Sunday, 18 May 2008

2008 Reading Challenge - May

I've had Virginia Woolf's Orlando on my book-shelves for a number of years, but had never got around to reading it. I forget why I even bought it. It was cheap, I know that much: there's a Dh 10/- sticker on the back (ten Dirhams, the currency of the UAE; at the time I was living there, that would be about £1.65).

I also have the DVD of
Sally Potter's film, starring Tilda Swinton. And it's a good film - looks fantastic, although the story meanders a bit.

So the book immediately went on the list when I decided to read a classic author each month of 2008. And now I've read it...

Orlando is a young noble in Elizabethan England. He is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, writes volumes of execrable poetry, and has an affair with a Muscovite princess. The affair ends badly, and so Orlando wangles a position as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Sultan's Court in Istanbul. Several years later, he is promoted to Duke and made a member of the Order of Bath. Shortly afterwards, he falls into a sleep from which none can wake him for a week. While he sleeps, the Janissaries revolt. When Orlando wakes, he is now a woman.

After spending some time with Anatolian gypsies, Orlando returns to England. She then lives through the centuries following until the publication of the book:
"Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight" (the last words of the novel).

Orlando is written as a biography, with frequent authorial interjections - at one point, even declaring the date on which a passage was written - "...for the poet has a butcher's face and the butcher a poet's; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs..."; or commenting on the prose itself: "...who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence..." The words "biography" and "story" are used throughout, explaining that Orlando is as much a commentary on Orlando's life as it is a telling of it.

Unfortunately, Orlando is a paragon - loved by all who meet him; his legs "the shapliest legs that any Nobleman has ever stood upright upon"; his house the greatest in England, with 365 rooms and 15 acres of parkland... We are told this repeatedly. Woolf makes no effort to make her protagonist or her story plausible. Orlando's central change of sex is left completely unexplained - and barely remarked upon by those who knew him before.

Orlando reads like a paean to its subject. It tells a story, yes, but it's not really a novel. Woolf's close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West was the inspiration for Orlando, and the book reads like an open and frank love letter to her. In places, the author's heart is far too visible on her sleeve.

In one respect, reading
Orlando proved an interesting exercise. It's a fantasy, and it was published ninety years ago. Given the current form of fantasy, especially high fantasy (or sword & sorcery, as it's sometimes known), comparisons between such novels and Woolf's were almost inevitable. The current trend is for immersion, a narrative that drags the reader into the world of the story and keeps them there. And the world must be internally consistent in order for that to occur. Whereas Orlando does no such thing. The story is told to the reader, no effort is made to entice the reader into living the story in their imagination. Woolf is quite clearly writing Orlando in 1928, and often makes reference to items and knowledge that would have been unknown to her protagonist - "The thought struck him like a bullet", for example. It's an entirely different reading experience to that of, say, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (quality of writing aside).

Personally, I prefer rigour and internal consistency in my fiction. Especially in regard to an invented world, or a story which cannot rely on the real world to provide consistency. Woolf's authorial interventions I found intrusive. This might have been acceptable if they were witty - like Jane Austen, for example - but in
Orlando, they they were just fawning. Orlando was too good, too improbable, a hero/heroine, and quickly became boring. Orlando is, well, fanciful tosh.

So, another classic fails to make the grade. While I admitted back in February that I might give Hemingway another go some time, I very much doubt I'll be doing the same to Virginia Woolf. Orlando is, according to Wikipedia, "generally considered one of Woolf's most accessible novels". Not to mention its importance to English literature. But I just can't see it.

I've all ready picked out
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad for next month. Let's hope I like that one better.

(Incidentally, for those who want to try Orlando for themselves, here's an online copy.)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Overlooked Classics - Part 2

Here is the second lot of sf novels which, I believe, shouldn't be forgotten. I chose these books - and the preceding five - as much because they, and their authors, are obscure as I did because I like the novels. Most authors, even well-known ones, have some title buried in their back-catalogue which deserves better recognition. And some novels which are obscure today were much-lauded on publication. I've tried to avoid such books. The five titles below were, and still are, "overlooked"...

Blueprint For A Prophet (1997)
Carl Gibeily

I forget where I picked this book up. Given that I have the hardback edition, I suspect it was in some publishers' clearance shop. Why I bought it... Well, the author was unknown to me, and the book wasn't published as science fiction... It must have been the story. But I'm glad I did buy it and read it. Blueprint For A Prophet is set in Lebanon (Gibeily is Lebanese) and describes the rise of a fundamentalist prophet who knits together the Arab states into a powerful Muslim federation. But it's not just about that, because one character is a theoretical physicist whose experiments could change history... Blueprint For A Prophet is one of those sf novels written by a non-sf writer which succeeds as science fiction.

The War for Eternity (1983)
Christopher Rowley

"Classic" is not a word usually associated with
Christopher Rowley's novels. His prose is usually little better than competent. But his debut novel is much better. The War for Eternity is set on the world of Fenrille, which contains a single continent ringing its equator, and is the source of a longevity drug. The drug is harvested from insectoid creatures native to Fenrille, but only certain people are permitted by them to do the harvesting. It's a similar idea to that in CJ Cherryh's Serpent's Reach, although that's the only similarity between the two books. In The War for Eternity, forces from Earth attempt to seize control of Fenrille, but are fought off by the colonists. The story also takes a final bizarre twist at the end. Rowley went on to write a further three novels set in the same universe - The Black Ship, The Founder and To a Highland Nation.

Cortez on Jupiter (1990)
Ernest Hogan

According to the cover of this novel,
Cortez on Jupiter is "the most spectacular first novel since The Demolished Man". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction described Hogan as "a figure of interest for the 1990s". Unfortunately, he had one more novel published, High Aztec (1992), and then dropped out of sight. Which is a shame. Cortez on Jupiter is an early post-cyberpunk novel about a graffiti artists who ends up making humanity's first contact with the sentient inhabitants of Jupiter. The flamboyant prose throws off ideas on every page, and the story is a rush from start to finish.

The Krugg Syndrome (1988)
Angus McAllister

This has to be one of the most mis-marketed
books ever. From the cover, you'd expect something from the heartland of the genre, featuring strange expeditions to alien worlds. Instead, what you get is a comedy set in Glasgow in which a law clerk thinks he is an alien. Arthur Montrose is convinced he is a Krugg, one of a race of telepathic alien trees who are bent on conquering Earth. Unfortunately, he's lost his telepathic powers and can no longer contact his home world... The Krugg Syndrome is a diary of Arthur's experiences on Earth, the people he meets, his encounters with alcohol and sex, and his increasing inability to fulfill his Krugg mission...

The Morphodite trilogy (1981 - 1985)
MA Foster
The Morphodite is an artificially created humanoid with the ability to change its appearance, with each transformation changing sex and appearing younger. However, the Morphodite's real talent lies in spotting a society's fracture points - i.e., places where the ramifications of one small action can spiral out until they bring down the society. In the first book in the series,
The Morphodite, the eponymous character is created in The Mask Factory on the world of Oerlikon, escapes, and promptly wreaks its revenge. In Transformer, the authorities have tracked down the Morphodite and send assassins to kill it. The Morphodite learns that it was originally a woman from offworld. Now knowing its original identity, it leaves Oerlikon for the world of Teragon. Preserver is set on that world many years later. A young man, who works as a thug/assassin for hire, learns when his lover is kidnapped that he is the Morphodite. He then uses his powers to destroy Teragon's society. There's something very Vancian about Foster's prose in these novels, although the central premise and its treatment is not in the slightest bit like Jack Vance. The three books were re-issued in an omnibus edition as The Transformer Trilogy.

Part one of "Overlooked Classics" is here.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Overlooked Classics?

Inspired by this post, I decided to have a go at producing my own list of ten sf novels which don't really deserve to be forgotten. They're hardly lost classics - in fact, most of the following I bought remaindered. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad. Good books get remaindered too. Nor does it mean, as a friend once insisted, that they're faulty because they're full of spelling mistakes. Books get remaindered because they didn't sell.

The science fiction novels below were never going to win awards or redefine the genre. But they are entertaining reads, by no means ordinary, and certainly worth picking up if you see them in some second-hand or charity shop.

The Broken Worlds (1986)
Raymond Harris
Harris had three books published, and then vanished. This is his first. It's a space opera, set after the fall of a galactic empire. The Martians, immortal warriors, are trying to recreate the empire. Caught up in this are cabaret artist Attanio Hwin and the mysterious woman Sringlë. As space
operas go, The Broken Worlds is more colourful than most. While Harris doesn't try to give his universe depth by slapping on some pseudo-historical patina, he still manages to present a series of worlds which are unique and interesting. EC Tubb did something similar with his Dumarest series, but that was unremittingly grim. The Broken Worlds is fun - The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction even calls it "an attractive picaresque adventure". Harris' other two novels are Shadows of the White Sun, which is better than The Broken Worlds but not as much fun, and The Schizogenic Man, which is perhaps the least interesting of the three.

The Children of Anthi (1985)
Jay D Blakeney

Blakeney is a pseudonym of romance writer Deborah A Chester, who is also known under the name Sean Dalton for her YA sf series Operation StarHawks.
The Children of Anthi is a richly-detailed space opera, in which scout Omari crashes on the world of Ruantl and is taken hostage by the world's inhabitants. The story takes place on a single planet, but Blakeney has clearly spent a lot of time mapping out its society and customs. In places, it's almost Herbert-esque, and fans of Dune will probably find something to enjoy in this novel. There is a sequel, Requiem for Anthi (1990), which is also worth tracking down.

Dancer of the Sixth (1993)
Michelle Shirey Crean

As far as I'm aware, Crean has never had another novel published. Which is a shame, because
Dancer of the Sixth is a pretty good read. It's military sf, but it's from that strange sub-set which feature female heroines, usually pilots. In this instance, the pilot is called Dancer, and she's not a pilot anymore. Now she's a member of the Sixth Service, military intelligence, and her past has been wiped and she conditioned to forget it. Until one day a fighter crash-lands on the planet where Dancer is stationed, and the pilot proves to be... someone masquerading as Dancer. So the real Dancer takes her place to find out what's going on.

Cageworld (1982 - 1984)
Colin Kapp
This is a cheat as it's a series of four books:
Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades and Star-Search. The series features one of the most impressive Big Dumb Objects in sf - the entire Solar system has been encased in a concentric series of Dyson Spheres. Embedded in each Sphere are holes, and in these holes are Earth-like planets. People live both on these planets and the outer surface of the spheres. It's all completely implausible of course, but that doesn't matter. The series opens on the Mars-shell. The fabulously wealthy and mysterious Land-a has recruited Master of Assassins Maq Ancor, Space Illusionist Cherry, and Sine Anura, Mistress of the Erotic, to travel in towards the Sun in a specially built space-ship, Shellback. Contact with the shells' controlling AI, Zeus, has been lost and they must discover why. In the subsequent novels, the same three travel outwards from Mars-shell, seeking to determine why emigration outwards has halted. Baroque and a great deal of fun.

Frostworld and Dreamfire (1977)
John Morressy
Morressy wrote a series of sf novels set in a future interstellar federation called the Sternverein. This is the best of them. (The worst,
The Mansions of Space, should be avoided.) Unusually for such space operas - and it's the only one of Morressy's series that is like this - Frostworld and Dreamfire is told from the viewpoint of an alien. Hult is the last of the Onhla, a race of primitive humanoid hunters who live on the frozen face of the planet Hragellon. He sets out on a quest to discover the world where legend claims other Onhla settled ages past. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes the novel as "a strongly constructed and occasionally rousing epic of a metamorphic humanoid's search". Also worth seeking out is Morressy's Del Whitby trilogy, also set in the Sternverein - Starbrat, Nail Down the Stars and Under A Calculating Star.

Part two of this post - another five "overlooked classics" - to follow soon.