Reading Science Fiction

Reading Science Fiction literature has always been one of my main interests in life, and I’ve been reading “proper” science fiction since I first signed out H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine from the local library at the tender age of about eight or nine years old (circa 1969-1970).

I usually prefer older (classic) SF, pre-“New Wave”, with a particular fondness for the vintage SF of the “Golden Age” and the SF “Pulps”. Any list of my favourites classic SF authors would contain some very familiar and famous names:

H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell Jr, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, H. Beam Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys… and many, many others (I’d be here all night listing them).

Although I’m mainly a reader of older SF, there are a few types of modern SF that I do like to read, in particular New Space Opera, Hard SF, and good old Classic Space Opera, which never seems to go out of fashion, no matter how hard the literary wannabes among the SF writing and reading fraternity have tried to kill it off over the years. Some of the modern SF authors that I’m a huge fan of would include:

Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Wil McCarthy, Peter Watts, Ian R. MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Iain MacDonald and a few others.

Although I do still like the occasional good SF novel by my favourite old and modern authors, the volume of novels that I read has declined sharply over the years. I used to read a lot more novels when I was younger, particularly during my teens (the 1970s), but that started to drop off sharply from about 1978 onwards, as the increasingly intensive study commitments during my A-Levels and university years totally wiped out most of my previously plentiful free reading time.

Once I finished university (1983, at the age of twenty-two), started work, discovered a social life (I didn’t even know what a social life WAS back in my teens, no going out, no drinking, no women – it’s really no wonder that I’d had so much reading time), and with the many trials and tribulations of adult life kicking in, any free time that I may have had left for reading disappeared as quickly as Roadrunner with Wile E. Coyote on his tail. So the number of novels that I read declined sharply during those years, and has never recovered to its former levels, even now, thirty years later.

I also loved reading short story collections and anthologies back in my teens. At that time, it was pretty much 50-50 between novels and short fiction, but as the number of novels that I read declined sharply during the late-1970s and early-1980s, the balance swung sharply towards short fiction, which began to take up more and more of what reading time I did have remaining. I’ve always considered short fiction to be the bedrock of the science fiction genre anyway, and, if you add to that the fact that it’s simply much easier to fit the occasional short story into a hectic lifestyle, particularly in these days of monstrously bloated and padded novels, nine times out of ten, you’ll find me reading a good anthology or author collection, rather than a novel.

I do NOT like (and never have liked) reading a novel piecemeal, a few chapters at a time, and prefer to do it all in one go. But that pretty much became impossible once the size of the average SF novel went above four hundred pages or so. I can usually manage about 300-350 pages max before I want to call it a day. That was okay with most classic SF novels, which usually came in at about 250-300 pages, and which I can read in one sitting. I can’t do that with these bloated modern bricks. I have to read a few chapters at a time, but I often find it very hard to go back and just pick up where I left off. My train of thought and enjoyment of the story has been broken, and before I start on new chapters of the novel I almost always have to go back and do a recap, and re-read the earlier chapters again (certainly if it’s been days, maybe weeks even, since I’d read the previous chapters), because I’ve forgotten details of the story.

I do still sometimes long for the days when a good SF novel was a mere 250-300 pages, and I could finish it in one sitting. If that were still the case, I’d probably have gotten back into reading SF novels, and I’d be reading a lot more of them today. But I find myself looking at these eight hundred page bricks and thinking “Nah, can’t be bothered”. It’s simply too much time and effort to put into reading a single story, when I can read twenty short stories in a similar-sized anthology much more easily. With a short story collection or anthology, I can read one story at a time, one over lunch, another when I visit the bathroom, another before I go to bed. I can leave the book down for days, weeks even, and start on a completely new story when I lift it up again, without missing out on anything, or having to go back and recap.

While I may be much more a fan of short fiction these days, the real truth is that reading short fiction has become habitual for me over the past thirty years, whereas I seem to have lost the knack (and the patience) for reading novels. I’ve become much more accustomed to reading short fiction in recent decades, and while I can still tackle the much shorter, older classic SF novels easily enough, reading one of those overly-padded modern monsters is a real effort, and one that I’m rarely willing to make, unless it’s one of my favourite modern authors (someone like Alastair Reynolds or one of the others mentioned above).

Maybe I can re-train myself to read these big novels. And maybe this blog can help me focus, get back into the groove, and give me a reason to start into reading novels on a regular basis. Fingers crossed.

FEDERATION by H. Beam Piper

AUTHOR: H. Beam Piper
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Collection
PUBLISHER: Ace Books, New York, 1981, ISBN: 0-441-23189-6-295
FORMAT: Paperback, 284 pages


  • Preface, by Jerry Pournelle
  • Introduction, by John F. Carr
  • Omnilingual
  • Naudsonce
  • Oomphel in the Sky
  • Graveyard of Dreams
  • When in the Course-

The book starts with a brief Preface by Jerry Pournelle, a short but fitting tribute to H. Beam Piper and his writing. This is followed by a lengthy twenty-page Introduction by John F. Carr, which is a much more detailed and even more fascinating essay on the life and writings of Piper.

The five stories themselves are from Piper’s acclaimed TerroHuman Future History cycle, one of the most complex and detailed future histories in science fiction literature. This collection, Federation, is made up of stories from the earlier stages of that Future History, and a later collection, Empire, completes the stories from the later part of the cycle.

There are certainly some very good stories in this collection, but the stand-out for me is definitely Omnilingual, which I first read a long time ago, way back in my teens. Along with He Walked Around the Horses (which isn’t in this collection, and isn’t part of the Future History), this has always been one of my favourite pieces of SF short fiction, and I’ve always regarded both Omnilingual and He Walked Around the Horses as Piper’s two best short stories, although his other stories are also of an extremely high calibre.

As far as I’m concerned, the collection is worth buying just for Omnilingual alone. But the other four stories are nothing to turn your nose up at either. This is H. Beam Piper we’re talking about here, and he simply did not write bad SF stories.

A very good collection.

Plaything of Sutekh #3

Plaything of Sutekh #3

I‘m absolutely delighted to report that, after quite a long wait since the previous issue, Plaything of Sutekh #3 is at long last out in the wild. I’m tickled pink by this news, as it is not only one of my favourite zines, but one of the best fanzines being produced today.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Plaything is an ultra-classy, professionally produced traditional A5 print fanzine – yes, a real paper zine, not an electronic download, a website or a blog. It’s forty pages of pure, wholesome Doctor Who goodness, with full colour front and back covers, and black and white insides. It is brought to you by the same folks (Richard Farrell and John Connors) who produce the excellent A5 Gerry Anderson fanzine Andersonic. Both zines are heavily influenced both stylistically and quality-wise by one of the greatest telefantasy fanzines ever, the classic Circus. So anyone who appreciates really good fanzines will know just what they’re getting. One of the best zines currently available.

I won’t elaborate on the contents of Plaything of Sutekh #3 – all of the details are available online from the Plaything of Sutekh blog, which is where you should be heading right now, instead of reading this tatty old blog. And just to make things even better, Plaything #’s 2 and 3, which have been out of print for quite a long while, are now back in print, for a “limited period”. Snap them up before they’re gone again.

If you live in the UK, each of the zines are available for the paltry sum of £2.40, including postage. You can’t even buy one lousy pint of beer down the pub for £2.40. That’s a bargain by any measure. Postage/shipping costs vary, depending on where you live:

  • The UK: £2.40 for the zine, postage is free
  • Rest of Europe: £2.40 for the zine plus £1.70 for 1 issue or £3.00 for 2 or 3 issues
  • Rest of the world: £2.40 for the zine plus £3.90 for up to 3 issues

All self-respecting Doctor Who fans should have every single issue of Plaything of Sutekh in the reading pile by their bedside. I’ve already got mine. Take my advice, run, don’t walk, over to the Plaything of Sutekh blog, and pick up the latest issue, or, even better, all three issues, if you haven’t got them yet. That’s an awesome stack of excellent Doctor Who reading material for just over seven quid.

Plaything of Sutekh #'s 1 and 2

Doctor Who: 50 Years in Space & Time (Part 6)

November was, overall, an eventful 50th Anniversary for Doctor Who. Lots and lots of great things were happening, on television, on DVD and in the magazines. I can now look back upon the entire 50th Anniversary and list my favourite items. Here, starting with the best, and working my way back, is what I consider to be the Best of the Bunch, in order of preference:

  • An Adventure in Space and Time
  • The Day of the Doctor

1. An Adventure in Space and Time

In first place, and deservedly so, is the sublime An Adventure in Space and Time, which aired on BBC2 from 9-10.30pm on the night of Thursday 21st November. This was simply the best Doctor Who production that I’ve seen in many years. The performances of all of the actors were exemplary, particularly David Bradley in the role of William Hartnell.

Indeed, I must say that the ONLY real criticism that I could express is that An Adventure in Space and Time, at under ninety minutes, was much too short. Because of this, there was the unfortunate need to skip over a number of extremely important figures and details in early Doctor Who history (for example, the vital roles played by Ray Cusick, Terry Nation, David Whitaker and a number of others) because of time and space constraints, if you’ll pardon the obvious and corny pun. This excellent drama would have benefited greatly if it had been at least half an hour longer, or preferably even forty-five minutes.

Many, many thanks to the irrepressible Mark Gatiss for having the dedication and perseverance to stick with this project over so many years, until the time was right and The Powers That Be at the BBC finally gave the go ahead to put it into production.

2. The Day of the Doctor

In second place, and, in my opinion, not very far behind An Adventure in Space and Time, was the 50th Anniversary Special itself, The Day of the Doctor, which aired on BBC1 on the evening of Saturday 23rd November, from 7.50pm-8.05pm.

As I’ve often said, I usually find most modern Doctor Who specials to be a bit hit and miss compared to the series proper. Often they’re a bit of lighter fare to entertain the family after they’ve gorged on the Christmas dinner and chocolate treats (and possibly a few drinkies for the mums and dads, yes siree!). And sometimes they seem to be just a bit of lightweight fluff filler thrown out to keep us hanging on in between seasons, or during the internal breaks within the seasons themselves.

But, that said, The Day of the Doctor was excellent. Not perfect mind you, but definitely excellent, and I consider it to be, despite a few minor niggles, without a doubt my favourite Doctor Who special of the modern era.

To Be Continued…