Some New Books – January 2016

I haven’t bought any new SF books in ages now, but, with Christmas behind me and a few quid spare in my pocket, I took the notion over the past couple of weeks to trawl Ebay.co.uk for some books. Actually, none of them are “new”, as there’s not a lot of modern SF that I enjoy, with the exception of some anthologies of short fiction and a very narrow range of authors and sub-genres. But I did find two second hand/used anthologies of classic Golden Age stuff, which is much more my kind of thing, one collection of Isaac Asimov’s fantasy stories, essays and articles, and, finally, one “Best of the Year” SF anthology, from 2007.

  • SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST OF THE YEAR 2007 EDITION edited by Rich Horton (trade paperback, Prime Books, Germantown MD, US, 2007, ISBN-10: 0-8095-6297-9, ISBN-13: 978-0-8095-6297-8)
  • MAGIC: THE FINAL FANTASY COLLECTION by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, Voyager, London, 1997, ISBN: 0-00-648203-1)
  • GREAT TALES OF THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg (hardback, Galahad Books, New York, 1991, ISBN: 0-88365-772-4)
  • THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Kingsley Amis (Large Format Paperback, Penguin Books, 1983, first published by Hutchinson & Co., 1981)

The SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST OF THE YEAR 2007 EDITION trade paperback is a nice anthology of reasonably recent (less than ten years old) stories, twelve in all, five from Asimov’s SF Magazine, two from F&SF, and the other five from five different sources both magazines and books. I haven’t read this one yet, but there are a few authors in it that I usually like (Robert Reed, Walter Jon Williams, Ian Watson, Robert Charles Wilson), and Rich Horton rarely puts together a bad “Best SF” anthology.

MAGIC: THE FINAL FANTASY COLLECTION is a single-author collection of Isaac Asimov’s fantasy (as opposed to SF) short fiction. It’s also notable for collecting a number of Asimov’s essays and articles about fantasy and other subjects. It’s a bit of a strange one, this, although I found it an interesting mix of articles and fiction. And Asimov’s fantasy is just as logical as his science fiction, with its own strict internal rules and limitations, which made it easy for me to read, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of reading fantasy.

GREAT TALES OF THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION is a cracking anthology of classic Golden Age SF put together by the ever-reliable trio of Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg. Nine stories in all, almost all of them published in Astounding during the 1941-1947 timeframe. Some of the biggest names in SF are in this one – Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Jack Williamson, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, C.L. Moore, Ross Rocklynne, A. Bertram Chandler, T.L. Sherred – and with some of their most classic stories.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Kingsley Amis is another cracking anthology, with a completely different group of stories and authors to the previous anthology. Only Asimov appears in both, but with different stories. And there are seventeen stories in this one, almost twice as many as the other anthology. Aside from Isaac Asimov, we’ve got Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, Brian W. Aldiss, Cordwainer Smith, H. Beam Piper, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, Anthony Boucher, James Blish, Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Jerome Bixby, F.L. Wallace and Philip Latham. That is a hugely impressive line-up of SF author talent with some of their most classic stories.

The Kingsley Amis anthology is a completely different kind of book to the other one edited by Asimov, Waugh and Greenberg. I wouldn’t really consider it a real “Golden Age” anthology at all, as the stories are from the 1950s and 1960s (there’s even one from 1979!), rather than the 1940s (the actual “Golden Age of SF” is usually considered to be circa 1938-1950, when Campbell’s Astounding ruled the roost unchallenged, and before the appearance of F&SF and Galaxy). The stories are therefore slightly more sophisticated than those in the other book, with much less of an emphasis on stories from Astounding, and a much higher percentage coming from F&SF, Galaxy and other sources. The stories are of the highest calibre, and the only criticism I would have is none of them actually qualify as “Golden Age” SF, as they come from a later period, and there are several of the 1960s stories that even come dangerously close to belonging to the New Wave. I guess Amis’ interpretation of “Golden Age” SF is a bit different to the rest of us, and maybe a bit more of a personal one. 🙂

All in all, a nice little batch of books. I’ve gotten the bug back again for hunting down SF books. I must get back on Ebay to see if I can find a few more classic anthologies.

Some New and Old SF Novels

I‘ve picked up a few books recently, so I’ll list them, a few at a time. Starting off firstly with the novels. Two new purchases from Amazon.co.uk, and two old/used books from local car-boot sales.

  • SATURN’S CHILDREN by Charles Stross (paperback, Orbit Books, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-84149-568-2)
  • NEPTUNE’S BROOD by Charles Stross (paperback, Orbit Books, London, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-356-50100-0)
  • PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, NEL, London, 1973, first published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1953, as LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS by Paul French)
  • OCEANS OF VENUS by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, NEL, London, 1974, first published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1954, as LUCKY STARR AND THE OCEANS OF VENUS by Paul French)

The two Charles Stross books were bought new from Amazon.co.uk. These two books can be considered a pair, or loosely connected series, set in the same post-human “universe” (but many centuries apart) where humanity’s “children” seem intent on recreating the worst mistakes of both our dodgy societies and our nasty individual behaviour. Both novels can be classified as “thrillers”, set in the above-mentioned SF scenario.

The first book of the two, Saturn’s Children, is set within our solar system, only two hundred years after the death of the final natural human, whilst the follow-up novel, Neptune’s Brood, is set five thousand years later, and against an interstellar background, although constrained by STL travel and real physics. Both books are of the Hard(ish) SF/New Space Opera sub-genre of SF that I like so much, and Stross writes excellent New Space Opera fiction, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them. I’ll leave commenting on the plots of either novel until a later date, as I haven’t read them yet.

The two Isaac Asimov novels are part of his “juvenile” or Young Adult (YA) SF&F Lucky Starr six-book series, written back in the 1950’s under his “Paul French” pseudonym (Pirates of the Asteroids is Book 2 in the series, and Oceans of Venus is Book 4). I read all of these books back when I was a kid, and they were an important part of my formative years as a young SF reader, leading me directly onto reading Asimov’s more adult SF works. As the series was written back in the Fifties, long before the first space probes gave us the first true images of our planetary neighbours, giving us a wonderful glimpse of one of those SF alternate “solar-system-that-never-was” continuums that fascinate me so much.

Unlike the two Stross novels, these two books are much older, used/second-hand copies, and were picked up recently at a car-boot sale for next-to-nothing. Both books are in quite tatty, strictly “readers-only” condition. They are definitely not collectible copies, so, ideally, I’d love to pick up pristine copies (or at least much better) of these two books, and every book in the series (if possible), as these are the classic New English Library (NEL) UK editions with the gorgeous cover artwork that I read way back when I was a pre-teenager.

I know that an omnibus collection of the entire six-book series, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, was released back in 2001 (although it’s apparently now out-of-print and quite expensive to buy), but I’d like to track down decent condition copies of the six 1970’s NEL paperback UK releases, just for the lovely covers, and because they will bring back so many great childhood memories. 🙂

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke

TITLE: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA
AUTHOR: Arthur C. Clarke
CATEGORY: Novel
SUB-GENRE: Hard SF
FORMAT: 1st Edition Hardback, 256 pages
PUBLISHER: Gollancz (UK), June 1973. Published in the US in August 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
ISBN: 0-575-01587-X.

2077: September 11th – an asteroid slams into northern Italy, destroying the cities of Padua and Verona, and sinking Venice, causing unimaginable damage and wiping out countless lives. After the catastrophe, Project Spaceguard is set up, to monitor and warn about any new rogue near-Earth celestial bodies that might pose a threat to our world.

2130: Project Spaceguard astronomers detect a large object in the outer solar system, just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It’s assumed to be an asteroid, and its extreme speed and trajectory show that the object is not orbiting our sun, but is a visitor from interstellar space passing through our solar system. It’s given the name Rama, after one of the Hindu gods (the names of the Greek and Roman gods have all been used up).

Scientists find the object fascinating because of its large size and extremely rapid rotation, so a probe is launched from the Martian moon, Phobos, to intercept Rama on a rapid flyby trajectory. But when the probe approaches Rama, they are shocked and amazed at the transmissions, which show that Rama is not an asteroid, but an artificial body, an immense, spinning, hollow cylinder fifty kilometres long and over twenty kilometres in diameter, a vast alien spaceship or artifact. Mankind is about to have its first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization, their first visitor from the stars.

2131: The only manned spaceship close enough to reach Rama before it leaves the solar system again is the solar survey vessel Endeavour, under the captaincy of Commander Norton and with a crew of more than twenty. The ship intercepts Rama inside the orbit of Venus and lands at the “North Pole”, where Norton and his crew find an airlock through which they gain access to the interior of Rama. Once inside, they find the interior in complete darkness, but continue exploring using artificial lighting. They descend into Rama down an immense (eight kilometres long) stairway, one of three spread out around Rama’s interior, but part-way into the descent, the lights come on, and they can now see the whole of the interior of this incredible alien world.

And “world” it is, much too large to be a mere spaceship. It’s an inverted world on the inside of the immense cylinder (like the inside of Babylon 5, but ten times bigger), a world with its own artificial gravity produced by the rapid spin of the giant cylinder, and its own environment and ecology. The interior surface of the cylinder is referred to as the Central Plain by the crew, and is divided into two “hemispheres” by an immense ten kilometre-wide body of water designated the Cylindrical Sea (which is initially frozen, but thaws out as Rama gets closer to the sun). The sight of this immense ring of water, encircling the entire interior circumference of Rama, and stretching in a curve right up into the “sky”, where it hangs “upside-down” miles overhead, is an awe-inspiring and terrifying one.

There are also six enormous trenches stretching along the interior, all the same distance apart, three in the northern hemisphere and three in the southern. These contain the immense kilometres-long “strip-lights” which provide the interior lighting for Rama.

The northern half of Rama contains a number of what looks like small “towns” – labelled London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo and Peking – all connected together by “roads”. In the middle of the Cylindrical Sea is a mysterious island covered in large structures which resemble skyscrapers, so the astronauts call this one New York.

The southern half of Rama is covered by a patchwork of hundreds of small kilometre-square regions which contain all sorts of strange stuff, all seemingly unconnected. But most fascinating is the immense structure at the far end (the stern) of the ship, a gigantic cone encircled by six smaller cones. These are found out to be the main visible component of Rama’s vast and mysterious reactionless “space drive”, which has been hurling the vessel through interstellar space for God knows how many millennia now.

Rama initially appears to be totally lifeless, until the appearance of cybernetic lifeforms referred to as “biots”, who scurry all over the interior surface of the ship, seemingly existing only to tidy up and repair Rama, getting the huge vessel ready for… something (we never find out exactly what, but possibly for some upcoming manoeuvre of the craft). The “biots” totally ignore the explorers, as though they aren’t even there. We never actually get to see the builders of Rama – the inference is that they are hidden somewhere on this vast spaceship, possibly in suspended animation during the long voyage.

The story revolves almost totally around the adventures of the explorers, as they try, totally in vain, to uncover and understand the amazing mysteries of this alien world. There are no bug-eyed monsters, sneering villains nor any of the other clichés of dramatic adventure fiction. Just the sheer awe and wide-eyed sensawunda as the humans explore the wonders of Rama. Sure, there are accidents and mishaps.

The aggressive society on Mercury view Rama as a threat, so launch an enormous nuclear missile to destroy the ship (which has a near-escape). There is the rescue of a crewmember who is stranded on the far side of the Cylindrical Sea, and a few other exciting interludes. But this is not a bog-standard adventure story. It’s a hard SF novel, depicting a First Contact between humans and a mysterious alien artifact. Rama, and the exploration of it, is the focus of this story, not the humans.

After a few weeks of exploring, and failing to unlock the secrets of Rama, the crew of the Endeavour have to get ready to leave, making their way back up the immense stairway to the airlock and their waiting ship. Rama is now too close to the sun for the Endeavour’s cooling systems to compensate. As they leave, Rama undergoes a braking manoeuvre, and begins siphoning off energy from the sun to replenish its reserves for the long journey ahead.

Then, using the sun’s gravitational field to provide a slingshot effect, it swings round and hurtles off in a different direction out of the solar system, as the “space drive” kicks in, accelerating Rama to a speed that no human vessel can match. Its destination? Unknown. But Rama is now heading towards the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy orbiting many tens of thousands of light-years outside of our own Milky Way. It still has a long, long way to go before this journey is over.

The huge irony of this story is that the human race is reduced to an insignificant bit-player compared to the wonders of Rama, the real star of this story. The Ramans are simply not interested in humanity at all, that is, if they are even aware that we exist. They’re only “passing through”, their only interest in our solar system is as a pit-stop, a refuelling depot to replenish Rama’s reserves for the long interstellar voyage ahead. It’s a rare and humbling focus in an SF novel, as, in most stories, the human race almost always takes centre stage, or at least a major role of some kind.

We know as little about the creators of Rama at the end as we did at the start of the novel, aside from the scientist’s revelation that “Ramans do everything in threes”. Who or what are they? Where do they come from? Where are they going? The enigma of Rama remains intact, the wonders, secrets and mysteries still unexplained. They don’t have to be, and these mysteries and secrets may even add to the story. Not EVERYTHING has to be explained. The sheer sensawunda of this story keeps the reader enthralled from start to finish.

Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973, and, to this day, remains not only my personal favourite of all of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, but one of my favourite SF novels, EVER! I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve years old. I couldn’t sleep one Saturday morning, so I took Rendezvous with Rama to bed with me, and read it from start to finish in less than three hours. I couldn’t put it down – I was totally enthralled. I became totally obsessed with that novel for many months afterwards, reading and re-reading it again and again and again.

Clarke often takes criticism about not writing in-depth characters, and Rendezvous with Rama is no different. But the critics completely miss the point. This novel (and most of Clarke’s work) is a HARD SF story – it’s all about the science and sheer sensawunda, the awe-inspiring majesty and mystery of mankind’s first encounter with an amazing, unfathomable alien artifact. The humans are insignificant, unimportant, mere observers, visitors, passing through Rama, just as Rama passes through our solar system, on its way to its final destination. The real star of the novel, the main “character”, isn’t the humans at all, it’s Rama.

It isn’t for nothing that this novel won all the SF book awards going at that time – the Nebula Award for Best Novel (1973), the Hugo Award for Best Novel (1974), the British Science Fiction Association Award (1973), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1974), the Locus Award for Best Novel (1974), and the Jupiter Award for Best Novel (1974). It was (and is still) very highly regarded. Rendezvous with Rama is, undoubtedly, one of the seminal classic hard SF novels of the past sixty years.

Along with another classic, Ringworld by Larry Niven (which appeared a year or two before, and explored similar themes), it influenced an entire generation of younger SF authors, such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks and many others. If many of the themes explored in Rendezvous with Rama (and Ringworld) might nowadays seem overused and clichéd to the modern SF audience, don’t blame Clarke (or Niven). The themes might be commonplace now, but those two authors did it all first.

There were a number of inferior sequels to Rendezvous with RamaRama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991), and Rama Revealed (1993) – all supposedly written “in collaboration” between Clarke and Gentry Lee, but obviously written entirely by Gentry Lee (Clarke was a MUCH better writer). They aren’t remotely as good as the original novel (I tried a couple of them – couldn’t finish them), and I’d recommended giving them a big MISS.

But read the Real Thing, one of the true classic SF novels. You won’t regret it.

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama 1st Ed

TITLE: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA
AUTHOR: Arthur C. Clarke
CATEGORY: Novel
SUB-GENRE: Hard SF
FORMAT: 1st Edition Hardback, 256 pages
PUBLISHER: Gollancz (UK), June 1973. Published in the US in August 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
ISBN: 0-575-01587-X.

2077: September 11th – an asteroid slams into northern Italy, destroying the cities of Padua and Verona, and sinking Venice, causing unimaginable damage and wiping out countless lives. After the catastrophe, Project Spaceguard is set up, to monitor and warn about any new rogue near-Earth celestial bodies that might pose a threat to our world.

2130: Project Spaceguard astronomers detect a large object in the outer solar system, just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It’s assumed to be an asteroid, and its extreme speed and trajectory show that the object is not orbiting our sun, but is a visitor from interstellar space passing through our solar system. It’s given the name Rama, after one of the Hindu gods (the names of the Greek and Roman gods have all been used up).

Scientists find the object fascinating because of its large size and extremely rapid rotation, so a probe is launched from the Martian moon, Phobos, to intercept Rama on a rapid flyby trajectory. But when the probe approaches Rama, they are shocked and amazed at the transmissions, which show that Rama is not an asteroid, but an artificial body, an immense, spinning, hollow cylinder fifty kilometres long and over twenty kilometres in diameter, a vast alien spaceship or artifact. Mankind is about to have its first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization, their first visitor from the stars.

2131: The only manned spaceship close enough to reach Rama before it leaves the solar system again is the solar survey vessel Endeavour, under the captaincy of Commander Norton and with a crew of more than twenty. The ship intercepts Rama inside the orbit of Venus and lands at the “North Pole”, where Norton and his crew find an airlock through which they gain access to the interior of Rama. Once inside, they find the interior in complete darkness, but continue exploring using artificial lighting. They descend into Rama down an immense (eight kilometres long) stairway, one of three spread out around Rama’s interior, but part-way into the descent, the lights come on, and they can now see the whole of the interior of this incredible alien world.

And “world” it is, much too large to be a mere spaceship. It’s an inverted world on the inside of the immense cylinder (like the inside of Babylon 5, but ten times bigger), a world with its own artificial gravity produced by the rapid spin of the giant cylinder, and its own environment and ecology. The interior surface of the cylinder is referred to as the Central Plain by the crew, and is divided into two “hemispheres” by an immense ten kilometre-wide body of water designated the Cylindrical Sea (which is initially frozen, but thaws out as Rama gets closer to the sun). The sight of this immense ring of water, encircling the entire interior circumference of Rama, and stretching in a curve right up into the “sky”, where it hangs “upside-down” miles overhead, is an awe-inspiring and terrifying one.

There are also six enormous trenches stretching along the interior, all the same distance apart, three in the northern hemisphere and three in the southern. These contain the immense kilometres-long “strip-lights” which provide the interior lighting for Rama.

The northern half of Rama contains a number of what looks like small “towns” – labelled London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo and Peking – all connected together by “roads”. In the middle of the Cylindrical Sea is a mysterious island covered in large structures which resemble skyscrapers, so the astronauts call this one New York.

The southern half of Rama is covered by a patchwork of hundreds of small kilometre-square regions which contain all sorts of strange stuff, all seemingly unconnected. But most fascinating is the immense structure at the far end (the stern) of the ship, a gigantic cone encircled by six smaller cones. These are found out to be the main visible component of Rama’s vast and mysterious reactionless “space drive”, which has been hurling the vessel through interstellar space for God knows how many millennia now.

Rama initially appears to be totally lifeless, until the appearance of cybernetic lifeforms referred to as “biots”, who scurry all over the interior surface of the ship, seemingly existing only to tidy up and repair Rama, getting the huge vessel ready for… something (we never find out exactly what, but possibly for some upcoming manoeuvre of the craft). The “biots” totally ignore the explorers, as though they aren’t even there. We never actually get to see the builders of Rama – the inference is that they are hidden somewhere on this vast spaceship, possibly in suspended animation during the long voyage.

The story revolves almost totally around the adventures of the explorers, as they try, totally in vain, to uncover and understand the amazing mysteries of this alien world. There are no bug-eyed monsters, sneering villains nor any of the other clichés of dramatic adventure fiction. Just the sheer awe and wide-eyed sensawunda as the humans explore the wonders of Rama. Sure, there are accidents and mishaps.

The aggressive society on Mercury view Rama as a threat, so launch an enormous nuclear missile to destroy the ship (which has a near-escape). There is the rescue of a crewmember who is stranded on the far side of the Cylindrical Sea, and a few other exciting interludes. But this is not a bog-standard adventure story. It’s a hard SF novel, depicting a First Contact between humans and a mysterious alien artifact. Rama, and the exploration of it, is the focus of this story, not the humans.

After a few weeks of exploring, and failing to unlock the secrets of Rama, the crew of the Endeavour have to get ready to leave, making their way back up the immense stairway to the airlock and their waiting ship. Rama is now too close to the sun for the Endeavour’s cooling systems to compensate. As they leave, Rama undergoes a braking manoeuvre, and begins siphoning off energy from the sun to replenish its reserves for the long journey ahead.

Then, using the sun’s gravitational field to provide a slingshot effect, it swings round and hurtles off in a different direction out of the solar system, as the “space drive” kicks in, accelerating Rama to a speed that no human vessel can match. Its destination? Unknown. But Rama is now heading towards the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy orbiting many tens of thousands of light-years outside of our own Milky Way. It still has a long, long way to go before this journey is over.

The huge irony of this story is that the human race is reduced to an insignificant bit-player compared to the wonders of Rama, the real star of this story. The Ramans are simply not interested in humanity at all, that is, if they are even aware that we exist. They’re only “passing through”, their only interest in our solar system is as a pit-stop, a refuelling depot to replenish Rama’s reserves for the long interstellar voyage ahead. It’s a rare and humbling focus in an SF novel, as, in most stories, the human race almost always takes centre stage, or at least a major role of some kind.

We know as little about the creators of Rama at the end as we did at the start of the novel, aside from the scientist’s revelation that “Ramans do everything in threes”. Who or what are they? Where do they come from? Where are they going? The enigma of Rama remains intact, the wonders, secrets and mysteries still unexplained. They don’t have to be, and these mysteries and secrets may even add to the story. Not EVERYTHING has to be explained. The sheer sensawunda of this story keeps the reader enthralled from start to finish.

Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973, and, to this day, remains not only my personal favourite of all of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, but one of my favourite SF novels, EVER! I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve years old. I couldn’t sleep one Saturday morning, so I took Rendezvous with Rama to bed with me, and read it from start to finish in less than three hours. I couldn’t put it down – I was totally enthralled. I became totally obsessed with that novel for many months afterwards, reading and re-reading it again and again and again.

Clarke often takes criticism about not writing in-depth characters, and Rendezvous with Rama is no different. But the critics completely miss the point. This novel (and most of Clarke’s work) is a HARD SF story – it’s all about the science and sheer sensawunda, the awe-inspiring majesty and mystery of mankind’s first encounter with an amazing, unfathomable alien artifact. The humans are insignificant, unimportant, mere observers, visitors, passing through Rama, just as Rama passes through our solar system, on its way to its final destination. The real star of the novel, the main “character”, isn’t the humans at all, it’s Rama.

It isn’t for nothing that this novel won all the SF book awards going at that time – the Nebula Award for Best Novel (1973), the Hugo Award for Best Novel (1974), the British Science Fiction Association Award (1973), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1974), the Locus Award for Best Novel (1974), and the Jupiter Award for Best Novel (1974). It was (and is still) very highly regarded. Rendezvous with Rama is, undoubtedly, one of the seminal classic hard SF novels of the past sixty years.

Along with another classic, Ringworld by Larry Niven (which appeared a year or two before, and explored similar themes), it influenced an entire generation of younger SF authors, such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks and many others. If many of the themes explored in Rendezvous with Rama (and Ringworld) might nowadays seem overused and clichéd to the modern SF audience, don’t blame Clarke (or Niven). The themes might be commonplace now, but those two authors did it all first.

There were a number of inferior sequels to Rendezvous with RamaRama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991), and Rama Revealed (1993) – all supposedly written “in collaboration” between Clarke and Gentry Lee, but obviously written entirely by Gentry Lee (Clarke was a MUCH better writer). They aren’t remotely as good as the original novel (I tried a couple of them – couldn’t finish them), and I’d recommended giving them a big MISS.

But read the Real Thing, one of the true classic SF novels. You won’t regret it.

Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

This month marks the first anniversary of the passing of science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who died on June 9th, 2013. He was taken from us at the tragically young age of only fifty-nine, after many months battling against terminal cancer. His death robbed the science fiction world of one of its greatest authors and leading lights.

Under his “Iain M. Banks” name (as opposed to “Iain Banks”, which he used for his mainstream literary works) he has written some of the best SF, primarily Space Opera, of the past couple of decades. And he has blazed a trail for (and competed with) the current generation of New Space Opera giants such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others who have dominated the SF field in recent years. New Space Opera fuses the best of Classic Space Opera and Hard SF, to produce what has become by far my favourite sub-genre of modern SF.

Most of Banks’s SF books are set in his remarkable Culture universe, and the Culture novels have created legions of adoring fans. And rightfully so, too, as they are excellent. So far, I’ve only read a couple of them, Player of Games and State of the Art (which is actually a short story collection), and I can fully recommend both books. I haven’t actually got around to reading any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet, although I have picked up copies of all of them, and they are sitting on the bookshelves, calling out to me. If Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata are half as good as Player of Games and State of the Art, I have a lot of really good reading ahead of me.

Banks has also written a couple of non-Culture books – Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist – which I’ve also got sitting on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. It’ll be interesting to read something NOT set in the Culture milieu, but I fully expect them to be up to his usual excellent writing standards.

Iain M. Banks is rightfully credited with being in the vanguard of a relatively small group of modern SF authors who helped spearhead the reinvigoration and rehabilitation of the humble Space Opera in the world of SF literature, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He helped play a fundamental role in reinventing that much-maligned format as a serious literary sub-genre within the wider spectrum of SF, after it had spent many years out of fashion with most serious SF authors and readers.

For this, as an ardent Space Opera fan, I’ll be forever indebted to him.

Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

This month marks the first anniversary of the passing of science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who died on June 9th, 2013. He was taken from us at the tragically young age of only fifty-nine, after many months battling against terminal cancer. His death robbed the science fiction world of one of its greatest authors and leading lights.

Under his “Iain M. Banks” name (as opposed to “Iain Banks”, which he used for his mainstream literary works) he has written some of the best SF, primarily Space Opera, of the past couple of decades. And he has blazed a trail for (and competed with) the current generation of New Space Opera giants such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others who have dominated the SF field in recent years. New Space Opera fuses the best of Classic Space Opera and Hard SF, to produce what has become by far my favourite sub-genre of modern SF.

Most of Banks’s SF books are set in his remarkable Culture universe, and the Culture novels have created legions of adoring fans. And rightfully so, too, as they are excellent. So far, I’ve only read a couple of them, Player of Games and State of the Art (which is actually a short story collection), and I can fully recommend both books. I haven’t actually got around to reading any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet, although I have picked up copies of all of them, and they are sitting on the bookshelves, calling out to me. If Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata are half as good as Player of Games and State of the Art, I have a lot of really good reading ahead of me.

Banks has also written a couple of non-Culture books – Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist – which I’ve also got sitting on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. It’ll be interesting to read something NOT set in the Culture milieu, but I fully expect them to be up to his usual excellent writing standards.

Iain M. Banks is rightfully credited with being in the vanguard of a relatively small group of modern SF authors who helped spearhead the reinvigoration and rehabilitation of the humble Space Opera in the world of SF literature, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He helped play a fundamental role in reinventing that much-maligned format as a serious literary sub-genre within the wider spectrum of SF, after it had spent many years out of fashion with most serious SF authors and readers.

For this, as an ardent Space Opera fan, I’ll be forever indebted to him.

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.

What Do I Look For in a Good SF Story?

I know that everyone has their own views on what makes a good SF story and what doesn’t, and I’ve obviously got a few opinions of my own. As with most things, it’s obviously all a matter of personal preference. Indulging my own completely subjective views, here’s what I look for (or don’t) in an SF story, starting off on a very basic level, then moving onto specifics:

What do I look for in a good SF story? Well, I have a few basic requirements of any story, SF or not. First and foremost, and I’m speaking in the most general sense here, I want to be entertained (don’t we all?). It sounds so obvious, but is the Number One requirement (for me, anyway) when reading any novel or short story. I’m reading fiction, not studying for a science degree, so, first and foremost, I want a solid, entertaining STORY. I want a good ripping yarn, a real page turner, not a darned college paper. If I really want to read something like that, to be intellectually challenged, I’ll go dig up a science textbook or a good article or three in Scientific American or Astronomy magazine. For me, reading fiction is primarily for fun and relaxation.

That said, an intelligent, well-written story is a big plus, something with a few twists and turns, and a surprise ending. Or, at least, something that isn’t totally predictable or telegraphed. I can tolerate a few plot and logic inconsistencies (but not too many) for the sake of an entertaining story, but not something that insults my intelligence. On the flip side, sure, the story may be intelligent and “educate” as much as it wants, just as long as it tells a riveting story, manages to keep me glued to the page and doesn’t try to blind me with jargon or fancy, unnecessary literary gymnastics. I absolutely cannot abide authors trying to show us how clever they are with the written word at the expense of good, clear storytelling.

I also really, REALLY don’t like to be lectured when I’m reading fiction, or beaten around the head with the author’s religious or political obsessions. These things should be part of the fascinating background of the story, fleshing it out and making the “world” more realistic and entertaining. But they should never be in your face, the core of the story, constantly preaching at you, otherwise it’s no longer a story, but rather a political or religious pamphlet. If I come across this kind of thing, it gets binned very quickly after the first chapter. If I even make it that far – I usually give it the first chapter, but if it’s really dire…

From an SF perspective, I need a story that has plenty of that good old classic sensawunda. This is probably the most vital ingredient in any SF story, as far as I’m concerned. Even modern Hard SF (one of my favourite sub-genres of SF) has to have a strong element of sensawunda to keep me interested, or it simply becomes a dry science thesis. For me, sensawunda is an absolutely essential part of any SF story. If a story doesn’t have it, I’m just not interested.

I’m not referring to “escapism” here, that’s a completely different thing altogether (and I enjoy a bit of that as well). I’m talking about that inherent, great WOW! factor that no other literary genre but SF has. A story can be an ultra-realistic Hard SF story, and still have that WOW! factor, that sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF. If you’re an SF fan, you know what I mean. If you’re not (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), then this is all completely unintelligible to you. 🙂

As a reader, I’m rather old-fashioned, at least in the stylistic sense. I prefer a decent “traditional” story, with a good plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve never been a fan of the more extreme styles of literary experimentation, such as those common during the New Wave period. Most of that stuff was unrecognizable to me as SF, or even as proper storytelling. I think those guys were taking way too many drugs!

When it comes to SF, I’m (with very few exceptions) pretty much strictly hardcore “old school”/”old guard”, certainly pre-New Wave, and most definitely pre-“Speculative Fiction”. I’m one of those readers who grew up in the era when the SF that I read in book form was the kind of thing that had originally been published in Astounding and (later) Analog, from an era when SF had not yet been polluted by any of the modern mutated aberrations of mainstream fiction posing as SF. As far as I’m concerned, the “S” in SF means SCIENCE Fiction, and ONLY Science Fiction, not bloody SPECULATIVE Fiction, or any of the other more recent labels that certain publishers and literary wannabe elements within SF have been attempting to foist upon us.

As someone fascinated by the ideas and concepts in science, I prefer plot-driven SF, of the old classic “nuts ‘n’ bolts” variety, although it’s a big bonus if there are also decent characters in the story. I do NOT like one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs in place of real characters. I prefer realistic characters that I can empathize with, be they the “good guys” who I can root for, or “bad guys” that I can boo and hiss at, or (even better) more complex characters of every shade of grey in between the black and white ends of the spectrum. But no matter how interesting and complex the characters are, they should NEVER displace the main SF themes as the primary focus of the story, as far as I’m concerned.

When the story becomes primarily about the characters, squeezing out the SF elements from centre stage, it becomes soap opera, not SF. I strongly believe that real SF is supposed to be “Big Picture” fiction, dealing with huge issues relating to humanity, life, the universe and everything. It’s that “sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF” that I was referring to earlier.

That’s why I’m not fond of a lot of the fiction at the extreme soft end of the traditional SF spectrum, particularly slipstream and similar shades of so-called “Speculative Fiction”. Most of the time, the stories in these sub-genres of SF actually contain very little (if any) SF or science at all. They can’t, at least in my book, be truthfully categorized as science fiction. They are basically mainstream literary fiction posing as SF.

The author throws in a few casual SF terms like “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering”, or maybe a hint that the story is set ten, twenty or thirty years in the future. But aside from this, These stories focus almost totally on the emotions and interactions of a few characters, and contain very little real science or anything else that makes up what I consider to be important elements of an SF story.

This inward-looking, “Small Picture” fiction deals with the internalized personal conflicts of individuals, and other issues that are very small in the overall scheme of things, a strong characteristic of mainstream literary fiction, but not science fiction. It is the absolute opposite of what true, “Big Picture” SF is all about. I refer to this kind of fiction rather derogatorily as “touchy-feely” SF.

Lots of people out there might enjoy that kind of thing (and good for them – whatever floats yer boat), but I don’t like it, and I don’t even consider this kind of fiction to be real SF at all.

These happen to be my own opinions, and I’m sticking to them! 🙂

Welcome to Science Fiction Reader

Welcome to the new Science Fiction Reader blog.

This blog is focused solely on science fiction literature, and is intended to review and recommend the best – in other words, my favourite 🙂 – SF anthologies and single-author short fiction collections that I’ve come across over the years, as well as any new material that I happen to read along the way. There will, of course, be the occasional posting about individual short stories, novelettes and novellas (and the VERY occasional novel, although I tend to read very few of those these days).

As such, the nature of these blog posts will be very subjective, focused purely on what I like, rather than made up from lists of mainstream “Best-Sellers” (I read very few Best-Sellers, to be honest). There are numerous blogs and websites “out there” reviewing the best of current mainstream SF&F, and I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel. I want this site to be something different, an individual fan’s (that’s me) totally subjective views on the SF that he has read over the years.

My own tastes in SF are very heavily biased towards short fiction and older/classic SF, so those tastes will be reflected in the posts that I make here. I have a huge collection of SF novels, individual author short story collections, and anthologies of short fiction by a range of various authors, some of them very old and remembered only by a few of the “wrinklies” out there. So there will be no shortage of material to review.

I also have some pretty eclectic and obscure tastes when it comes to older SF, so there will be quite a few posts spotlighting “forgotten” gems from the earlier days of the genre, as I attempt to bring them not only to the attention of the younger generation of SF readers who have never seen these stories before, but also to jog the memories of older readers who might have read some of these stories way back at the dawn of time.

I’m a huge fan of Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their modern mutant offspring, New Space Opera. I absolutely LOVE New Space Opera! It’s easily my favourite sub-genre of modern SF. So there will obviously be a few posts featuring some of the best new releases in New Space Opera novels and short fiction.

Okay, I’m off now to do some reading. I’ll not be making many reviews if I sit around here all day yapping. 🙂

Alastair Reynolds – Galactic North and Zima Blue

Anyone who knows me is very aware that I’m a huge fan of the science fiction writing of leading British/Welsh “hard” SF author, Alastair Reynolds (and of New Space Opera/Hard SF in general). I have most of his novels, with the exception of a couple of the most recent – I’ll have to rectify that omission soon – but as much as I like Reynolds’ novels, I like his short fiction even more.

I’ve been a fan of his short SF going right back to the very first short story of his (that is, the very first that I read, not the first he had published), “Spirey and the Queen”, which appeared in Interzone 108 (June 1996). I liked this story a lot, so I did my usual thing and put his name into my little mental list of “new SF writers to watch out for”, with the intention of reading any other Reynolds stories that I came across.

But it was really with “Galactic North”, which was published in Interzone 145, that he became one of my favourite SF authors. Reading “Galactic North” (and, around the same time, and also in Interzone, another one of his stories, “A Spy in Europa”) was like receiving a high-octane boost of adrenaline, and just pushed all the right buttons for me. This exciting New Space Opera, a fusion of ultra-hard SF and the more traditional action adventure of classic space opera, was like a breath of fresh air to me. From that point onwards, I began to hunt eagerly for every SF magazine that I could find containing any Alastair Reynolds stories, followed by every Reynolds novel that was released, starting with his Revelation Space sequence of novels, REVELATION SPACE, REDEMPTION ARK and ABSOLUTION GAP.

Right now, on my bookcase, I just happen to be looking right at a couple of lovely collections of short stories written by Reynolds:

Galactic North

The first is a very nice signed 1st edition hardcover of GALACTIC NORTH, his first short story collection. This is a collection of stories set in his classic Revelation Space universe, which includes both of the above-mentioned stories, “Galactic North” and “A Spy in Europa”. This is a fantastic selection of stories, spanning a time from barely a couple of hundred years in the future, way up to a distant forty thousand years ahead, and set in a universe inhabited by the likes of the Conjoiners, Ultras, Demarchists (all sub-branches of humanity), the Inhibitors (ancient alien killing machines which have been awakened from aeons-long sleep, with one single objective – to annihilate any emerging intelligent species, in this case, humanity), and any number of other brilliant creations from the amazingly inventive mind of Mr. Reynolds.

Zima Blue

The second hardback collection is ZIMA BLUE, a companion volume to GALACTIC NORTH, this time a selection of his non-Revelation Space short fiction, which includes the aforementioned “Spirey and the Queen” and other equally excellent tales. These fascinating and enjoyable stories show that Reynolds is not a one-trick pony, and has many other great stories to tell that are not based in the Revelation Space universe. His more recent novels based in various non-Revelation Space scenarios, including HOUSE OF SUNS, CENTURY RAIN and PUSHING ICE, show that there is an entire multiverse of new stories still to come from the fertile mind of Alastair Reynolds.

I’d already previously read almost everything in these two collections, with the exception of several of the newer stories, but it’s really nice to get all of these excellent stories in two nice books, instead of having to go hunting through piles of SF magazines trying to find individual stories.

These two books are an absolute must for all Alastair Reynolds fans, and I’d not only recommend them to anybody who enjoys Hard SF/New Space Opera, but indeed good, ripping SF yarns of any kind. Anybody who may not yet have had the good fortune to have read any Alastair Reynolds, take my advice – grab these two collections, jump in, feet first, and enjoy some of the best SF short fiction available.

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

I was really saddened to learn of the death of science fiction author Iain M. Banks on June 9th. It wasn’t really a surprise, given that he’d announced to the world two months before that he had terminal cancer. But most of us thought he’d be with us for a few more months at least, and it was a bit of an unexpected shock that he had passed away so quickly so soon after making the announcement.

Banks was a giant both in the science fiction genre, and, without the “M” in his name, in the literary mainstream field as well. Others have elaborated at length on his mainstream literary books such as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, The Bridge, Walking on Glass and Espedair Street. I’m not particularly interested in those books, excellent as they undoubtedly are. I don’t read literary mainstream fiction, nor, indeed, any other form of genre fiction except for SF. I’m almost totally a reader of factual literature – history, science, computing, web design, autobiographies, linguistics, indeed almost anything factual. From the world of fiction, it’s only SF that holds any attraction for me. The rest just bores me to tears.

So it’s Banks’s SF books, both Culture and non-Culture (Against a Dark Background, The Algebraist), that I’m primarily interested in. Over the past couple of years, I’ve picked up most of his Culture novels, and they all sit in my huge “to read” pile. Despite knowing quite a bit about Banks, the Culture and its background, I’m in the extremely weird situation that I have actually not, as yet, gotten around to actually reading most of the Culture novels. With the exception of Player of Games and the State of the Art short story collection, I haven’t read any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet. Some Banks fans might consider that to be an extremely enviable situation to be in, as I have all those great novels still ahead of me. With the announcement of Banks’s passing, they certainly have all been moved right to the top of the pile of books that I want to read. If I enjoy Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata as much as I have Player of Games and State of the Art, I have some great reading ahead of me.

Banks is rightfully credited with being at the vanguard of a group of modern SF authors who have, since the 1980s, helped reintroduce a more traditional, optimistic brand of SF, which had, up until then, been pushed aside by the deluge of pessimistic dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF that had seemingly taken over the genre. They also played a fundamental role in reinventing and rehabilitating the humble space opera within the SF genre, after it had almost totally disappeared from serious SF literature for many years before.

The previous generation of “New Wave” SF writers had considered space opera to be, let’s call a spade a spade, totally beneath them. They argued (perhaps justifiably) that space opera had become tired, cliched and unhip, and they even went as far as declaring the space opera to be “dead”, with the bloody knife in their own hands. They certainly did their damnedest to kill it off. Most of those SF authors had much loftier literary ambitions than their predecessors, and space opera, as the ultimate symbol (in their eyes) of the tired and childish “Old SF” was a particular target of their ire. It was unfashionable, unthinkable even, for these authors to even consider writing space opera. From their point of view, any author with aspirations of becoming a “serious literary figure”, writing space opera would be a kiss of death for their career. And the readers, particularly fans of space opera, had absolutely no say in the matter. Who gave a damn what they wanted?

But fortunately for all of us, those literary snobs were wrong, the readers and fans of space opera got what they wanted, and space opera has outlived most of the outdated, pretentious and almost unreadable “New Wave” SF writing, and still entertains new generations of SF fans to this day. Iain M. Banks and a few others were responsible for making it fashionable again, and they helped to usher in a new era of much more literate, intelligent and adult space opera, which has remained a huge favourite and a focus for a large number of SF readers, myself included.

Without Space Opera, its modern descendant New Space Opera, and some Hard SF, I would read virtually no modern SF at all, as there is very little else being written in the “Speculative Fiction” field these days to interest me or older readers like myself who prefer classic-style SF. I’d be stuck with reading only my huge collection of classic pre-New Wave SF. For that alone, Mr. Banks, you have my deepest, heartfelt gratitude.

Iain M. Banks died tragically young (he was 59, only seven years older than I am, and I consider myself to still be a relatively young man), thus undoubtedly depriving us of many more fantastic books, both SF/Culture and literary mainstream. But the incredible body of work that he leaves behind already assures his immortality in both the SF and literary mainstream worlds. He also leaves behind a huge number of heartbroken, faithful fans, and his fantastic writing will certainly attract many, many more fans in the years to come.

And I know that I, for one, definitely have some great Iain M. Banks SF books to look forward to reading, most of them for the very first time.

SF Labels and Categories – Useful, or a Waste of Space?

SF fans just love to categorize and pidgeon-hole their fiction, to label it so that it fits neatly into certain little boxes with other fiction of exactly the same kind. I’m referring primarily to all those little categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, and so on, that we invent to identify and promote the various kinds of SF&F that we read.

We’ve got Hard SF, Soft/Social SF, Space Opera, New Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Military SF, Alternate History, Parallel/Alternate Universe SF, Time Travel/Temporal Paradox SF, Superhuman SF, Utopian/Dystopian SF, Apocalyptic SF, Alien Invasion SF, Space Westerns, Anthropological SF, Comic SF, Feminist SF, Scientific Romances, Slipstream, Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Magical Realism, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mainstream/High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Superhero Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy… the list of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres goes on and on and on endlessly, and there are new ones popping up all the time.

Let’s take the Hard SF sub-genre, for example, which is based on a worldview projected ahead from theories of real, existing science (usually physics, or one of the other hard sciences), creating a future reality that may be possible, with none of the unrealistic, fantastic elements seen in other types of SF. I think that the classic definition of Hard SF was that the writer was allowed ONE element as a “maguffin”, a plot device that doesn’t have to be extrapolated from real science (something like a time machine, or FTL, both of which are, some would say, actually as much fantasy as fairies, elves or vampires, with absolutely no basis in real science), but the rest has to be true extrapolation from currently understood science.

However, in practice, most Hard SF novels contain more than one non-Hard SF element, and the category seems to have been slightly “watered down” in recent years, to allow a few “maguffins” in each story, rather than only one, just as long as the overall science and extrapolation in the story is “real”. There also seems to be a widening trend towards expansion within the modern Hard SF sub-genre itself, a trend which promotes including everything from ultra-hard, to generic SF, with a few Hard SF elements in among the non-hard stuff. There’s even a relatively new sub-genre within Hard SF known as New Space Opera, which fuses the best elements of Hard SF and Space Opera, two sub-genres so far apart on the SF spectrum (pretty much at opposite ends, actually) that classic Hard SF and Space Opera fans of days gone by would never have believed that they could ever mix.

If we were to truly apply the “only one maguffin allowed” rule of classic Hard SF rigidly, many of the great SF stories of the past fifty years or more would really have to be re-classified as generic SF, or some other sub-genre, rather than Hard SF. Even the mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the benchmarks of classic Hard SF cinema, has at least TWO non-Hard SF elements (if not more) – alien visitation in the past by near-godlike beings, who manipulated and altered the man-apes to enable them to survive and evolve into modern humans (more Erich von Daniken than Hard SF), and a stargate to allow FTL travel (pure fantasy according to current scientific theory).

As far as I’m concerned, labels and categories are merely guidelines, useful pointers so that fans of certain sub-types of SF can search out and find the shades of SF that they are most attracted to, from among the huge spectrum of assorted sub-genres. SF fans should never lose sight of the fact that the Real Deal is the story itself, and how good it is. The labelling is only to help them find and classify it, and is quite unimportant outside of that purpose.

But sometimes we can get a little bit too caught up with labels, and unfortunately there are some really obsessive fans out there, a small percentage of the Faithful Adherents in each sub-genre, who tend to go way, way overboard in their compulsion to keep their little corners of the SF meta-genre pure and untainted by anything from “outside”, anything that doesn’t fit their limited and restricted worldview. A symptom of this is their extreme obsession with labels and categories, and excluding anything from those categories that they believe doesn’t belong, even on the flimsiest of rationalizations.

I’ll give an example. I was witness to an online discussion a few months ago (can’t recall exactly where) about SF author Peter Watts and his excellent novel Blindsight. Now Watts is usually categorized as a Hard SF author, and a good one, too. And Blindsight is a pretty good Hard SF novel. But a few so-called fans were slating it for daring to commit a “cardinal sin” – there were vampires in the story. And vampires are Horror, not SF (never mind Hard SF), right? You can’t possibly have vampires in a Hard SF story, right?

This is all totally ignoring the fact that Watts had given his vampires a “scientific rationale” for existing. Sure, not exactly Hard SF, but they certainly weren’t the fantastical, supernatural vampires of horror legend, either. But you’d have thought that Watts had murdered someone, the way these obsessive fans were having a go at him about it. One second they were praising him for writing such an enjoyable novel, and next they were tearing into him for having the temerity to have vampires in a Hard SF novel.

I found myself rolling my eyes in disgust and disbelief at these sad, anal-retentive idiots. I mean come on, Get a Freakin’ Life. WHO CARES? It’s a great novel, and that’s all that matters. And in defense of Blindsight, if we were to consider the vampires as the single, permissible, non-“hard” extrapolated item or plot device, then the rest of the novel could definitely be considered true Hard SF. I certainly consider it Hard SF. Even by the classic Hard SF definition, it still fits the label.

But, to be honest, at the end of the day, I really couldn’t give a hoot what label is stuck on Blindsight or any other book, just as long as the book is good. I don’t really care if Blindsight is labelled as pure, undiluted Hard SF or not, or merely “mostly” Hard SF, or even “Hard SF/Horror”. I really, really don’t give a damn. I just prefer to enjoy it for what it really is, a cracking good read.

So yes, I consider labels and categories to be useful, a good thing, but they are not the be-all and end-all, and are important only as a useful way to locate, indentify and classify certain types of story. That’s all they are for, and they are not important in themselves. And they should never be held so self-important or inflexible that they “lock out” any story from that genre, just because it contains a few things that don’t fit the overall category. If the general essence of a story places it in a certain category, say Hard SF, then it doesn’t matter if there are a few elements in it that aren’t “hard”, just as long as most of them are.

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

This one has been a long time coming, far too long. But better late than never, I suppose… 🙂

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂