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!

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Sexism and Genre Fiction

I’ve been reading about sexism and SF a lot lately. Today I read Julie Crisp’s post ‘Sexism in genre publishing: a publisher’s perspective’. Interesting and probably a fair point. I thought that while I was more interested in the novel and the story than the author, I was fairly balanced in the gender ratio of authors I read. So I trish pub photo medlooked at my GoodReads list and looked at my favourite authors, and it turns out I’m a bit rubbish. Only about 28% of my favourite authorsportrait_pp or the authors of my favourite books are not male. These are my favourite female authors (or authors of favourite books): Atwood, Beukes, Brite, Clarke S, Friedman, Grant, Griffin, Griffith, Le Guin, Jackson, McKinley, Pinborough, Russell, Shelley, Sullivan, Thomas, Wilson G. W.

For the record, favourite male authors are: Adams, Barker, Bear, Bester, Bradbury, Burroughs, Card, Carroll, Clarke A C, Dick, Doctorow, Farmer, Fforde, Gaiman, Gibson, Goldman, Grimwood, Haig, Heinlein, Huston, Huxley, Ishiguro, Joyce, Keyes, King, MacLeod, McCarthy, Miéville, Millar M, Murakami, Niven, Noon, Orwell, Pohl, Priest, Pullman, Rankin R, Roberts A, Smith MM, Tolkien, Wells, Wyndham, Yamada.

I’d be interested in the gender balance of other genre readers.

Now. As a rule. No. As an absolute, I chose the books I read because

  1. I’m a fan of the writing of the author (ok, circular argument – my bad),
  2. I read a good review (usually in SFX, Geek Syndicate or Book Geeks),
  3. I seek out books from awards shortlists or
  4. I’m offered a book to review.

Of all the authors listed about, only a couple I’ve discovered by chance, and only a couple if sort out because I’ve read short stories. Sarah Pinborough is a good example of the former, thanks to Twitter, and Nicola Griffith being the best example of the latter, after reading a short story anthology (The Best of Interzone).

Only once or twice in my reading life, have I made choices based on the gender of the author (Griffith and Mary Doria Russell) so why is my gender split 30/70 in 4007favour of men? I’ve just looked at the SFX online book review site: http://www.sfx.co.uk/category/reviews/ and the first 10 fiction reviews are all male authors (on 11 Jul. 13). Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide To New York City is the first female mention.

So, I think that yes, genre fiction is inherently sexist. Crisp says it’s not the publishers fault. That may be true. I follow a lot of agents and editors on Twitter and many are female. So do you blame SFX and the like? Do you blame readers such as me? Others are working hard to redress the balance, such as SF Mistressworks. So if I don’t look at the gender of the author before I read a book, why do I choose more men? I’d love to know…

Half Term Report 2013

I’ve read some books. I tend to do that. Let’s look at what I’ve read in the first 6 months of 2013, which by the way, is not enough. Probably.

12875162I’ve read a bunch of comics and graphic novels. Which is not a surprise but not the point of this post.

I’ve read a few bits of none fiction:

David Miller – Peter Cushing, Will Stor – Heretics, Francis Ween – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, Scarlett Thomas – Monkeys with Typewriters, Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma. One book on writing which was great. I even did the exercises. One book on an actor who lived where I live and would have been 100 years old this year. And some books on various aspects of culture. All good, none great.

One collection of short stories crossed my path, and I read an individual short story: Chris Beckett’s collection, The Peacock Cloak, was interesting and enjoyable. Ian Sales’ The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself was refreshing.

16 bits of fiction in 6 months. I’d read 19 in the first six months of 2012. Not good enough? Well, 2 in particular took ages because I found them dull. Really dull. Disappointing. So, in some kind of order:

  • Mary Shelley – The Last Man 1.5/5Angelmaker
  • Benedict Jacka – Fated 2/5
  • Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden 2/5
  • Clifford Beal – Gideon’s Angel 3/5
  • Paul Cornell – London Calling – 3/5
  • Tom Holt – Doughnut 3/5
  • Cory Doctorow – Pirate Cinema 3/5
  • Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker 3.5/5
  • Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross  – The Rapture of the Nerds 3.5/5
  • Chris Beckett – Dark Eden – 3.5/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – Poison 4/516094514
  • Martin Millar – The Good Fairies of New York 4/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – The Shadow of the Soul 4/5
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen 4/5
  • Juli Zeh – The Method 4/5
  • Jeff Noon – Vurt 5/5

17401136Which I think is a bit disappointing. The best book I’ve read so far this year is one of my all time favourites which was the third time I’d read it. Generally disappointed by the books that had been hyped up, especially the Cornell, the Harkaway (but then I wasn’t overly keen on his debut either) and the Jacka. I was massively disappointed by The Child Garden and The Last Man. In fact, the latter put me off my SF challenge, although I hope to get back on the horse soon. Also less than totally impressed by Doctorow’s entries. On the other hand, couple of good Sarah Pinboroughs. The Wilson and the Zeh were enjoyable and the most satisfying reads so far. Out of the 16, only 6 really enjoyable reads. So maybe my choices have been poor? I’m influenced by the books I’m asked to review, reviews in SFX and other places, and books on shortlists for awards. I’m thinking about knocking the whole awards-influenced reading on the head.

Quick look at the breaksdown: 8 science fiction, 5 urban fantasy, 2 fantasy and 1 comic fantasy. No horror. No none-genre.  Meh.

Let’s hope that the next 6 months do me more favours. I have a number of books on the ‘to read’ pile which I have high hopes for:

  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

 I also hope to pick up the new Lauren Beukes and Neil Gaimen. I also plan to re-read American Gods. I will try to get a hold of Adam Robert’s Jack Glass and Blackout by Mira Grant.

So here’s to the second half of 2013.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Imagine the scenario. Today: debut science fiction novel causes sensation and the author widely regarded as a visionary. Tomorrow: same author sets the follow up story 200 years in the future, but nothing has changed. There has been no progress in science or culture. All there is to be found is a sense of arrogance that the society of today has reached its peak and there is nowhere else to go. Welcome to The Last Man.

849585I picked up (and downloaded) my copy of the Wordsworth Classic edition of Shelley’s The Last Man – originally published in 1826 – with eager anticipation. After all, Frankenstein is one of my favourites and I’ve only recently re-read it. I also love a good apocalyptic tale. Imagine my crushing disappointment and prolonged struggle to read these 375 pages. As usual, no attention was paid to notes and the introduction (other than the author’s introduction – she says that in 1818 she discovered some prophetic writings in Sibyl’s caves, near Naples, and this book is her version of those writings) as the idea is to read each story in this challenge as it was intended to be read at the time of publication.

The cover blurb speaks of an ‘apocalyptic fantasy’ and the ‘end of human civilisation’. What we actually get is a rather dull character piece about Adrian, Raymond and Lionel (the narrator) who the cover suggests are ‘idealised portraits of Shelley and Byron’ (with Lionel therefore being Mary). However, I know little about the lives of these men, so can’t comment on their portrayal. The book is laid out in 3 volumes. The first mostly concerns itself with the comings and goings of the upper classes as the monarchy crumbles and England becomes a republic. Nothing but political and familial machinations. Bearing in mind this is set sometime after 2073…there is a war between Greece and Turkey, which is the main background to volume 2, as Lionel and Raymond head to Constantinople to fight. There is talk of reports of a plague within the city, which is around about the half way mark of the book, and the first hints of any apocalyptic writing. The characters all return to England as news reaches them that the plague has began its spread around Europe. It is now 2092. Volume 3 has only a few survivors left in England, and a decision is made to leave, in order to find a piece of land with a better climate and protection from the plague. They visit France where a fanatical religious sect believes in a messiah who will protect them from disease. This journey takes the band, which was more than 1500 on leaving England and is now just 4, to Switzerland. Soon, events lead to Lionel being the last man alive, in 2100, where the story ends. Throughout the tale, lines of poetry are thrown in for reasons unknown, which are nice on their own, but only serve to irritate within the context of the plot. Shelley showing off…

Mary Shelley’s arrogance is astounding. Despite having demonstrable knowledge in science and progress, she believes the time she lives in is the pinnacle of culture and evolution. Horse is the main form of transport and people communicate with letters. The class system puts the intellectual and moneyed elite above everyone else (a shepherd is described as ‘an unlettered savage’ early on). Nepotism and favour are rife. The British Empire still rules. Women are subservient. The richest and therefore most powerful are the last to survive. These would all be acceptable features in an alternative history novel, or a satire, when the foibles and folly of these ideologies were explored. However, what Shelley does instead is write paragraph after paragraph, page after page of descriptions; both of emotion and environment. It took more than a volume before personal procrastination ended, and the alleged point of the story (the annihilation of mankind) even begins. Which is a shame, because individual sentences were often beautifully written. There were just far too many of them, slowing the narrative to a snail’s pace.

There is no allusion to science fiction anywhere through the prose. In fact, it often feels like a biblical fantasy. War is a dominant them, alongside the plague (or pestilence). One character in particular, Evadne, suffers from starvation. And of course there is death everywhere. Four horseman anyone? Or course, plague means disease which means nature versus science. In this case, obviously, science looses out, but for me, these elements are not looked at with any depth or rigour. These elements are nothing but a bi-product of the meandering musings of someone talking about characters and the time they live in, rather than any true speculation on where the future lies. The only scientist mentioned, astronomer Merrival, is a bit-player at best. The Last Man is not science fiction, despite being the first apocalyptic novel set in the future. There is nothing that happens in the novel that could have prevented it from being set in 1826.

One thing in particular rankled me. Ok, it is the future and Shelley has not advanced technology at all. Populations across Europe are known to die. But here’s the thing. There is – because there can’t be (letters, remember) – any communication on a global scale. There is no indication throughout that the plague is affecting anywhere except Europe. At best, Lionel is The Last Man in Europe, but even that is not clear. There is no word from Spain, or Scandinavia for example. If Shelley had advanced communications technology so global communication was possible, and Lionel knew he was the last man, that would have been a far more chilling climax.

I would have also preferred more of the story to focus on the plague and the survival (or not) of the human species. It almost reads like Shelley decided to write about her friends and then half way through realised she was just rambling and decided to throw in a deux ex machina in order to find a conclusion in the narrative. There is too much coincidence and happenstance in the plot to make the story either enjoyable or engaging. In one passage, Shelley even suggests the reader would tire of the description of the journey from Paris to Geneva (p319). No! It would be more interesting than anything that came before it. That is why I was interested in reading an apocalyptic story in the first place. The story of the how the 1,500 ‘souls’ became just 4 would have been a better book. It is only in the last 20 pages, Lionel (Shelley herself?) is the last man. Which is not what I expected at all. Shame.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge: Frankenstein, or the Modern Promethius in three volumes by Mary Shelley

In a smidgen of an experiment, I read the 1992 Penguin ‘Classic’ version of Shelley’s text, with an introduction and notes by Maurice Hindle as well as a free eBook edition on ipad, when appropriate. As usual I didn’t read the academic preamble, intending to read the story as originally intended by the author. However, I also ignored author’s introduction and preface and went straight in to Letter 1. I have read, and loved, Frankenstein many times before, but this was the first time I have read it critically. The ipad version helped with note-making, up to a point.

The novel, the first edition of which was published anonymously in 1818 before Shelley’s name appeared on the second edition in 1823, starts like akin to another fantastic voyage, meeting the reader’s expectations, told as a series of letters. Obviously, the traveller’s tale was a trope common of the time, and of this genre. In this case, however, there is a story within a story, and later another story within that story. Walton’s voyage is only the framing device, which is refreshing. The true story is of characters and of discovery. The era was one of discovery and it made sense to frame a tale concerning the boundaries of science with the boundaries of discovery at the edge of the world. As an interesting aside, Walton’s ship is called the archangel. I suspect there was something in that name. An archangel is an angel of high rank, perhaps placing Walton morally superior to his charges (although his original motivations are the same as Gulliver’s and others’).

The opening letters from Walton and again the opening chapters of Frankenstein’s recounting are full of love, intimacy and tenderness. Close and affectionate friendships or like-minded people and family are shown to be important. This sets up a lovely contrast with the horror and despair which follows. It is also a traditional mood and setting for novels of this era which again played upon the readers expectations.

So far, so 1818. But this is a story of science and of pushing human knowledge and emotion. It is a story of how a man, Victor Frankenstein, creates a creature whom he perceives as a monster, and the terrible consequences that befall him. It is a story of how humanity and society fail the disadvantaged and how the unfortunate can be driven to desperation and eventually, evil. It is also the story of the true birth of the science fiction novel. There is a passage in Chapter 2 in which Victor talks about natural philosophy and science, a term in its infancy, which for me is the beginning of true science fiction, when science is explained to the reader and is as an important a plot device as the characters and their actions. Of course, the science is not possible at the time, or now even. Victor has proper scientific education. His musings and research are not just speculation or philosophy, but actual trained opinion. He had two years of learning before his experimentation. Where did Shelly get this from? She was famously 18 when she wrote Frankenstein. And of course, it stems from a fireside horror story she made up in the company of Shelley and Byron. She was a devotee of Enlightenment but had little formal education. She was brought up by her feminist mother and tutored by her father within his large library. It is here she must have discovered science. However, she, like many of her time, was probably wary of it. ‘Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed’.  Victor, despite being its proponent, is often found asking questions of science. There is clear evidence of rational thinking and reasoning about science from the author. The passage in chapter four highlights Victor’s successes which ‘bore [him] like a hurricane’. This mirrors the whirlwind of discovery during that period, but also the thoughts on Victor’s death of his mother.

Which is the other great theme throughout the novel is death. Of course, Shelley’s premature baby had died a few years previous to its writing. Victor partakes in various musings on death during his education and the theme is revisited several times later when tragedy strikes.

To the uninitiated, or the horror movie fan, it may be a surprise to find there is no Igor or equivalent during Victor’s experiments, and no detailed description of the collection of the body parts he used. And with only a small amount of ceremony, the creature is alive. Again, conversely to the movies, the creature’s skin is yellow, and despite Victor describing his choices to make its features beautiful, he creates something so hideous he is disgusted by it, and turns away in horror. He never names the creature. Is this the author’s attempt to dehumanise it? Or engender sympathy from the reader?

Victor then tries to return to his family and normality. Six years he’s away yet his family and friends remain loyal and loving, which again, reinforces the main contrast in the novel. Which is of course where things really start going wrong.

Victor is a child, and then an adult, of privilege. He is afforded every luxury and opportunity within his close circle of family and friends. Yet he is not a nice man. He has deep flaws. He is a bigot and a coward. He is selfish and stubborn. As the creature begins to exact revenge, he shows his true colours. Why didn’t he intervene in saving Justine? Cowardice? Fear of personal recriminations. He has no real heart for unconditional justice. He calls himself a madman, but is this nothing but an excuse. Justine’s cameo also further examines Victor’s fear of death.

And then Victor encounter’s the creature, which shows superhuman speed (again, not the movie cliché). I wonder if this is also the birth of the superhero? The description of a character with powers beyond normal man. Chapter II in Volume 2 has a passage which again shows Victor being unreasonable (compare with his earlier reasoned application of science) and his lack of compassion for any other than his own loves (remember, a small and tight circle), as the creature eloquently reasons with him concerning its plight. Thus begins the real heart of the story as we learn the history of the creature and how he came to be standing on the mountain before Victor. You can’t blame the creature, who suffered extreme prejudice from the outset and was even shot after saving a life, due to narrow mindedness and ignorance. The story of Alex and Safie (the story within the story within the story within the story) is a tad out of place in a tale of horror and science fiction – Shelly was encouraged to pad out the short story into a novel, and I suspect this was one of the additional sections. It brief comment on international politics and is, away from science and characters, a tad satirical.  It’s no Gulliver’s Travels or Utopia in that respect.

Chapter 7 examines the creature’s education reading Plutarch and others. He asks the classic questions: Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? These are questions revisited time and again in science fiction ever since. [Is then Plutarch the seed of science fiction?] The creature becomes very self aware and believes itself to be wretched. He displays the reason that Victor lacks? Can the creator’s actions be caused by overriding grief or are his flaws deeper and more reflective of the society he comes from? Once Elizabeth has met her fate, Victor is full of nothing but vengeance. He loses all the sense of reason he has left. He is the monster. The warnings of science fiction and the questions it asks are complete. Meddle with science and science bites. What is humanity? What does it mean to be human? Humans are bigots and frightened and unreasonable. Humans are monsters.

Throughout the book, the language is utterly beautiful, and no more so than in the climax once Victor is aboard the Archangel and gives his speech to the embittered crew about making a name for themselves and becoming heroes. Has he learned his lesson? Has he come to the point when he can rest in piece? Shelley’s prose is as perfect as you could expect. It has heart and soul. You can feel the impassioned reason of the creature and the bitter grief of Frankenstein. You can image how beautiful Elizabeth is and how loyal Henry Clerval is. You are crushed like his throat when you realise his is the corpse in Ireland.

Which leads me to expectations. The novel should be read by everyone who hasn’t already done so. This is no Hollywood horror film, set in the eastern European mountains with a mad scientist hidden away in an eerie castle. Did you know that Victor and Henry travel through England? Victor attempts to create the mate on a Scottish Island. He languishes in jail in Ireland. This is not the story you think it is. The sympathetic character is the creature. It is the subject of abuse and bigotry. It is charged before any crime is committed, because of nothing more than its appearance. This is a story of the closed circles of privilege in high society. As mentioned, there is no in-depth description of grave robbing and body stealing; nothing much is made of Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is also, therefore, a story of characters and of consequences. It examines the scientific progress of the early 1800s and makes comment and casts warnings. Of course, much has been written about the subtitle: Modern Prometheus. Stealing fire from the gods in Greek mythology and making a man from clay in Latin mythology. It simply emphasises the point Shelley was making. Science bites back. Frankenstein asks questions of the reader and the protagonists within the text. It is a true novel with a beginning, middle (and a couple of interludes) and a fitting conclusion. It is the first science fiction novel.

SF novels enjoyed by the mainstream

In a recent piece I highlighted ten novels championed by the literary elite that I have argued are science fiction or fantasy. Precisely the kind of books that a certain class of reader and critic routinely turn their nose up. These are the kind of books such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that are lauded in the press and loved by conventional reading groups. However, if this science fiction take of dystopian England and clones was written by a mainstream SF author such as Greg Bear or Charles Stross, I doubt the reaction would be the same. It is of course the case that most of these types of novels are one offs or a tip in the water by mainstream authors.

That being said, however, there are a number of very successful science fiction authors that are accepted and enjoyed by the non-geek fraternity. Here are the best five (with mild spoilers).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)

The novel: Aliens destroy the Earth. The last human and an alien escape just in time, before stumbling on the Galaxy’s president who has just stolen a brand new space craft. There are robots and poetry and mice and Slartibartfast. Of course, this is the best known comedy science fiction novel every written, and the plot and characters are as familiar as any in the science fiction universe. Arthur Dent is the classic everyman hero and Marvin the Paranoid Android is well known throughout popular culture.

The author: Adams wanted to be a writer on TV and radio and had never really planned to be a novelist. His early professional days were spent with the likes of the Monty Python team and this is clearly evident from his style of humour. The original script for H2G2 (as we know it) was for the radio and his idea came from lying drunk in a field in Austria. Adams went onto write several sequels and the Dirk Gently novels before his untimely passing in 2001.

The mainstream: Radio series. TV series. Hollywood film. One of the biggest rock bands in the world, Radiohead, naming a song after the aforementioned miserable Marvin. The novel was number 1 in the 1979 Times best seller list and number 4 in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003. The adaptations, extended universe books and sequel by Eoin Colfer highlight the legs that this science fiction has had. That means that not just the humour or the characters but the story is what appeals to the readership.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

The novel: In 1984, after the devastating war, Winston Smith lives in Airstrip One (cf UK), part of Oceania, one of three global superstates. He is having an affair with Julia and he rebels against the Party. He is later imprisoned and tortured by the Thinkpol, and then subsequently re-educated. The story is about freedom, control of the population, government surveillance, and the affects of war. It is also a love story, albeit one of the forbidden variety.

The author: Orwell has been called the best chronicler of British culture in the Twentieth Century. He is clearly intelligent and has a sharp wit and keen eye for social injustice. His is a satirist almost with comparison with Animal Farm and in Down and Out in Paris and London brilliantly captures a life in poverty. Orwell was declared unfit to fight in World War Two but found work in the Home Guard. He was a passionate journalist who wrote for left-leaning newspapers and literary magazines before completing his dystopian masterpiece.

The mainstream: What can be said about the impact of Orwell’s novel that hasn’t already been said. The modern lexicon teems with Orwellian language. Orwellian itself describes a destructive social condition. The Big Brother society, Room 101, thoughtcrime and others are common in modern culture. The book itself is required reading in most literature courses and every library has a copy. We haven’t even covered adaptations in other media. It was listed as the 13th best novel of the Twentieth Century by The Modern Library.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)

The novel: Dune is a far future tract based around the idea that humans have scattered across the galaxy. However, humans being what we are, there is still war, politics and struggle to contend with. Planets are rules by aristocracy and computers and AI have been banned. These have been replaced by highly developed minds called Mentals. The source of this development is ‘the spice’ which also allows instantaneous space travel. The plot centres on political and personal battles to control the spice and the planet Arrakis, the only place it is found.

The author: Frank Herbert spent six years researching and writing Dune and it shows. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to worry about an income during that time. Afterwards, success was assured, although it took a little time. He began with an idea about actual sand dunes for a magazine article which was never written. Herbert has also produced a number of other novels and short story collections, most of which are relatively unknown.

The mainstream: For such a complex plot and vastly imaginative ideas, Dune is an eminently readable novel and despite a lack of mainstream cultural cross-overs (a derided film notwithstanding), Herbet’s novel is very much in the public eye. First editions well for over £10,000. Some critics have noted that it is the best science fiction ever written. Perhaps this is why it transcends the traditional fan base, or perhaps that it focuses on people and politics rather than science.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)

The novel: Set in a dystopian future, The Handmaid’s Tale concerns a woman called Offred (Of Fred, the man she serves) who represents a class of concubines that reproduce for the ruling classes. She lives in what was the US but has been taken over by a male chauvinist military coup. A terrorist attack killed the President and emergency laws striped all women of their rights, allowing the military to take over. The book is the tale of Offred’s life during her relationship with the Commander, a high ranking official.

The author: Atwood is adamant she doesn’t write science fiction, despite authoring this and Oryx and Crake, and winning the Arthur C Clarke award in 1987. She claims it is speculative fiction, as science fiction is about ‘monsters and spaceships’. The Canadian is perhaps best known as a Booker winner for The Blind Assassin about relationships during WWII, including that of a pulp science fiction author.

The mainstream: This is proper science fiction. Regardless of what Atwood herself claims. The tropes are clear as day. The dystopian setting is as SF as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451. However, its success amongst the mainstream is undoubtedly due to Atwood’s non-SF works, and her constant nominations for literary prizes and her distancing herself from ‘squids in space’ and suchlike. The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

The novel: The Modern Prometheus is a tale of caution and the limits of science, as relevant today as when it was written. Victor Frankenstein is a gentleman scientist, common of the day. He suffers loss as his mother dies and his beloved Elizabeth is ill with scarlet fever. Spurred by grief and excelling at chemistry, he creates life and instantly regrets his creation. A battle across nations ensues between the creator and his creation, who learns and grows and seeks a mate. Victor looses more than he could ever gain from his endeavours and our sympathies flow from one side of the conflict to the other.

The author: Shelley was famously part of the romantic and gothic scene of the nineteenth century, married to Percy Shelly and daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, she is known more for this and Frankenstein than for her other contributions to literature, such as The Last Man (1826) which sees a future world ravaged by plague. Frankenstein was influenced by the work of Erasmus Darwin and a rainy summer in Geneva, where Shelley came up with the idea after an evening of supernatural tales.

The mainstream: Frankenstein has been described as the first science fiction novel, as there were scientific rules to the plot, as opposed to fantastical. However, the mainstream success is as much to with the Gothic movement of the time and Shelley’s cohorts. As well as the myriad of adaptations, like Nineteen Eighty Four, Frankenstein has transcended literature to be part of the language of modern life. Everyone thinks they know who Frankenstein is, although most confuse the scientist and the monster.

Be it far future or near, be it dystopia or comedy, proper science fiction has a place in the mainstream. With the right bit of marketing, or the acceptance of the author by other strands of literature critics, a science fiction novel can achieve mainstream success. There are many others I could have cited and I’m sure, many more to come.

 

 

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