Some New Books, First Quarter 2014

Here are some SF books, some new, some old, that I’ve picked up over the past two or three months from various places such as Ebay UK, Amazon UK and my regular supplier of comics and books in the US:

Novels:

  • THE SPACE MACHINE & A DREAM OF WESSEX Omnibus by Christopher Priest (paperback)
  • STARFARERS by Poul Anderson (hardback)
  • HAWKMOON: THE HISTORY OF THE RUNESTAFF Omnibus by Michael Moorcock (trade paperback)
  • THE LIGHT AGES by Ian R. MacLeod (paperback)
  • THE SPACE TRILOGY Omnibus by Arthur C. Clarke (trade paperback)

Collections:

  • THE BEST OF JACK WILLIAMSON (paperback)
  • THE EARLY WILLIAMSON (hardback)
  • BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS by Ian R. MacLeod (trade paperback)

Anthologies:

  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 19 edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF TIME TRAVEL SF edited by Mike Ashley (trade paperback)
  • RAYGUN CHRONICLES – SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt (trade paperback)
  • GREAT TALES OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg (hardback)
  • THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY 2013 edited by Rich Horton (trade paperback)
  • AFTER THE END: RECENT APOCALYPSES edited by Paula Guran (trade paperback)
  • WORLDS OF EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS edited by Mike Resnick and Robert T. Garcia (trade paperback)
  • MODERN GREATS OF SCIENCE FICTION – NINE NOVELLAS OF DISTINCTION edited by Jonathan Strahan (trade paperback)
  • RAGS & BONES: NEW TWISTS ON TIMELESS TALES edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt (hardback)

Non-Fiction:

  • H.G. WELLS: CRITIC OF PROGRESS by Jack Williamson (hardback)
  • AFTER THE NEW WAVE: SCIENCE FICTION SINCE 1980 by Nader Elhefnawy (trade paperback)

That’s quite a nice selection, leaning very heavily towards short fiction, particularly anthologies, plus three collections of individual author short stories. There are only two novels, plus three omnibus editions containing two (the Priest), three (the Clarke) and four (the Moorcock) novels, respectively. Only two of the books are non-fiction, which is pretty unusual, given my buying habits in recent years, which has swung sharply towards including much more non-fiction.

But no surprise with the large number of anthologies and individual author collections. Most of my book buying lists will always lean heavily in that direction, as I always tend to read a lot more short fiction than novels.

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.

A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I‘ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.