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s walked home alone at night and heard that indescribably noise from just around the corner. Swift, the Midnight Mayor, uses the magic of the electric blue angels to conjure strange creatures and fight unearthly foes. Some of the expected elements are present and correct. Swift casts spells and recites chants. Monsters come and go. However, these are monsters made of grease and broken machines. These are spells made of the names and history and the very foundations of London. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and JRR Tolkien’s Barad-dûr and Orthanc are replaced with the likes of London’s iconic Centre Point and the Shard. If you are familiar with the reality of living in a dense urban landscape, visiting Griffin’s London is a rare and rewarding treat.

Station Eleven proof.inddA final nod in the direction of science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel is the recent winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for her brilliant Station Eleven. On the face of it, a post-apocalyptic journey with a rag-tag bunch of Shakespearian actors might not seem like a joyful read. While the characters are captivating and are enjoyable company to keep, it is the pre- and post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes that are fresh. You might be familiar with the idea of survivors carving niches for themselves in the remains of dying cities, but maybe not in the remnants of an average no-name airport close to the Great Lakes where a museum of relics crops up. Imagine a fantasy with a travelling troupe of mysterious performers or a magical dust-bowl Carnivàle and transport it to a world where the majority of humanity has died. These scenes are interspersed with (amongst others) live revolving around a theatre in Toronto. The juxtaposition works! While not as bleak as some (The Road for example) Mandel’s worlds have depth and realism not often found in this genre.

Finding yourself in one of these worlds and universes and others just like them, brought into being by such talent and imagination, is a rare gift and should be appreciated for what it is. Our real world can be tough to live in, and these escapes provide the highest of rewards. They educate and inform as well as entertain of course, but their primary purpose is pleasure. These fantasy and science fiction worlds don’t have wizards and aliens, mysterious apocalyptic diseases or quests for the magic MacGuffin, and are all the better for it. Joy is an apparent simple emotion but the enjoyment gained from these books, and others, is not readily quantifiable. It is easy to pick up a book and find yourself lost. And smiling.

Image credit: The Fire Dragon CC BY 2.0 by johanferreira15

Advertisements

Awards season stuff… in which I sit back and watch the squabbling over 2014’s awards season

Well, science fiction and fantasy awards season is almost upon us for 2014 and Twitter is already abuzz with gossip and backbiting. Some people Winners?claim that the awards are irrelevant and bias towards to old-school, unoriginal and predominantly white male traditional science fiction. As always, there is some hoo-haa about eligibility, authors pimping their books, withdrawing their books and other such goings on. Some people are claiming a whole lot of stuff in relation to eligible books and short-lists. To be honest, I’m not interested. In the age of Twitter, the loudest voices tend have the most extreme opinions, which they dress up as fact. They are mostly self-serving and wrong. I am, and always have been, about the quality of a story. Is it good, interesting and well written? And does it say something to me. In the past, the Arthur C Clarke award has always been a standard of quality and I have endeavoured to read all the shortlisted novels before the winner was announced. This didn’t happen last year. I think I was a bit peeved at the fuss surrounding Christopher Priest and awards in general.

As a recap, these are the shortlisted books from some of the awards in 2013 (in other words, books published in 2012)…

BSFA best novel: Winner – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts; Nominated – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, Empty Space by M. John Harrison, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Arthur C Clarke best novel: Winner – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, Nod by Adrian Barnes.

The Kitchies best novel: Winner – Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway; Nominated – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts, The Method by Juli Zeh, The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington, A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.

The Kitchies best debut: Winner – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord; Nominated – vN by Madeline Ashby, Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The City’s Son by Tom Pollock.

Hugos best novel: Winner – Red Shirts by John Scalzi; Nominated – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Blackout my Mira Grant, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

To be fair to the critics who have read them all and have commented, it’s not a particularly diverse and representative list of speculation fiction. Karen Lord and Saladin Ahmed stand out a bit. But as I said, I’m less interested in the authors and the opinions of other critics, and more interested in the actual books. So, these are the books I’ve read from these shortlisted and winning novels, in order:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter HellerDog Stars
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
  • The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington

(I still hope to read Vn, Redemption in Indigo and Nod, but not the others.)

Ok, from the bottom upwards then. I am gobsmacked the Bullington’s effort made any shortlist. It was just so dull and pointless. Not even sure what it was in terms of genre, sub-text, or anything else really. The only good thing about it was the quality of the writing and some interesting characters. Angelmaker has pretty much the same criticism. Not sure what it is. Ok, so it’s a golden-age fantasy spy thing and a fun-ish romp. But not particularly inspiring other than again the quality of the writing. Very surprised it won the Kitchies although it does fit their brief rather well in terms of having that indefinable quality to it. Even more surprised it made the Clarke shortlist. It is definitely not science fiction. Meanwhile, there is nothing special at all to be said of Pollock’s debut. More of the same in terms of Urban Fantasy, but nothing better than anything done by Kate Griffin or Ben Aaronovitch and the like. It was a fun but forgettable read.

Now time for some proper quality. I’ve enjoyed the writing of Chris Becket before and Dark Eden shows the potential coming to fruition. The idea of Dark Eden is something I’ve not come across before – an abandoned colony who almost deify its founders. While I enjoyed the message of Beckett’s The Holy Machine more, this effort is more wholly satisfying. Despite roots in traditional science fiction, I always enjoy Ken MacLeod’s fiction. And it’s interesting that in Intrusion he tackles similar themes to Juli Zeh’s entry. They are both, essentially, medical-based dystopias examining the individuals rights, especially over their own bodies. Great subject matter, great ideas and great writing from both (with a nod to the translator of The Method too).

I probably can’t separate Jack Glass and The Dog Stars in terms of the best read from the shortlisted books. I would say I enjoyed two-thirds of the former more than all of the latter, but I struggled to get into the first third. It was only once we were into part two, that part one came into focus for me. I think it iJack Glasss Roberts most enjoyable yet, and probably the best story he’s written too (although I think New Model Army resonated more). Meanwhile, Heller’s effort is probably one of the best new post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read in long while. It was everything you’d hope for in a story of survival and the demise of humanity. Interestingly, like the previous two books mentioned, they climax with a similar theme – motivation by love and not by hate or politics or anything else.

So, my award last year would have probably gone to Jack Glass from this list, followed by The Dog Stars, and then third would have been a novel not even short-listed; Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson. I thought it was a lovely combination of near-future science fiction and ancient mythology, with great characters, an interesting story and really good writing. I think maybe the fact it is almost genre-defying may be the reason it’s not represented in the science fiction or speculative fiction shortlists. But it is more science fiction than Angelmaker!

And thusly, it is time to sit back and watch the squabbling over this year’s awards season. No doubt shortlists will be decried, juries bemoaned, entrants bitched about and all the other nonsense will capture the headlines and the quality – or lack thereof – the actual books will all but be forgotten about. This year, for the first time in years, I won’t be trying to read all of the Clarke shortlisted books before the winner is announced, because this year, thanks to the internet, I no longer care.

End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!