Tuesday 26 December 2023

Pondering Science Fiction

There's a bit of indecision about what my first "proper" science fiction novel was. I remember getting Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle's The Planet of Death as part of a Ladybird promotion in the mid-late 80s. There were the space-based tales from the Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy ranges. But the first "adult" book depends on how you think the cookie crumbles. It was either HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, which was acquired one Christmas in the midst of an obsession with Jeff Wayne's eponymous concept album. Or if you insist on dating modern SF from the mid-1920s, Larry Niven's Ringworld was the first. It was unlike anything I'd seen or read before, and I remember it leaving a peculiar impression. I found the sense of wonder and discovery gripping. But as an adult SF novel I was unprepared for the weird ideas such as the somewhat pervy sex scenes with aliens, which the lead character took to with some enthusiasm. My 14 year old brain didn't know what to make of it. But I pressed on with The Ringworld Engineers and understood even less. Though I cottoned on that Niven's novels were situated in a setting he'd visited time and again in other stories, the reading experience was so unsettling that I wanted to try other SF-themed things that were a little less expansive. Video games offered a more limited, and to my mind, more appealing explorations of possible futures.

As a student my reading was almost exclusively social theory and sociology texts, with the odd SF novel pitched in here and there. Such as Greg Bear's Eon, coincidentally another dumb object novel. I do remember visiting Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time after one of my lecturers raved about it, and also William Gibson's Neuromancer, which I understood about as well as anything I tried by Jacques Derrida. The only fiction I read with any consistency was the World War series of books by Harry Turtledove. An alternate history where alien lizards from Tau Ceti invade the earth in summer 1942, the scenario worked as a thriller and a war novel before grinding its way through four books to an inconclusive ending. It was enough to get me interested in trying something else, and not long afterwards I gave Iain M Banks's Excession a go, Which also stumped me. And then Peter F Hamilton's breeze block-sized The Reality Dysfunction - the first in his Night's Dawn trilogy. This successfully held my attention as an entry-level SF reader. It was packed with ideas, a fully-realised and believable space opera setting, and - to me, then - an original conceit. Despite each three of its volumes clocking in at over 1,000 pages, the pacing, characterisation, action, and how-the-bloody-hell-is-this-going-to-be-resolved hooked me in.

I only started with mainstream literary fiction 20 years ago, beginning - funnily enough - with an SF novel that is lauded from all quarters: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Since then I've read widely, taken in a lot of classics, and kept up a regular SF intake. As you can see from the occasional What I've Been Readings, it is well represented. But to my thinking, not enough. I've read some of the classics and have my favourites, but there's an ocean of work I was, until recently, ignorant of. I've never read Octavia E Butler, Gene Wolfe, nor Robert Silverberg. My back catalogue is bereft of English and American New Wave. Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, and even Arthur C Clarke have barely featured. I intend to remedy these omissions over the coming year by visiting these and other giants of SF. It is the literature of change, and in a time like ours when the social and political imagination is stultified, to looking forward might benefit from reading back. This project, if you will, is going to have an impact on blog content, seeing as I'm slowing down the politics commentary.

But to get into the mood, there are a few things worth saying about SF titles I have read this year. Among the acknowledged classics are Christopher Priest's The Prestige, which hoodwinks the reader into thinking it's mainstream literary fiction until the SF element is introduced. It's won plenty of prizes and had a film made, but I still don't think it - or Priest for that matter - get the respect that is deserved. Then there's Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Lebowitz. A series of fixed up shorts threaded together in a post-apocalyptic tale, it ponders the preservation of knowledge, myth-making and dogma, and the warmongering stupidities of power politics. It's cheesy in places what with radioactive mutants knocking about but that does not detract from the book's strengths. Late, but better late than never, was Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Perhaps the book with the biggest reputation I read this year, it is a touch weirder than I was expecting. But by no means impenetrable or imponderable.

I also finally got round to Peter F Hamilton's latest trilogy, or at least the first in the sequence. As per previous novels, Salvation offers multiple viewpoints and, like his Void trilogy, switches between two distinctly different but linked settings. It involves religious aliens, conspiracy and secret enemies (another well-worn Hamilton theme), and young people training for war. It took me a while to get into, but I'm glad I persevered. 2023 was also the year I read my first Adrian Tchaikovsky. Not his celebrated Children of Time (it's on the list), but his Doors of Eden. If novels can be so characterised, this was easily the most Deleuzian work I've read in years. Stretching across dozens of parallel worlds, it's a polemic against rigid identities and world views and subtly argues that embracing multiplicity is essential not just for a better future, but our survival. More explicitly philosophical was Rian Hughes's The Black Locomotive. Featuring another dumb alien object, this time under London, steam trains and rail hobbyists play a central role in unravelling the mystery of how it got there and what it means. It also features some of the most disturbing aliens recently seen in SF thanks to their ability to manipulate time, consciousness, and memory. Mind bending and unconventional as decent SF should be.

The best SF novel I've read this year left a lingering impression. And that's Jacqueline Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men. Our unnamed protagonist awakes in a cell she shares with 39 other women. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there, and all she knows are the company of the inmates and the indignities forced upon them by their guards. Then one day an alarm sounds, the screws flee, and by chance the prisoners are able to escape. And what they find outside is a mysteriously empty world. Harpman's book imposes an all-encompassing mystery on her characters as they start exploring, form new, freer relationships with each other, and work to survive. It's bleak, and works as a meditation on making meaning in a meaningless place. I can't recommend it enough.

Why take a turn to SF? Now is a good a time as any, but think about where we are. Poised on the verge of 2024, the political horizon is devoid of hope. Clouded in smoke from the ruins of Gaza, our government and political establishments have openly supported the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. This has gone along with more governments overseas falling to the far right, and our domestic scene promises nothing except more of the same. We are in a peculiar moment. The ruling class have dispensed with the usual fairy tales about the realities of bourgeois politics and seemingly don't care that capitalism and big power interests are striding about the world stage, naked. This offers our class opportunities not just to contest their rules of the game, but think about our alternatives. We're good at the how we live part, less so on the how we might. By spending less time on the day-to-day of politics and more on the politics of thinking through possible futures, this blog could make a small contribution to re-imagining the 21st century and making it a time fit to be alive in.


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil, it's only a short story, but if you can find " the days of Solomon gursky" it's great, mad fun.

The Laughing Lemon said...

Hi Phil,
It's good to read of your experiences of Sci-fi. My first was when I was 9 years old. It was a copy of Jules Verne's 10,000 Leagues under the Sea, an illustrated copy and a library book. I was still reading it on the way back to the mobile library we had in the village and finished it a few minutes before I handed it back. There was a scene I remember distinctly, Nemo on his deathbed next to the huge eye of the Nautilus, with all his men gathered around him while it sank beneath the waves.
At school, I got a copy of Pan's Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Blew. My. Mind. Small essays by the leading lights of the day: Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin. Still worth reading, if you can find a copy (try https://www.abebooks.co.uk/9780517531754/Visual-Encyclopedia-Science-Fiction-Ash-0517531755/plp) I read the Foundation books, the Dorsai trilogy and had a go at Dune, but only got a few pages in.
I didn't really read much after, other than fantasy at University, and comic books, mostly 2000AD, but I bought a copy of Mirrorshades, a Cyberpunk anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling, a few years after when I started work. It was so different from what I had read before. More grounded in reality, less fantastic. Gone were the space ships and aliens and it was more... industrial, gritty. From there I read Gibson, Sterling, Robert Reed (Hormone Jungle), Robert Charles Wilson (Gypsies), George Alec Effinger and Walter Jon Williams. Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime was also a highlight.
Since then I have read a ton of Warhammer 40K, candy floss for the mind, but have mixed it with Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed and Lathe of Heaven), Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Roadside Picnic), Alistair Reynolds, Gareth L. Powell's Embers of War and Paul McAuley's Quiet War series. I tried Ken MacLeod, and couldn't get into The Star Fraction but it might suit you, though. I also have unfinished copies of Ian McDonald's The Dervish House and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, Part 1, both of which I have sworn to finish. I did finish my battered NEL copy of Dune (20p second hand) when I heard a new film was coming out, so it's not just an empty promise. I also read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine recently, but found it too chatty, despite all the rave reviews.

Phil said...

So much good stuff there. A lot of what you mention is on the reading list.

You might want to try Ken's later stuff if you found The Star Fraction hard going. His Corporation Wars trilogy is brilliant stuff and very much grounded in contemporary politics. I haven't given his new sequence a go yet, but I will. And Ken often drops by this place, which I always take as a claim to this blog's fame.

And thanks for the pro-tip anon for the short!

Unknown said...

That's a very interesting essay, thank you. I reckon the Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin is right up your street, if it's not on your list. I read it recently and it's excellent.

Jenny said...

Kindred by octavia butler,
the Larry Niven / jerry Pournelle coauthored stories, Mote in God's eye, Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg series .. I felt that Larry Niven needed some sort of anchoring & Jerry Pournelle does that.

Phil said...

I read The Dispossessed many years ago. Will give it a reread eventually!

The Moties are on the list!

Phil said...

Classics is classics, but honestly I'd say that if you like Christopher Priest, your first priority should be to read more Christopher Priest! (Also Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin (The Lathe of Heaven especially), J. G. Ballard and M. John Harrison.) Coming to them now, I think you'll find Asimov and Clarke very weak tea. I had an Asimov phase, but it was when I was 11 or 12 - shortly before my Larry Niven phase.

From the page counts of some of the books you mention here, I think you're a considerably faster reader than me! All the same, I'd put in a recommendation for sf short stories - any sf short stories. (For many years I used to maintain that the sf short story is the highest form of literature.) The authors in the prevous paragraph have written a ton of them - and some authors really excel[led] in that form specifically (e.g. James Tiptree Jr, Cordwainer Smith).

Phil said...

Ah yes, I've got all of Priest's work on my list. Apart from The Prestige, I read his The Adjacent a few years ago. Quite liked it. I've read a few Ballards too. Concrete Island remains a firm favourite. You'll also be pleased to know Phil that I have a load of short story collections on my reading list. Looking forward to some Harlan Ellison, for instance.

Don't want folks to get me wrong. I'm not new to SF. It's just that I haven't been reading enough of it to my liking!

Oboe said...

I'm sure you're already likely aware, but to your point on SF as a means of thinking through the politics of possible futures, Kim Stanley Robinson's later output is very explicitly concerned with this. Not to say it wasn't always present in some way, but it is the driving concern of his latest

Beetroot01 said...

I have been reading science fiction for 55+ years - First Men in the Moon was my introduction and I was hooked. I discovered Octavia Butler only recently; may I recommend the Parable of the Sower? Its prescience is startling. I love Iain M Banks and felt personally bereft when he died. And as a niche sub genre, try some femininst science fiction from the late and wonderful Sherri S Tepper. I started with The Gate to Women's Country and then read everything she had written.

For me, science fiction is a hugely entertaining and thought provoking way to examine our humanity (or lack of it)and to offer a fleeting hope for the future. It is so under-rated as a literary form.

Phil said...

Thanks Oboe. I've read pretty much all of Robinson's recent stuff!

On feminist SF, I've read quite a bit but, as with the rest, not enough. As it happens I've got some Tepper on the to-be-read pile, as well as Joanna Russ's other novels, James Tiptree Jr, CL Moore ... it's quite a list!