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Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner

Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979, 252 p.

A Double Shadow cover

I picked this up at the same time as The Infinite Cage. It’s of similar vintage.

A Double Shadow is Turner’s only SF novel. He was (is?) mainly a poet.

The book is a strange one, discursive and at times dense, quite often telling rather than showing, to the detriment of characterisation. The main body of the novel is set on a terraformed Mars, with its smaller moon Phobos turned into an auxiliary sun. Here, humanity is divided into Normal humans and the Bloods or Cocks among whom there are three sexes (one hermaphroditic.) The set-up before this is strange, though, being a foreword narrated by a man during the time in which the terraforming is taking place who tells us he is the author of the subsequent novel – into which he occasionally interjects his authorial presence.

The internal novel has characters with names like Chrysanthemum, Narcissus, Hermes and Cleopatra but these do not seem to signify anything. As to the plot, at a theatre performance Narcissus is insulted by some remarks about his performance that he and others hear Michael has made to his wife Snow. The upshot is that a “status war” is declared between the two, where they have to go around gathering support to undermine the other’s position. To this end Michael and Snow climb Olympus Mons (here called Nix Olympica, as it used to be before Mariner 9 showed it was a volcano) while Narcissus and Cleopatra cruise the Martian canals. There is a thesis to be written about the attraction SF writers have for both of these endeavours – especially the canals. That notion seems to have become so embedded into the human collective psyche that it must have expression on every possible occasion.*

In the volcano’s caldera Michael and Snow meet the goddesses who rule Mars in the sense of umpires. One of these, Aphrodite, intervenes in the status war to tragic effect.

The final climactic Cockfight is almost literal – the antagonists strap on wings and spurs and hack at each other – and occurs in the Great Canyon of Coprates, more usually known nowadays as Valles Marineris.

File this one under historical curiosity.

*Mea culpa. My first published story The Face of the Waters centred on the construction of such canals and the possibility of climbing the volcano. When I questioned him (apropos his “Plenty” books) on this general need for there to be canals on Mars Colin Greenland said, “It’s the best bit.”

Best of 2012

Vector, Spring 2013

Last week the latest edition of Vector, the review journal of the BSFA, dropped through the letter box.

The spring issue is traditionally the one where its reviewers say which books most impressed them in the previous year.

I was a bit surprised, then, to find Ian Sales including my novel A Son of the Rock in his list. It was after all published in 1997.

He says it’s, “the sort of character-led, considered and very British SF which rarely seems to be published these days.”

That’s going straight onto the “Praise for A Son of the Rock” part of the Buy My Book page in my sidebar.

I know Ian only read the book recently – he reviewed it here, in a post published in January this year, but his review wasn’t overly extravagant.

I am therefore now extremely chuffed.

Politics in SF

There was an interesting article by Adam Roberts in yesterday’s Guardian Review about the two contrasting political strands in SF.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on the Guardian website – neither by searching for Adam Roberts nor for, “Who owns the political soul of SF” (Yes, the article’s title did have a missing question mark.) It is probably there somewhere, though.

By and large the article focused on the differing attitudes to the “other,” taking as its exemplars of either breed, Iain M Banks and Robert A Heinlein. (Ever since I worked out his political allegiances – see below – I always perversely liked to think of him as Roberta Heinlein as I’m sure that would have annoyed him.)

The gist of Roberts’s piece was that lefty SF tends to be inclusive and heterogeneous on encountering the alien, whereas right wingers reach for the ammunition. (I paraphrase, but not much.)

Aside:-
I remember well reading Heinlein’s short story The Roads Must Roll wherein as the principal mode of travel people are conveyed by moving walkways. Those who work on the system throw a spanner in the works. Heinlein overstates the case by making this sabotage rather than something more peaceful and, as the story’s title suggests, comes down firmly on the side of the owners and users. Despite Heinlein’s intentions, while I was reading it my sympathies were fully on the side of the workers who to my mind were being exploited. I realised then that as far as Heinlein would be concerned there was something wrong with me, I was less than human. My dignity (and those of honest toilers) did not compare with his dignity.

In my own novel A Son of the Rock the narrator, Alan, shockingly encounters the “other” in the shape of an old man. At first frightened, he eventually embraces the strangeness and makes it his own

Clearly, in Roberts’s dichotomy, Alan was (will be? – it is SF after all) – and I am – a leftist.

Sorry about that.

Patrick Moore

So sad to hear the news of the death of Patrick Moore.

I watched the latest episode of The Sky At Night only a week or so ago and he did look frail. It has been obvious for many years now that Chris Lintott was being lined up to take over the presentation duties but Patrick will be sorely missed.

He was one of Britsh TV’s glorious eccentrics – who else in the modern world wore a monocle? – and as well as his scientific credentials he could play a mean xylophone.

His long and productive life was overshadowed by sadness as his fiancée was killed during WW2 by a German bomb and he didn’t wish to settle for what he would have considered “second best.”

As a child I may have been aware of him as a late-night TV presenter (his record for continuously hosting a show will surely never be surpassed) but I certainly remember reading his Science Fiction – from that Children’s Section at Dumbarton Library accessed down the external stairs – where, along with the SF of Captain W E Johns (yes, the author of Biggles; whose WW1 adventures led me to other books coming from the same hands) I gained my introduction to the genre. Blame the pair of them.

Patrick must almost single-handedly have contributed to several generations of British astronomers taking up their trade and won a new set of admirers when he appeared on GamesMaster which is where my own sons came to know him well.

I have a particular debt to him myself as I drew on one of his astronomy books, which contained a reasonably detailed map of Mars that I found fascinating and invaluable, for the background of my first published story, The Face of the Waters.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS: 4/3/1923-9/12/2012. So it goes.

The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers:- update

PS Publishing, 2010. 394 p.

I have progressed halfway through this collection (in which appears my own story Osmotic Pressure) but have laid it down temporarily as I have more time to devote to longer works when I am on holiday. I will review it in full later.

Narration: 1st vs 3rd person

In Saturday’€™s Guardian Margaret Drabble made a comment that she gave up first person narration after three novels because she came to think it a lazy form.

This is (or was) apparently a general view among the literati, that third person narration was more literary, more legitimate, that first person was less worthy, but it’€™s not one I ever shared.

I declare an interest here. Most (if not all) of my published works have been in the first person.

I do make one claim to distinction, though. I am one of the very few people to have written a piece of fiction in the first person plural. That story was This Is The Road, in the anthology New Worlds 3, Gollancz, 1993 – nominated for the BSFA award 1994 – which was also published in translation as “Le Chemin D’Eternité,” in Cyberdreams 7. The only other instance I recall of the use of “we” in a narrative sense was in one of Primo Levi‘s books (for shame, I forget which) about his experiences in the concentration camps.

Granted, third person gives insight into the inner life of all the characters and enables us to know them in the round but all we are told is vouchsafed to us by the author, who by definition knows everything about the character. That can present a problem, for it means that the author has to choose not so much what to tell us but instead what to leave out, or else overburden us with information.

Consider now the first person narrative. Except for the viewpoint character, everything we as readers know about all the other characters in the book is not what is known to the author – who is still omniscient I need hardly add – but merely what is known to the narrator. Everything the reader needs to learn has to be revealed by the narrator’s interactions with, or observations of, the other characters and cannot be told to us directly. To my mind, far from being lazy, that is a much harder act to bring off successfully than merely entering a character’€™s head whenever convenient. This difficulty is perhaps heightened when the chosen first person narrator is unreliable.

In this regard, I would submit that the use of multiple viewpoints each of whom is a first person narrator, while providing a more complex narrative, is a form of cheating.

From her last sentence (see above link) Drabble seems to have altered her view. “It’s the straight true line that’s hard.”

Welcome (back) to the club.

Osmotic Pressure

Osmotic Pressure is the story I had published recently. Along with everyone else in Postcripts 22/23 I’ve been reviewed. Since Postcripts 22/23 contains a lot of stories you have to scroll down a fair way to find the bit dealing with “Osmotic Pressure” which ends with, “It’s a good story in terms of character development.”

I sense a “but” after that sentence. I’m happy with it, however. Character development ought to happen in a story. I like to think it’s what I do with my fiction. A strength if you will.

I also recently received my latest mailing from the BSFA which contained their review magazine Vector, wherein was relayed the information that nominations for the BSFA Award are now open.

This is as good a place as any to remind people that Osmotic Pressure is eligible in the short story category.

There is apparently a new rule this year that you ought not to nominate yourself. Would people do such a thing? Tut, tut.

But….

Should any members of the BSFA feel so inclined they know what to do.

Nominations close on 14/1/11.

I’ll shortly start reading some eligible novels with the awards in mind.

The Company I Keep (On Occasion)

Remember that short story I sold a while back?

Well, an unexpected package was delivered by the Post Office on Friday. (Actually the postie left a card and I had to pick it up at the sorting office.)

As I say I had no idea what it was (I hadn’t bought anything from eBay or Amazon for quite a while – and it’s nowhere near my birthday or anything.)

When I retrieved it I saw it was from PS Publishing.

What it contained was the traycased, signed edition of The Company He Keeps, aka Postscripts 22/23, which contains that story, Osmotic Pressure.

As an artefact The Company He Keeps is a thing of beauty, sumptuously produced. The traycase is lined with velvet and comes with green silk ribbon. The dust jacket is sensuously smooth, the hard cover has both back and front illustrations incorporated into it, the paper smells delightfully creamy. (I know another author who always assesses a book’s quality by its paper’s aroma.) I have never before been published in such a beautiful manner.

This is of course the de luxe, collector’s edition but I have no reason to suppose the “ordinary” hardback will be any less carefully produced.

There are several well-known names on the contents page (better known than mine certainly.) These include Lucius Shepard, Eric Brown, Steve Rasnic Tem and Darrell Schweitzer, to name only some.

I’m chuffed beyond measure to be appearing in said company.

In the information bit preceding the story I say, “I had always wanted to write a story with a two word title that was also a scientific concept, preferably Chemistry related. Osmotic Pressure is the result.”

I’€™m delighted it found a publisher.

(Osmotic pressure is the hydrostatic pressure produced by a difference in concentration between solutions on the two sides of a surface such as a semipermeable membrane.)

Partly my inspiration came from James Blish’s Surface Tension, which also has a two word scientific concept as its title.

I must emphasise that I do not claim that my story stands any comparison at all with Surface Tension – which is one of the early classics of Science Fiction – only that Blish’€™s story was one of the influences on its genesis.

In Common Time Blish wrote another famous story with a two word title. So celebrated is Common Time that Damon Knight once published a critique extolling it as an extended sexual metaphor – told in reverse. The metaphor begins (ends?) with a pun. The title, so Knight suggested, is actually Come On Time. His critique was longer than the original story.

Now, if anyone can give me an idea for a story to be called Dielectric Constant; or even Dipole Moment …..

Scottish Science Fiction: An Update

Someone got to my recent blog post by searching in google for scottish science fiction. The Wikipedia page under that heading is woefully inadequate while providing some historical perspective but I found this interesting link to an address by Alan McGillivray to The Association For Scottish Literary Studies which he gave in 2000. He naturally focuses on Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod as the only Scottish SF writers around at that time (though my A Son Of The Rock had appeared by then) and looks forward to the growth of Scottish SF which has, in fact, now occurred.

While reading it I realised that I had unaccountably forgotten to mention in my post the novel But n Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt. This SF novel is singular (and spectacular) in that it is written entirely in Scots. That certainly beat my attempt at Scottish SF into a cocked hat as I wrote/write in English. My apologies to Matthew for the omission.

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