Update on the The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge

books-1655783_960_720I began to think about, and write about, significant books in the history of science fiction in August 2011. I originally came up with 40 books I believed would fit the bill. Later thoughts and explorations increased this list significantly. Some I’ve wanted to read I’ve not been able to track down, such as an English translation of René Barjavel’s Ravages (1943). As I’ve been going, I’ve added a few more here and there I’d not previously considered. My mind is like an algorithm – I’ve read this so I should probably read that.

The modern world, eh. Anyway…

My project is taking a lot longer than I expect, mostly because I’m easily distracted – see my Fav Re-reads posts, reading all of Vonnegut’s books and my Winter of Weird, for example. Plus people keep writing and publishing new books which I feel like I should read every now and then. Sometimes I wish they’ all stop it, just for a year or two so I can catch up. And of course I review for this site and that one too.

Fittingly perhaps, as I pause for reflection, from Utopia (1516) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), I’ve read 67 works which I feel have significance in the history and development of science fiction literature. My next choice is Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance, as my reading enters the 1950s. It occurs to me now, that there are probably dozens of significant and classic science fiction books being published every year. My choices have been reasonably arbitrary based on a little research and a little knowledge. Just look at some of the books published in the 1950s that I have already read:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
  • Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl (1952)
  • Etc, etc…

There’s no way I could read every relevant book for this project. So what I’ve decided to do, because otherwise this would take forever, and ever and ever, is to just pick 4 or 5 books from each decade that I haven’t read before (which thankfully narrows the list down a fair bit). Although I’m sure some will see this list below and yell at me for not reading them so far. Well, I’ve been busy will all the other books and comics and films and life and stuff. So shhh now (and yes I did work in a public library).

Anyway, here’s my final list:

  1. Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)
  2. Cities in Flight by James Blish (1950)
  3. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955)
  4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957) – maybe, if I can face it.
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  6. La Planete des singes by Pierre Boule (1963)
  7. Witch World by Andre Norton (1963)
  8. The Einstein Intersection by Samual Delany (1967)
  9. Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968)
  10. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolf (1972) – maybe, as there are 2 Wolf books here and I really want to read the other one…
  11. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
  12. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
  13. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  14. Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban (1980)
  15. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf (1980)
  16. Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh (1982)
  17. Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987)
  18. Grass by Sherri Tepper (1989)
  19. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
  20. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (1992)

I’ve stopped here because I’ve reached 20. It’ll be a few more years before I reach this point and I’ll see where I am then, in terms of this project.

science-fiction-1989816_960_720

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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: https://theforgottengeek.wordpress.com/about/my-radio-debut

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: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards-2015-shortlist-announced/

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: http://www.thekitschies.com/the-kitschies-2015-shortlists-revealed/

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: https://medium.com/@arthurcclarkeaward/the-arthur-c-clarke-award-complete-submissions-list-2016-eee27947f30e#.cxunoofpi 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.

 

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The problem with reading great books

Brave New WorldThese days, I only ever rate books with the highest marks possible if they can create an actual physical reaction from me: laughter (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1979), shock (Brave New World, 1931), creeped out (The Haunting Of Hill House, 1959), gutted (Neverwhere, 1996), tears of heartbreak (The Amber Spyglass, 2000), for example. The first book I read in 2015 was The Death House by Sarah Pinborough. It brought at tear to my eye and engendered feelings of sadness and loss. My review said “You might feel like your heart has been stomped on.” Herein lies the problem with reading great books. Other books have a lot to live up, and sometimes, expectations let you down.

For example, I’ve just finished reading The Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke, I was taken in by the wonder and admired its ambition. The nature of the plot and concepts Clarke employed all registered with my sensibilities. I have a not so secret love of fairies. However, it didn’t ring my emotional bell. Maybe due to the length – at more than 1000 pages it took me a couple of months to read (I’m a slow reader, sue me!). Cho’s novel follows similar narrative paths, albeit without the depth. I enjoyed it, especially the themes of female empowerment and dodgy foreign policies, and dragons, but for some reason – and I think probably the appropriately formal prose – I didn’t relate to it, and therefore, gets a rating lower than Strange and Norrell.

There was something about The Death House. Something that elevates great fiction. Almost intangible. As well as the usual plaudits a book gets (interesting plot, great writing, clever sub-text, etc), it is one of those books that stays with you. You think about it long after reading it, and out of the blue recall a scene, or a character’s motivation, or a theme. Another book that I read this year that had a similar effect was Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge. Not as good as Pinborough’s but it had characters that I really warmed too and the prose was eminently readable. It was a book I thought a lot about in the weeks after I read it, often while reading other books.

The Death HouseSo here’s the rub: if I hadn’t read The Death House or Cuckoo Song or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, would I have liked other books more? Even those books I’ve read this year with no direct comparisons to these and other great books have left me a little flat. Here’s a short list: The Chimes (2015) by Anna Smaill, The Empress Game (2015) by Rhonda Mason, Steeple (2015) by Jon Wallace, Uprooted (2015) by Namoi Novik, The Night Mare (1989) by Kim Newman, and The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro. Books I’ve read this year. I contend that these are all better books than I gave them credit for, but because I’d read books that had blown me away, or affected me in some emotional way, I thought less of them.

Is there a solution? Is it possible to judge every book on its own merit? I think not! Otherwise every meal would taste amazing, and every song you hear would be like falling in love for the first time. Of course, you can’t like all books equally. What you get out of a book is what you carry with you through life, and what you bring to it. Your emotions, experiences and interests are all reflected in the choices of fiction you read and what you think of those books. That’s why books are so special, and why unfortunately, some books are going to have less impact than others. Which is the problem with reading great books.

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On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

An occasional series of favourite re-reads, or I’m so busy, I’m dropping fiction writing, so why the hell am I doing this?

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Come September 2014, my life will change. I’m taking on a new post-grad qualification. I’ve made a decision to stop thinking about writing fiction. Possibly for good. But I enjoy writing and as I love books, I can’t give up reviewing and blogging. Indeed.

Inspired by a couple of recent Twitter conversations, one with Andy Miller and another with Michael Marshall Smith I plan another series of semi-regular blogs within this feed. So as well as general reviews and my History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge, my new series is simply favourite re-reads. Because there’s clearly not enough out there to read – new books that just. Keep. Coming. And old ones I’ve not caught up with yet – I’m going to re-read some of my old favourites. Not just a review, but inspired by Mr Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, but an experience.Mostly Harmless

So, first up, and reading soon is Douglas Adam’s Mostly Harmless, followed by Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward. Then, who knows, but I’m thinking perhaps:

Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Antipope by Robert Rankin

Ammonite by Nicola Griffin

Lethe by Tricia Sullivan

The End of My Y by Scarlett Thomas

And after that, who knows…

The Joy of Reading The Golem and The Djinni

The Golem and the DjinniThis is not a review. This is not a critical analysis. This won’t have a plot outline or a critique of the writing; either its style, content or factual accuracy. It isn’t an examination of the themes or a plea for anyone else to read this book. There are dozens of great reviews of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni out there. Go find some.

This is a celebration of reading really good book, one that speaks to its reader in a multitude of ways. I remember reading a few reviews and recommendations late last year and my curiosity was piqued. I like a bit of mythological fantasy and I enjoy simple but effective story-telling. So I put my reservation in at the library and waited. Or rather I didn’t. I simply ploughed on through the other books in my reading pile. In the last few months I’ve really got my reading mojo back thanks to Adam Roberts, Pierce Brown, Adam Christopher, Graham Joyce, Lauren Beukes, Neil Gaiman and others. The Golem and The Djinni crept to the front of the pile and I picked it up on 8 February. My edition was 486 pages long. I usually read between 200 and 300 pages of fiction a week. I also read comics and I’ve also got a non-fiction on the go at all times (in this case Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright). I finished The Golem and The Djinni on 17 February, reading all 486 pages in 9 days, not picking up Going Clear at all during this time, and only reading one comic.

Which is odd. Because The Golem and The Djinni is definitely a book to take your time over and savour. It is a book that you want to consume and digest. But also a book you want to keep reading -– all the time. Cliché’s are thus because they are true. For me, this was unputdownable (except when I was asleep). I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour to get some reading in. I was annoyed when I had other things to do which blocked my path to the book.

Why did The Golem and The Djinni work for me? There are several reasons. First, the elegant writing. Then there are the interesting characters. No card-board cut-outs but well rounded characters, each with traits you can sympathise with, and all with many shades of grey. There are important texts and subtexts within the story. It is proper character driven narrative; simple but effective storytelling. Wecker doesn’t over-complicate things, despite a wealth of protagonists, each with a back-story and a fitting climax (except one, which I won’t spoil). The narrative takes its time. As it should. What you take from it is that she not only understands how it feels to be certain ways, to react to certain stimuli, and she understands how to put that understanding into a novel. Into a meaningful story. She has taken rivers of silk and weaved them into wonder; the ocean of a climax when they all come together in the end.

The Golem and The Djinni is about immigration and mythology, cultural clashes and acceptance. But it is also about conformity and choice within society. About fulfilling roles, especially those gender-specific ones. It is about fitting in when you don’t, about personal freedoms shackled by responsibility. Loneliness. Finding the other misfit and connecting because of your differences. Yet still feeling alone. The Golem is better in most ways than all those around her, yet must act less so. I feel many of these things that Wecker writes about and it is a joy to read them told with such thought-provoking characters and in an interesting universe, without laboured world-building. It is a book about what it means to live, to exist, to be a human. In some ways, this is a science fiction novel without the science fiction; they have themes in common – understanding humanity and its place in the world. The Golem and The Djinni is a book, a novel, a story that felt like it was written just for me (and I’m confident that others who have enjoyed it felt a similar personal connection), and that is the sign of a really good book.

The fantasy elements are neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment. They are part of the narrative and they are devices that I particularly enjoy. That’s just a thing. But it’s the little touches that enhance my enjoyment – such as the fairy-tale animals The Djinni creates, or the imagery of the desert palace brought to the imagination with Wecker’s deft touch.

“A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.” OED, 2014

Pleasure – to be gained in immersing yourself in Wecker’s world, and journeying along with the protagonists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Satisfaction – Wecker doesn’t let you down in terms of narrative, prose or character. The mythology fits with the story of immigration in America at the end of the 19th Century. The story satisfies with almost every aspect of its construction.

Delighted – to read such a well-written and entertaining book that also spoke to me personally.

Exultation of spirit – sometimes, and especially when I’ve read a boring or badly written or un-engaging book, I feel flat. What’s the point of all this fiction and storytelling malarkey? What’s the point of wasting hours on someone else’s poorly thought attempts at creativity? On the other-hand, when reading something like this, feelings of inspiration and positivity abound (even though the subtexts within the story generally reflect my negative view of society).

Glad – that I read The Golem and The Djinni and that it was written.

I wouldn’t say, however, that it was a brilliant book. It is not the book I expected. I thought it would be more of a straight forward urban fantasy. However… [Spoiler alert]. Now. I enjoyed the coda, and it made sense in terms of the story. However, it remained a fiction and produced the ending that the characters perhaps deserved. It wasn’t the one I wanted, me being me. I would have preferred an emotional wallop in the climax. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, when Will and Lyra realise that they must separate. But maybe that wasn’t what was required to conclude the story? What I took from this book is a great story minus the heart-wrench of reality (although it does mean that the main protagonist’s stories continue, either written or not). A personal shame, because The Golem and The Djinni is ‘only’ a really great book and a great read. But what a joy to read. And this is why I read. To enjoy a story and to take a deeper understanding of myself from it.

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!

My kinda science fiction…or is it?

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are many styles and types of science fiction out there. While I’m not too interested in specific genre and false boundaries, I was looking over what I’ve read this year and it does appear my tastes have changed within various areas of science fiction. When I was young, I would read Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham. The latter being one of my all time favourite authors. Something about The Chrysalids in particular really pushed my buttons. When I got a little older, I moved onto William Gibson and Tricia Sullivan, Greg Bear and Philip K Dick. Of course, I read all the classics such as Orwell, Huxley, Shelley and others. This is a list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed (although not all of them are great – I’d only put 5 of this list in a category labelled classic) in the last 18 months or so (not including fantasy, horror, etc):

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  • Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
  • Vurt by Jeff Noon
  • The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • Trust by David Moody
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross

What’s generally missing? Space opera. Space ships, time travel, aliens, other planets, optimism. Only Trust and Dark Eden have traditional science fiction tropes; an alien invasion and living on another planet respectively. Maybe The Dog Stars could be called classic apocalyptic. (And by the way, I have a problem with much so-called post-apocalyptic fiction and movies. Most of them aren’t post- at all, just apocalyptic. The clue is the word post, or ‘after’. The aforementioned The Chrysalids is post, whereas The Day of the Triffids is apocalyptic.) Anyway. Back to the issue at hand. What we have instead is near future, odd science, mystery, dystopian society, drugs, technological singularity and computer games.

Let’s pick 12 of my favourite books from my twenties and early thirties:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Jem by Frederik Pohl
  • Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • Someone to Watch Over Me by Tricia Sullivan
  • Kiln People by David Brin
  • The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

What we have here is aliens, distant planets, spaceships time travel, post-humans and far future.

What I am interested in, when I read science fiction, is what the problems and challenges are in modern society and how humanity might evolve, both physically, emotionally and intellectually. Although after reading Twitter for half an hour, I wonder if it even can evolve. I want to read about characters I can relate to and be interested in. I want to find new ways of telling stories that I’ve not come across before.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0

It would appear that mind kind of science fiction had shifted from classic to more left-field. From far-future to near-future. From generally more optimistic where space exploration was the hope for humanity to more pessimistic where we’re all going to upload our consciousness into the cloud. Maybe its symptomatic of our times. Maybe in the 1990s there was hope in the future, while there’s not so much these days. Maybe I’m becoming a grumpy old man?

The question is this. Are there stories out there featuring aliens and space ships, time travel and far future that I’m missing? Or is it that my tastes have changed and I don’t find inspiration in this type of science fiction any more. Who is writing Blood Music today? Where is this year’s Alfred Bester or Mary Doria Russell. Ok, I know Greg Bear wrote City at the End of Time which was dreadful and Hull Zero Three which was just dull. I know people like Eric Brown and Paul McAuley are getting good reviews (I started reading The Quiet War but I found it tedious and uninspiring). I’m guessing that someone out there is writing good old-fashioned yet modern and relevant science fiction but I’ve not come across them. People talk about Adam Christopher and Lauren Beukes, Adam Roberts and Madeline Ashby, but they’re the kind of people I’m inclined to read anyway. So, my challenge to myself is to find a few new authors that rekindle the old magic I felt when reading Jem and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and even Neuromancer and Frankenstein.

…I think I’ll add Proxima by Stephen Baxter to my Goodreads ‘to read’ list…

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…