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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

Locus Poll

A recent poll in Locus (the main news magazine for those with an interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy) had the following results for SF novels of the 20th century.

Those asterisked I have read. **means I can’t remember if I read it long ago or not.

1* Herbert, Frank : Dune (1965)
2* Card, Orson Scott : Ender’s Game (1985)
3* Asimov, Isaac : The Foundation Trilogy (1953)
4* Simmons, Dan : Hyperion (1989)
5* Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
6 Adams, Douglas : The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
7* Orwell, George : Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
8* Gibson, William : Neuromancer (1984)
9* Bester, Alfred : The Stars My Destination (1957)
10** Bradbury, Ray : Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
11* Heinlein, Robert A. : Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
12 Heinlein, Robert A. : The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
13* Haldeman, Joe : The Forever War (1974)
14* Clarke, Arthur C. : Childhood’s End (1953)
15* Niven, Larry : Ringworld (1970)

People obviously voted for their favourites from their youth and not in terms of literary quality.

The only one of them I would put in a top ten is the Le Guin. My memory of that is that it was one of the best books I have ever read, never mind just SF books. It was a long time ago, though.

And where is Robert Silverberg on the Locus list? Shameful.

Unlocking The Air and other stories by Ursula K Le Guin

Harper Collins, 1996, 390p.

Unlocking The Air cover

This collection of short fiction comprises 18 stories first published in the pages of, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Ms., Playboy and Omni, plus some otherwise uncredited. They range in length from 3 to 37 pages. I read quite a few of these on my trip away but was not taking notes and so have not commented in depth. Despite the mainly non-genre organs where they first appeared all have an air of otherness about them, of things not quite explicable.

The most Science-Fictional, Ether, OR, appeared in Asimov’s. It is narrated sequentially by the various inhabitants of a town that can shift its location.
The title story, Unlocking the Air, is one of Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales and relates the story of a revolution in that fantasy middle European country. Daddy’s Big Girl is a near fairy tale about a girl who keeps growing. The Poacher takes as its subject matter a well-known fairy tale but approaches it, in typical Le Guin fashion, at a considerable tangent.

Le Guin’s typical compassion and sympathy for her characters are evident throughout.

Another List

This is a list of top 100 Science Fiction And Fantasy books from the website at NPR BOOKS to which I was directed via Ian Sales‘s blog. I got to it too late to take part in the poll NPR ran where you were to choose your favourite ten.

The usual applies; bold I’ve read, italics means I own but have not yet read it. ???? means I may have read it when I was (very) young but can’t actually remember.

The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by SM Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Miéville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C Clarke

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by CS Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F Hamilton
The Company Wars, by CJ Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by Robert Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison

The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by CJ Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay.
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
The Foreigner Series, by CJ Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake (two only, the third is tbr)
Grass, by Sheri S Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov ????
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Miéville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey – never read it.
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K LeGuin.
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin

The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by RA Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by EE Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lync.
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by JRR Tolkien (one only)
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K Dick.
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Trilogy, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by TH White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

The Pride Of Chanur, by CJ Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven

The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by LE Modesitt Jr
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick
The Scar, by China Miéville

The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by CS Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card.
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by HG Wells ?????
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon (the first certainly)
The War Of The Worlds, by HG Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by ER Eddison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C Clarke

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne ????

Many of these I’ve never heard of. Quite a few do not belong on a modern best of SF and Fantasy list. The Asimovs and the Doc Smith in particular. These were works from the early days and while bathed in the glow of nostalgia do not have the minimum of literary quality I look for when I consider books to be good.

I’m also agnostic about whether some of the recently published books on the list will stand the test of time.

Notable omissions: the books of Michael Coney and Michael Bishop for starters.

Legends; edited by Robert Silverberg

Voyager, 1998, 591p.

This is a collection of fantasy stories set in the various worlds created by “the best known and most accomplished modern creators of fantasy fiction.” There are two cover paintings, the one above is in the normal orientation, one based on that on the right below being upside down on the back cover.

The Little Sisters of Eluria by Stephen King. (Set in the milieu of The Dark Tower.)

A gunslinger staggers into town with his knackered horse, which promptly dies. He gets beaten up by zombies and handed over to a set of nurses who wish to feed on him and is saved only by the medallion he removed from a dead body earlier.
I’ve never read any Stephen King before – horror isn’t much my thing – and after this I doubt I’ll be reading any more. I wasn’t drawn in, nor was I engaged with the main character at all and as a result didn’t much care what happened to him. This story also betrays an inordinate fondness for the word mayhap. Four instances in fifty pages is at least three too many. Arguably four.

The Sea and Little Fishes by Terry Pratchett. (A Discworld story.)

Granny Weatherwax is asked not to compete in this year’s Witch Trials because she always wins. She accedes, graciously, and everyone else is spooked.
I have read some Pratchett previously and this is the mix much as usual, competently written, diverting, but not earth shattering.

Debt of Bones by Terry Goodkind. (The Sword of Truth.)

A young woman petitions The First Wizard for help to rescue her husband and daughter who have been captured by the evil invaders the D’Hara. For reasons of his own the Wizard assents, but not without seeming reluctance. From there the story unfolds as you might expect, though Goodkind throws in the odd twist or two. The resolution depends on the utilisation of magic; which is always bothersome. If anything can be done (no matter the cost in terms of deterioration to the health of the caster of the spells) then nothing is of consequence. In short, where is the real peril? And why was the good magic not used long since to prevent the bad situation occurring? (Except, of course, to provide us with a story.) On a less philosophical note, just before the climax of the story – the obligatory pyrotechnics and illusions – one of the enemy sorceresses, a Mord-Sith – is, unconvincingly I would have thought, fixated on her immediate task and as a result is overcome too easily. But this is required for plot purposes. In addition, the story’s dénouement is not as dark as the setup warrants.
Goodkind is also new to me. While his writing is readable, I wasn’t moved to seek him out further.

Grinning Man by Orson Scott Card. (The Tales of Alvin Maker.)

Alvin Maker and his companion, Arthur Stuart, meet a man who enters grinning contests with bears. (The winner gains power over the other.) They then travel on to a small town where they at first – due to the grinning man’s lies – encounter mistrust but are accommodated by a miller with dodgy business practices which Alvin eventually reveals with the aid of a bear. The bear, with Alvin’s intervention, has taken the grinning man as a kind of slave. This all sounds bizarre but within the tale it has its own logic.
I have read Card before; and was never enthused by him. This is entertaining enough, but slight.

The Seventh Shrine by Robert Silverberg. (Majipoor.)

Lord Valentine, now Pontifex of Majipoor, delighted to escape The Labyrinth to which his position normally confines him, investigates a murder in the former capital of the aboriginal inhabitants of the planet, the shapeshifting Metamorphs. The Metamorph archaeologist Dr Huukaminaan (or Huukaminaam; the two spellings appear annoyingly interchangeable) has been found dismembered in an ancient Metamorph religious site. Lord Valentine eventually solves the puzzle of the untimely death.
Silverberg is one of my favourite authors. His early stuff was standard 1950s SF but since his re-entry into the field in the late 1960s he has been a major figure, even at his worst never less than interesting. (Silverberg’s worst is always technically accomplished and a cut above the best of most writers in the SF and fantasy fields.) The Majipoor tales, which are from relatively late in his career, are entertainment. The Seventh Shrine duly entertains. Not vintage Silverberg though.

Dragonfly by Ursula K Le Guin. (Earthsea)

Dragonfly is the first female ever to be admitted to the establishment on the island of Roke where mages are trained. The reasons for this, her journey to that point, the reluctance of some of the mages to accept her, are rendered with Le Guin’s characteristic sympathy and attention to detail.
Le Guin is my favourite author of SF/fantasy. Her understanding of the human condition is profound. Her characters’ motivations are always clear and understandable. She can even overcome my reluctance to engage with stories which feature dragons.

The Burning Man by Tad Williams. (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)

A young woman, Breda, whose widowed mother remarried but died a few years later, tries to understand the remoteness at the heart of her stepfather, Sulis, a political refugee from a foreign country, but one who has retained a retinue of armed guards. The burning man of the title is one of the old Powers, summoned by a witch under duress in order to relieve Sulis of his existential angst.
Williams is also new to me. His writing here is impressive, particularly his invocation of the infatuated love affair Breda has with a young soldier, Tellarin. However, he gives his narrator a tendency not so much to foreshadow as to lay out future events. Fair enough, in that she is relating the defining time of her life from the perspective of old age but the habit was a more than a touch relentless and crucially failed to prefigure adequately Tellarin’s core and the choice Breda has to make at the climax.

The Hedge Knight by George R R Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire)

Dunk, squire to Ser Alan of Pennytree, takes over the old man’s possessions when he dies. Despite never having been dubbed he passes himself off as a hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall. He travels to a large tournament where he hopes to succeed in a challenge and thereby make his fortune. Along the way he picks up a stable lad, who seeks training as his squire. So far, so predictable. Martin, however, complicates and recomplicates his narrative – much as he does the larger Song of Ice and Fire cycle – to great effect. This world of aristocratic houses, heraldry, jousting, (some) chivalry and war, while a straight lift from history, seems to be rendered whole. Each walk on character is believable.* For a story this long, though, there are too many names. Too many Sers clump each other on the tournament field before we get to the point.
*Perhaps my familiarity with A Song of Ice and Fire helped.

Runner of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (Pern)

A young graduate carrier of messages between the various outposts of civilisation on Pern (the runner of the title) suffers a mishap in her first great long journey across the world. Her convalescence and medical treatment are described in detail as is her outfitting for the Gather to take place in the Hold where she is rehabilitating. There is little conflict, if any, only misunderstandings (telegraphed at that.) None of the characters are in any way wicked, sinful or bad. Nothing much happens here. Move on.
I read some McCaffrey many years ago, Dragonflight and The Ship Who Sang. This hasn’t encouraged me to enlarge that experience further.

The Wood Boy by Raymond E Feist (The Riftwar Saga)

Topped and tailed by a crude framing device which highlights the unreliable point of view in the main narrative this is the story of a young servant boy who survives the massacre of his household by another of its retainers and tracks the perpetrator (and the young girl who was his co-conspirator) both of whom die in the struggle that ensues when he catches up with them.

New Spring by Robert Jordan (The Wheel Of Time)

A long tale with two main viewpoint characters, Moiraine, one of the Aes Sedai who can channel powers and Lan, the now stateless King of the Malkieri, where a black sisterhood within the Aes Sedai is trying to prevent the coming of age of a boy who can channel. The familiar mayhem and bloodshed ensue. An unusual touch has a coup de grace in a magic duel not delivered by magic.

Feist and Jordan were also new to me but too generic for my tastes.

Overall I found this a bit of a slog. Some of the settings in Legends are arguably SF rather than fantasy ones but there is a tendency to stock mediævality in too many of the outright fantasies which I find both deadening and disheartening. Is the modern world so unappealing that the comfort of a hierarchical social order is a necessary palliative? Can no-one write a fantasy story set in the here and now?

But then, any sufficiently advanced magic would be indistinguishable from technology.

Legends II is on my tbr pile. It may be some while.

Buffalo Gals And Other Animal Presences by Ursula Le Guin

Plume, 1988. 196p.

In her preamble to this collection of stories and poems which feature animals Le Guin refers to the denigration talking-animal tales receive at the hands of “grown-up” critics and theorists. They are seen as children’s fare and not worth serious consideration. But of course it is in pointing up the differences and similarities between species and their use in morality tales that their usefulness lies. And that usefulness is no small thing. It is to the credit of fantastic fiction – perhaps its glory – that only in its area can such things be fully explored. To know what it is to be truly human we must contemplate the non-human.

Le Guin has of course investigated the many different ways in which humans can be human beings, and in particular altered in sexuality, throughout her career, so this is no departure.

The lead tale here, the award winning novelette Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight, is I suppose a fantasy wherein a human girl, never named throughout, the sole survivor of a plane crash, is taken in by a community of animals. The animals appear to her to live as humans – and they talk of course – but have animal behaviours, especially in terms of waste disposal and sex. Their attitudes and behaviour are the norm here though and it is this simple transference that highlights the peculiarities of our species, our detachment from nature, our oddness. The strangeness of the milieu, the fact of the animals being animals, their kindness and the child’s simple acceptance of things is essential to the story’s success. It is, in the original sense of the word, fabulous.

The Wife’s Story and Mazes are stories of transference in which we get almost to the end before the true natures of the protagonists are revealed. The Direction Of The Road has an unusual narrator, a tree, and is a fine exemplar of the working through of an initial premise.

Trees are something of a Le Guin theme. There was of course The Word For World Is Forest and in (Hugo Award nominee) Vaster Than Empires And More Slow – in this collection – there are arboriforms which turn out to be part of a planet wide intelligence.

The White Donkey and Horse Camp are slighter tales which are nevertheless effective. Schrödinger’s Cat considers a third outcome to the famous thought experiment beyond the either/or that quantum theory appears to suggest. The Author of the Acacia Seeds and other extracts from the Journal of Therolingiustics is an amusing dissection of the academic style as well as a thorough exploration of the possibilities of language in the non-human world. May’s Lion is presented first as a true story then as fiction while She Unnames Them is a strange piece about the power of names to circumscribe, or provoke, thoughts and actions.

Included in the nineteen poems by Le Guin is one which is her own translation of one of Rilke’s.

Science Fiction Mistresses

This is the list of Science Fiction Mistressworks that Ian Sales has come up with.

Some of these are historically important (Frankenstein, Herland) others are just worthy examples of female SF.

Asterisked books are in the SF Masterworks series.

Those in bold I have read. If the bold text comes after the mentioned book and its date, it is another book (or books) I have read by the same author.

Italicised means either co-authorship with a male (Windhaven) or my reading of it is imminent (Lightborn.)

1 *Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
2 Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
3 Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
4 Lest Ye Die, Cicely Hamilton (1928)
5 Swastika Night, Katherine Burdekin (1937)
6 *
7 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
8 Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, Zenna Henderson (1961) The People: No Different Flesh many moons ago.
9 Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
10 Witch World, Andre Norton (1963)
11 Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
12 Jirel of Joiry, CL Moore (1969)
13 Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter (1969)
14 Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, James Tiptree Jr (1973) plus 7 other books, usually story collections – Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) was primarily active in short fiction.
15 *The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974) The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, plus over 20 others
16 Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)
17 *The Female Man, Joana Russ (1975) Picnic On Paradise, 1968
18 Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975)
19 *Arslan, MJ Engh (1976)
20 *Floating Worlds, Cecelia Holland (1976)
21 *Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
22 Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
23 Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978) plus various others.
24 False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
25 Shikasta [Canopus in Argos: Archives], Doris Lessing (1979)
26 Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)
27 Benefits, Zoe Fairbairns (1979)
28 The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge (1980)
29 The Silent City, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1981)
30 The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
31 The Many-Coloured Land [Saga of the Exiles], Julian May (1981)
32 Darkchild [Daughters of the Sunstone], Sydney J van Scyoc (1982)
33 The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey (1982) Dragonflight 1968
34 Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984) plus The Judas Rose (1987).
35 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
36 Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
37 Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
38 The Dream Years, Lisa Goldstein (1985)
39 Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, Sarah Lefanu & Jen Green (1985)
40 Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
41 The Wave and the Flame [Lear’s Daughters], Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (1986)
42 The Journal of Nicholas the American, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
43 A Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski (1986)
44 Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
45 In Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1987)
46 Pennterra, Judith Moffett (1987)
47 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
48 Cyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988) Downbelow Station , 1981, plus 6/8 others.
49 Unquenchable Fire, Rachel Pollack (1988)
50 The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy (1988)
51 The Steerswoman [Steerswoman series], Rosemary Kirstein (1989)
52 The Third Eagle, RA MacAvoy (1989)
53 *Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
54 Heritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989)
55 Falcon, Emma Bull (1989)
56 The Archivist, Gill Alderman (1989)
57 Winterlong [Winterlong trilogy], Elizabeth Hand (1990)
58 A Gift Upon the Shore, MK Wren (1990)
59 Red Spider, White Web, Misha (1990)
60 Polar City Blues, Katharine Kerr (1990)
61 Body of Glass (AKA He, She and It), Marge Piercy (1991)
62 Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
63 Beggars in Spain [Sleepless trilogy], Nancy Kress (1991)
64 A Woman of the Iron People, Eleanor Arnason (1991)
65 Hermetech, Storm Constantine (1991)
66 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
67 Fools, Pat Cadigan (1992) Tea From An Empty Cup, 1998
68 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1992)
69 Lost Futures, Lisa Tuttle (1992) Windhaven, 1981
70 Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992)
71 Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
72 The Holder of the World, Bharati Mukherjee (1993)
73 Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1994)
74 Happy Policeman, Patricia Anthony (1994)
75 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
76 Legacies, Alison Sinclair (1995)
77 Primary Inversion [Skolian Saga], Catherine Asaro (1995)
78 Alien Influences, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (1995)
79 The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
80 Memory [Vorkosigan series], Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
81 Remnant Population, Elizabeth Moon (1996)
82 Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood (1996)
83 An Exchange of Hostages [Jurisdiction series], Susan R Matthews (1997)
84 Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel (1997)
85 Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey (1997)
86 Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998)
87 Vast, Linda Nagata (1998)
88 Hand of Prophecy, Severna Park (1998)
89 Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
90 Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan (1999) Someone To Watch Over Me, 1997 Lightborn, 2010
91 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000) Golden Witchbreed, 1983, Ancient Light, 1987 plus 4 others

So. 15 out of 91; but eight more if other books by authors in the list were to count.

Edited to add *Wrong Side of the Moon, Francis Leslie Ashton (1951.) Ian Sales has now amended his list. Francis Leslie Ashton is apparently a man.

Science Fiction Mistressworks

There’s an interesting conversation going around vis-a-vis Science Fiction so-called Masterworks.

Both Ian Sales and Paul Raven over at Futurismic have commented on the lack of female writers in the Gollancz series. Ian has even gone so far as to produce a meme listing 91 women Science Fictioneers.

There is perhaps a need to boost the recognition of the contribution of women to the genre (The Women Men Don’t See) though I have the impression there are more about than there were but as a contest this isn’t one.

Ursula Le Guin trumps everyone.

Everyone, female or male.

Even Robert Silverberg.

Powers by Ursula Le Guin

Orion, 2007. 391p

Powers cover

Powers is the third in the Annals Of The Western Shore, Le Guin’s latest story cycle for young adults. Gavir is a boy slave in the Household of Arcamand in the city of Etra. He and his sister are Marsh people stolen from their real home when they were very young. Gavir has visions of the future (the ability to remember things before they happen) but has to keep this talent secret as the city people don’t like those who have such powers.

Le Guin’s description of the relationships in the Household is masterful. The imbalance between the children of the house proper and the slaves is particularly well done. However there seems to be a default antiquity to the scenario – and pre-echoes of Le Guin’s Lavinia which I read recently but was published after Powers – which is perhaps a little too pat. (This could be a criticism of the Annals as a whole.) The inevitable tragedy occurs as Gav’s sister is killed and, in a daze after the burial, he wanders off and becomes a runaway. The remainder of the book is more or less a travelogue as Gav falls into one person’s orbit or another.

The various authorities (powers) with whom Gav comes in contact and in whom he trusts till he learns not to – The Father of Arcamand; Cuga, the hermit who first takes him in; Barna, leader of the runaway slave enclave Gav joins for a while; the elders of his Marsh people to whom he eventually returns – all have different flaws, faces to them which we can see but Gav doesn’t, till changed circumstances force his hand.

Gavir’s power is on the face of it a clever method of foreshadowing but is ultimately unsatisfying as it lessens tension. As a result, though others most certainly are, Gav himself never seems to be in jeopardy. Also, his ability as a seer is never really a focal point of the story, which does rather diminish the (ahem) power of the book’s title.

Not as convincing, then, as the previous instalments in the Annals Of The Western Shore, Gifts and Voices, but Powers is still a Le Guin and consequently a cut above the average.

Final aside. The book’s cover shows a figure, presumably Gavir, fording a river carrying a girl. When he finally does this in the story the girl is actually disguised as a boy.

Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

Gollancz, 2009. 296p

Lavinia is a historical novel set in mythical antiquity, Bronze Age Italy in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Le Guin has taken a (very) minor character from Virgil’s epic The Aeneid – in the poem Aeneas’s last wife Lavinia has no line of dialogue whatsoever – and given her voice. And a powerful and seemingly authentic voice too. The landscape, homes, religion, politicking, people and battles are all convincingly portrayed. When reading this you feel as if you are there, immersed in prehistory. Even the scenes in the place of oracles where Lavinia talks to the apparition she knows only as the poet – she could merely be dreaming of course – have the stamp of authority. At any rate Lavinia believes in him, and his revelations are borne out by events. There is, too, enough of a body count – foretold by the poet in a long, disturbing list – to satisfy the bloodthirsty.

For Lavinia starts a war. Not by allowing herself to be taken by men, she says (in a beautifully understated inference to the much more famous Helen) but instead by choosing one for herself. I quibble slightly at who actually chooses Aeneas for Lavinia; she is swayed not only by the lack of suitability of the other candidates for her hand but also by her conversations with the poet. Otherwise she is a strong decisive character, who stands up to both her father, the King Latinus, and mother, Amata, and later to Ascanius, Aeneas’s son by his previous marriage.

Given the book’s context the perennial follies of men are an unsurprising theme of Lavinia, the character and the novel.

Despite its setting the book was on the short list for the BSFA Award for best novel of 2009, which on the face of it is baffling, even if Le Guin is a stalwart of the genres of SF and fantasy. I suppose its proposers could argue that since in the book Lavinia speaks with the ghost of a poet not yet born in her time there is an element of fantasy present. (Le Guin uses the spelling Vergil. I know his Latin name was Vergilius but in my youth the poem was always known as Virgil’s Aeneid.) True too, the past is always a different country. Fictionally it takes as much imagination to invest it with verisimilitude as it does to describe an as yet unrealised (SF) future. Except – sometimes – you can research the past.

This is an admirably realised and executed novel, though, whichever genre you wish to pigeon-hole it with.

Or you could say, as I do, that it is simply an excellent novel, full stop.

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