Thursday, 29 January 2009

Jupiter Review the First

Annie of Random Thoughts on what I Read on LJ reviews Jupiter SF #23 - which contains my story 'Thicker Than Water'. See here. She writes,

"The world is well-built and the story flows naturally ... I loved the story..."

To be fair, she loved the other stories in the issue too.

Lies, Damn Lies and... SF Awards

Adam Roberts has posted an interesting article on Futurismic on the blog-baiting subject of "Award shortlists are all rubbish". Big Dumb Object has responded here.

Myself, I don't think awards shortlists are rubbish. I just think they're dishonest. The Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Clarke Award, the Nebula Award... are all given to the "best" novel, etc.


But that's not true. The voted awards are given to the shortlisted book which has the most votes. The most popular book, in other words. The juried awards are given to the book which the jury - no doubt after much argument and compromise - feels is the best of their shortlist. The same is true of the shortlists themselves. The process itself simply isn't capable of picking the best book of the year.

If every reader of science fiction and fantasy voted for the Hugo Award, the winner would always be the latest Harry Potter book. Because so many more people read JK Rowling than Michael Chabon (whose The Yiddish Policemen's Union - which is actually very good - won the Hugo for 2008). But then, of course, they'd have to call it the Hugo Award for Most Popular Novel.

It could be argued that shortlists provide a good reading list, a snapshot of the "state of the genre", if you will. For juried awards such as the Clarke, that's possibly true. Although given the Clarke's predilection for picking non-sf novels for its shortlist, you're not going to get much idea from it of what's happening in the genre in any given year.

As far as I can determine, the only conceivable purpose for the various awards which are handed out is... to celebrate the genre. It's a reminder to the general public that science fiction and fantasy still exist as a separate, functioning ecology; that there are writers, readers, artists and commentators working in the genre; that there are people who feel strongly enough about the genre to do the whole award shenanigans.

So let's drop the word "best" from all the awards. Let's call it the Hugo Award for Novel, the BSFA Award for Novel, and so on. Remove all references to any kind of value judgment. Let's stop pretending the winners are better books than every other genre book published during the same year. The same for short stories, magazines, writers, editors, artists, etc.

Let's be honest.

Let's focus on what the awards really are: annual celebrations of the genre.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

BSFA Award shortlist

It's that time of year again. The shortlists for the 2008 BSFA Awards have been announced. And they go something like this:

Best Novel

I've not read any of the four, although I do have The Night Sessions and plan to read it soon. I'm a bit behind on my Baxter reading, although eventually I would have got to Flood. The Harkaway I've heard good-ish things about, but not enough to make me want to shell out for a new hardback by an author I've never read before. Anathem.... Well, I hated the Baroque Cycle, so I'm certainly not going to buy Stephenson's latest brick in hardback.

And yes, I know there are such things as libraries. But I already have enough unread books of my own to keep me reading for several years, so why would I join a library?

Um, it seems The Gone-Away World is available in A-format paperback already. I might well get a copy, then...

Best Short Fiction
A new Chiang. Nuff said. I hope they make it available online. The others are already available to read on the tinterweb. I don't read enough short fiction each year to judge how the above stack up against everything else published. Annoyingly, you have to sign up for a 7-day trial for some online business information service to access the Rickert. Which requires you to enter a credit card number. Dumb move, F&SF.

Best Non-Fiction
I have Paul Kincaid's book, and I plan to read it. I am less interested in fantasy, or superheroes. Clute's piece, as it is online, I will read.

Best Artwork
Judge for yourself...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

149 SF Novels Everyone Must Read... Apparently

All week the Guardian has been running 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Not 1000 Novels Everyone Should Read. Must read. And these 1000 novels have been arbitrarily - and weirdly - split into seven categories: love, crime, comedy, family & self, state of the nation, science fiction & fantasy, and war & travel. To date, I've averaged between one and two dozen read in each category.

But today it's science fiction & fantasy and, unsurprisingly, I make a much better showing.

Here is the list:

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
JG Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
JG Ballard: Crash (1973)
JG Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- )
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

I make that 63 read of 149 - they're the ones in bold. Plus a further 10 I own but have yet to read (in italics).

It's a bloody odd list, that much is for sure. No Mars trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson, but The Years of Rice and Salt instead. Banks' Consider Phlebas rather than Use of Weapons. Memoirs of a Survivor but not the Canopus in Argos Archives for Lessing. Michael G Coney manages to sneak one on there - I suspect a fondness for his work on the part of one of the compilers. There's a few I'd never recommend to people - Orlando might have its fans, but I hated it. Nor was I that impressed by Michael Faber's Under The Skin. Several titles I'd never heard of - especially the old Gothic ones. And... Toni Morrison? Sarah Waters? Ben Okri? Still, there's a few there I wouldn't mind giving a go. I might even stick them on the wants list...

EDIT: Thanks to Martin Lewis for posting the list on his blog.

Monday, 19 January 2009

2009 Reading Challenge #1 - Ringworld, Larry Niven

I forget when I last read this book. I seem to recall reading it several times during my early teens, but I've avoided it since. I'm not sure why - perhaps I was afraid it would disappoint. I've learnt to my cost that "nostalgia ain't what it used to be". Few books I loved as a teenager have survived a reread now that I'm just over halfway through my three score years and ten.

Having said that, I may well have not reread it simply because my To Be Read pile is big enough already. And continues to grow...

But Ringworld.

The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1971. It's also No 60 in the SF Masterworks series. So it's safe to say it's highly regarded by sf fans. But I'm not convinced sf novels stand the test of time as well as most fans would have us believe, and Ringworld is now 39 years old.

Everyone knows that the first edition had Earth rotating the wrong way - but this was corrected in subsequent editions. But there are other mistakes (in my 1981 Sphere paperback). On page 22, there is a description of the Long Shot: "The ship would carry practically no cargo, though it was over a mile in diameter." Yet when they finally see the ship: "The Long Shot was a transparent bubble over a thousand feet in diameter" (pg 46). The last time I looked, a mile was 5,280 feet. There's also a strange mix of metric and Imperial units: "The ring masses two times ten to the thirtieth power in grams, measures .95 times ten to the eighth power miles in radius, and something less than ten to the sixth power miles across." (pg 70). These are minor complaints, however.

Louis Wu is a 200-year-old adventurer in the 29th Century. He is recruited by Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, for a mysterious mission. Also recruited are Speaker-to-Animals, a kzin, which is a large feline war-like alien; and Teela Brown, a young woman descended from five generations of winners of the Birthright Lotteries and so supposed to be very lucky. The mission requires a trip to an unspecified destination 200 light years from Earth. This would normally take several decades, but Nessus has use of a ship fitted with a secret "quantum II hyperdrive shunt", which travels orders of magnitude faster. This ship, the Long Shot, and the secret of its drive, will be Louis Wu and his team-mates' payment for the mission.

The team head for the home world of the Pierson Puppeteers... which proves to be a fleet of five worlds travelling through space at 80% of the speed of light. The puppeteers are a cowardly race and are fleeing the explosion of the galactic core, whose wavefront won't reach Known Space for another 20,000 years. Recently, they had discovered an artefact a couple of light years from their present position. A ringworld - a single band of material approximately one million miles in width and 600 million miles in circumference, orbiting one AU from its primary, and comprising the surface area of three million Earths. The puppeteers do not know who built the ringworld, and want Louis and the others to investigate it.

In a second ship provided by the puppeteers, Louis, Teela, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals travel to the ringworld. While investigating one of the "shadow squares", which orbit nearer the sun and provde night and day on the ringworld, they are attacked by automated defences and crash on the ringworld's surface. They must then trek some 250,000 miles to the rim to seek help...

Niven's ringworld is one of the most famous Big Dumb Objects in science fiction. And justifiably so. It's huge. And Niven mostly succeeds in getting across its size to the reader. From the crash-site, for example, Louis can see for thousands of miles, but still can't make out the rim to either side. Compare that with Earth - on flat ground the horizon would be around three miles away for someone six feet tall.

And, I suppose, that if I'd forgotten anything about Ringworld, it was that sense of vast scale. Louis Wu is a protagonist very much in the mould of a US 1970s Competent Man. Teela Brown is decorative, screams a lot, and occasionally manages to surprise Louis with her perceptiveness and intelligence. He still refers to her as "my woman", however. The kzin is war-like, and the puppeteer is cowardly. Much of the universe of the novel, Known Space, was worked out in earlier novels and short stories. The prose is efficient at best, neither impeding the reading experience nor enhancing it.

But still.

The ringworld casts a huge shadow. It's the ringworld you remember when you close the book. It's the ringworld you remember decades later when you pick up the book to reread it. The rest is, well, just a story. The ringworld is sense of wonder. And if that's all you want in a science fiction novel, then you'll get it in Ringworld. If you're looking for more, you'll perhaps come away disappointed. Niven makes no attempt to explain the origin of the ringworld. The book's plot is little more than a trek to find a way off it. There are, I admit, one or two interesting sub-plots: for example, the puppeteers' meddling in both human history and kzin, the first to breed a "lucky" human and the second to make the kzin more docile; and the various speculations these revelations generate. Niven also manages to create a human but slightly off-kilter civilisation-in-ruins on the ringworld, although the name of one of its city, Zignamuclickclick, generates a wince.

I enjoyed my reread, but it did leave me somewhat dissatisfied. Not from the book's shortcomings - but because I'd forgotten how glibly sf writers of the 1970s used to make stuff up. They made very little effort to convince, they just waved their hands a little more vigorously. That's a style which is no longer in fashion. Science fiction in the 21st century is a far more rigorous genre, and it's better for it.

There are more novels following on from this one - The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, and Ringworld's Children - and these explain who built the ringworld, and why. I vaguely recall reading The Ringworld Engineers back in my teens, but I'll not bother this time. Nor have I any desire to read more of the series.

That's not, I hasten to add, because this first book in my 2009 Reading Challenge was a failure. On the contrary, it achieved pretty much what I expected it to achieve. I enjoyed the book, was reminded of some of the reasons why I'd liked it in the first place, and will someday no doubt read it again. But it's no great work of literature, and there are many science fiction novels I'd consider better than it.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Some Burgessery

I'm not sure what the collective term for books by Anthony Burgess would be, but Burgessery seems to fit - even if it does sound a little rude. Still, it was Burgess who felt science fiction would be better called "futfic" - which sounds just as unwholesome - so I'm sticking with Burgessery.

I've been a fan of Burgess' writing since reading A Dead Man in Deptford in the early 1990s. He was another author I discovered via the Daly Community Library in Abu Dhabi. After A Dead Man in Deptford, it was A Mouthful of Air, The Devil's Mode, The Kingdom of the Wicked, Enderby's Dark Lady, Wanting Seed and Any Old Iron - and that was just within six months.

Whenever I returned to the UK on leave, I'd hunt out Burgess paperbacks. At some point, I decided I wanted the books in hardback. And that included all the non-fiction he had written. My collection is by no means complete, and only one book - Any Old Iron - is a signed copy. Burgess was a good deal more prolific than Lawrence Durrell or Nicholas Monsarrat.

Burgess has been described as a great writer who never wrote a great novel. Which is a bit unfair. Earthly Powers is definitely a great novel. I prefer to think of him as a writer who made a career out of self-indulgence - much as Frank Zappa did in music. both were extremely talented, so even their most self-indulgent works are interesting. But both also had a tendency to privilege displays of cleverness over accessibility. Who but Burgess, for example, would write a novel of three parts - the libretto of a Broadway musical about Trotsky visiting New York in 1917, the home life of Sigmund Freud, and a science fiction story about an asteroid called Lynx smashing into the earth and ending everything. The book is The End of the World News.

But on with the book porn...