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Yesterday’s Tomorrows Today

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When Algis Budrys died last year all his books were out of print in the UK, even the Hugo-nominated Rogue Moon (1960). I found a copy of this a couple of years ago, thought it was the best SF novel I’d read all year and vowed to track down more of his work. On my first trip to Hay-On-Wye last year I found copies of The Falling Torch (1959) and The Iron Thorn (1967) in the basement of Booth’s and I’ve just got round to reading them.

The plot of The Falling Torch seems like that of a conventional pulp: one man must free Earth from enslavement by alien invaders. This is certainly the impression the back cover blurb gives but anyone buying it on the strength of this is likely to be disappointed given how comprehensively it undermines the expected narrative. The opening chapter describes the state funeral of President Michael Wireman, emancipator of Earth. Interestingly it is written from the perspective of an anonymous young politicitian who is poised to succeed him having out maunovered the other contenders:

They were plainly identified in the public eye as subordinates. They were too far up the ladder to be rising young men; too well branded as not having enough ability to wrest position at the very top.

This gets to the very heart of the novel; this isn’t a story about adventure, it is a story about work. The Falling Torch is a novel that is obsessed with hierarchy. The next chapter moves back in time and out of the solar system to the government in exile where again we are confronted with further people politics. The outcome is that Wireman is sent to Earth to make contact with the leader of the rebels. He turns out to be a gangster and proto-dictator and another power game ensue. The pattern repeats itself again and again.

The Falling Torch, with its jerky, episodic structure, isn’t an entirely successful novel. Most of the things we might expect to see – the actual liberation, for example – take place entirely offscreen. Instead Budrys concentrates on the the more prosaic struggle for dominance in every day situations and, more problematically and less convincingly, on Wireman’s psychological uniqueness. Essentially he saves the planet by a unique and beautiful snowflake. We are repeatedly told that Wireman is not like other men but we are only told it, never shown it, and his personal quest for satori never rings true. (Apparently it sold a quarter of a million copies, God only knows what people made of it.)

Although The Iron Thorn was only published eight years later it seems infinitely more modern (although it doesn’t contain any meaningful female characters either.) Its plot is furnished with contemporary SF tropes such as genetic engineering, grumpy AIs and nanotech and it is less wilfully abstract. It opens in a science fantasy landscape that turns out to be Mars where a human called Honor White Jackson is hunting a beast called an Amsir as part of an initiation ritual. Jackson is another square peg in a round hole and from here the book onion skins out as he chaffs against his societal constraints. This expanding sphere of knowledge about the universe is handled very well and Budrys is rather better at portraying Jackson’s exceptionalism than Wireman’s though.

In his Yesterday’s Tomorrows column Graham Sleight implicitly describes these as minor work in Budrys’ canon. My selection was entirely informed by availability but I’m glad I read them, The Iron Thorn in particular. On the inside of my copy of the book his publishers describe Budrys as being “universally regarded as a great storyteller in the tradition of Kipling, Wells and Tolkein.” At the time this must just have seemed like hubris but now it is quite sad. It would be wonderful to see a publisher putting these books back into print, particularly since they are only a 150 pages long and you could plausibly collect all his novels in one omnibus.

Written by Martin

8 February 2009 at 17:29

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Pity The Poor Ridder

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WORLDBLING A variety of worldbuilding in which a great many details of an imaginary world are put on rather showy and vulgar display in order to impress upon the ridder the prodigious imaginative wealth of the author. The imaginative wealth of the author, it can be added, is not usually in doubt, although some critiasses, especially those that value restraint, subtlety and inflection, question the judgment of authors who indulge too blatantly in worldbling.

I’ve written a few “best of the year” pieces and Anathem has turned up on all of them, despite the fact it clearly isn’t very well written. This is because I am indulging in a sort of special pleading – but the fact its not that well written isn’t the point! – that I usually distain. For the frist time in my life I find myself defending the idea of SF as the literature ideas. Some small lack of perspective caused by having engaged intensely with a mammoth text and finding your time wasn’t completley wasted may perhaps play a part as well.

Adam Roberts addresses these points in his review but more importantly he enriches the critical vocabulary with various choice neologisms. Will worldbling become the plot coupons for the new millenium? A gold star for the first person to use one of these terms in the wild.

Written by Martin

3 February 2009 at 13:10

Posted in books, criticism, sf

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Lists, Beautiful Lists

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As I mentioned early the Guardian are doing a list of the 1000 best novels broken down into seven slightly odd categories. They’ve just reached science fiction and fantasy. Having seen their crime and comedy lists I knew this was likely to be a somewhat strange selection and so it proves but it is a pretty interesting and high quality group of novels of the fantastic. Here is the list in full (bold for read):

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- ) (Well, I’ve read at least twenty of them…)
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)

So I make 60 that out of 149 which is considerably better than the 15 or so I was averaging for the other lists. There are some interesting books on there I’ve never heard of like Pig Tales. There are some selections which probably won’t seem to make much sense with a coupel of years hindsight like The Night Sessions. There are several writers who don’t appear for their most important book, the maddest of which must be the choice of Years Of Rice And Salt instead of Three Colours Mars. All in all, a nice chewy list though.

The Guardian have now published the full list of all one thousand books.

Written by Martin

22 January 2009 at 15:06

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Dream Smaller

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Revolutionary Road was the only book of his own that Yates considered a masterpiece, regretting that he’d written it first.

Nick Laird has a great article that is nominally about the release of the Sam Mendes adaptation of Revolutionary Road but is a rich look at the way Yates’s fiction mirrored his life.

Also of interest in today’s paper: Josh Lacey reviews the second volume of Octavian Nothing, Karen Joy Fowler reviews Spirit by Gwyneth Jones and the Guardian start their 1000 novels list (on which Revolutionary Road appears.)

Written by Martin

17 January 2009 at 20:29

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The Black Company

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My review of The Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook is up now at Strange Horizons.

It is an omnibus of his first three Black Company novels and the books tugged me back and forth in a couple of directions and I’m not sure how I feel about the finished review so I would be interested in any comments on it from those who have read them. (Niall would kill me if I didn’t say this: leave the comments over on Strange Horizons rather than here.)

Written by Martin

16 January 2009 at 11:40

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More Things What I Think Are Good

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I’ve done my awards but my brief best of the year is up now at Strange Horizons. I’ve tended to the short and sweet with both but here are all the SF novels I’ve enjoyed this year (in order of when I read them):

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
Death’s Head by David Gunn
Shadow Web by NM Browne
Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void by Simon Logan
Bunker 10 by JA Henderson
Clear Water by Will Ashon
Ascent by Jed Mecurio
Hospital by Toby Litt
The Heritage by Will Ashon
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol (translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan)
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
A State Of Denmark by Derek Raymond
A Canticle For Lieberwitz by Walter Miller Jr
The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Shadows Linger by Glen Cook
The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
Hot Head by Simon Ings

I now have what will undoubtedly be the joyous of experience of reading the one novel I received for Christmas: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by MT Anderson. A pretty good way to start 2009, I think you’ll agree.

Written by Martin

5 January 2009 at 12:18

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Home Taping Is Killing The Music Industry

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Buying books online isn’t “morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.” According to this article in the New York Times.

It is a familar but stupid cry. I highly praised a couple of Jeanette Winterson novels this year. However, a couple of years ago I scorned her for this piece in the Times that incontinently argued that giving books to Oxfam was good, giving books to friends was good but giving books to strangers via the internet was bad.

Written by Martin

31 December 2008 at 13:06

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Beedle’s About

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There was once a not very good writer who got lucky. In the beginning, she realised her limitations, but then began to take herself very seriously and wrote a series of ever-longer and bigger books. For years she said she longed for her privacy, but once she had finished her seventh book she looked at the bestseller charts and thought how lonely she would feel if she wasn’t top by Christmas. So she knocked out a quick follow-up and said she would give the profits to charidee. The publisher was happy but the children weren’t interested in a dud spin-off so they didn’t buy it and lots of copies had to be remaindered. And the writer was very sad. The End.

John Crace’s digested version of The Tales of Beedle the Bard (and John Mullan’s more temperate review.)

Elsewhere in the paper there is another reaction to William Radice’s review and Matthew Norman eviscerates the re-launched Kettner’s.

Written by Martin

15 December 2008 at 11:09

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On Orientalism

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It is widely regarded as a good idea for authors not to respond to reviews of their books. Editors probably have a bit more leeway though. On balance they should probably keep their mouths shut too but when their responses are as devastating as Jeet Thayil’s reply to William Radice’s review of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets it is hard to begrudge them:

Radice’s orientalism would be quaint enough to be endearing – if it weren’t so annoying. He tells the reader (breathlessly, I imagine) that my anthology lacks “the colours, the light, the heat, the skies, the crowds and the birds” of India, not to forget “family relationships”, “children” and groups of enthusiastic “Indian university students”. What a happy picture must be playing in Radice’s overheated 19th-century imagination! What elephants! What tigers! What heat and dust and palanquins!

His main objection to 400 pages of poetry is that it is too contemporaneously gloomy. He laments the fact that Nissim Ezekiel and Vikram Seth dared to write in iambics when they should have been using a “tabla beat”. “To any Indian poet in English I would say: close your eyes, think back to the songs and rhymes you heard on your mother’s or grandmother’s lap,” he says, managing to be both patronising and reductionist at the same time.

Written by Martin

11 December 2008 at 08:50

What A Difference A Day Makes

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A couple of years ago Chris Cleave published his debut novel, Incendiary, a thriller about a terrorist attack on the Emirates Stadium. It received a major marketing push, including adverts on the tube, but, unfortunately, happened to be published on the same day as the tube bombings.

I’ve not read the novel but by all accounts calling it a thriller is slightly misleading. The publisher was clearly happy to mislead though because the cover screams thriller. Just look at the typeface. So it was with considerable surprise that I came across the new paperback edition in Borders.

It is about as radical a change in design as you can imagine. They both directly relate to the contents of the novel but emphasise completely different aspects. It continues a re-positioning seen in the recent film adaptation, the audience the marketing is trying to attract has clearly shifted from men to women. This does make sense but it is still a startling contrast.

Written by Martin

8 December 2008 at 13:10

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