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Nina Allan’s List

This is Nina Allan’s response to the BBC’s list of 100 Books that shaped our world.

As usual the ones in bold I have read. (18. 19 if John Banville’s Shroud and Eclipse count as two.) Some others are on my tbr pile.

Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers by John Burningham

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield

‘Adventure’ series by Willard Price

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

‘UNEXA’ series by Hugh Walters

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

‘Changes’ trilogy by Peter Dickinson

‘Tripods’ trilogy by John Christopher

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Drought by J. G. Ballard

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Search for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Shroud/Eclipse by John Banville

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Shriek: an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

Glister by John Burnside

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Kills by Richard House

A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Straggletaggle by J. M. McDermott

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Attrib. by Eley Williams

Berg by Ann Quin

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Winter’s Tales 27 Edited by Edward Leeson

Macmillan, 1981, 187 p.

Winter's Tales 27 cover

I read this because it was recommended (and loaned) to me by Guardian reviewer Eric Brown as containing a very good non-SF story written by 1960s and 70s British SF stalwart John Brunner. It does and it is. There is also a story by once (and now again) SF author – and reviewer for the Guardian – M John Harrison.
Letting the Birds Go Free by Philip Oakes is narrated by the son of a farmer whose eggs are being stolen. They both confront the culprit but then offer him employment. He is, though, a deserter from the Army unwilling to be sent back to Northern Ireland.
Another first person narration, Things by V S Pritchett, is the tale of the sudden descent after years away of a wayward sister(-in-law) on a newly retired couple’s home.
Old Tom1 by Celia Dale relates the experiences and reminiscences of a down-and-out war veteran intercut with the administrations of a retired woman to an ageing cat.
In Flora’s Lame Duck by Harold Acton, Flora has taken under her wing a young Italian disfigured by polio. He becomes besotted with her but she is only waiting for the terminally ill wife of the man she loves to die before returning to the US to marry him.
Terence Wheeler’s Safe Wintering2 is narrated by an ex-sailor and describes the sequential (and contrasting) relationships another man in the town has with two women.
The Indian Girl3 by Giles Gordon is the tale of the narrator’s possibly hallucinatory experience while travelling from New Delhi to Amritsar by train.
A Mouthful of Gold4 John Brunner is another of those ‘as told to’ tales – this time in a London club for writers – concerning a particularly fine wine and the failure of a US flier shot down over Italy and hidden by the region’s inhabitants from the Germans to understand the nature of its secret ingredient.
Home Ownership5 by Murray Bail tells the story of a Brisbane house, growing old along with the man who lives there.
In Chemistry by Graham Swift a ten year-old child muses on the relationship between his widowed mother, his grandfather, his mother’s new lover and himself.
Egnaro by M John Harrison is the story of a bookseller/pornographer who is tantalised by the possibility of a mysterious land, Egnaro, found nowhere on the maps except by hint or exegesis, and the translation of this obsession to the narrator.
Birthday!6 by Fay Weldon concerns the marriage of two people, Molly and Mark, who had both been born on the same day and met on their twenty-eighth birthday. Words beginning with “m” dominate the text as does Molly’s belief in astrology. Another birthday, their fortieth, when Mark’s workmates descend on the family with a birthday video, bookends the story.
In Christmas with a Stranger by Leslie Thomas, a young man from the Welsh valleys uses the bit of money he has come into to visit London. On the train there he invents for himself a persona as a film director. In the city he meets a woman fashion designer, down from the north. They spend Christmas Day navigating a deserted London.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Editor’s Note; “full of strange, twists and turns” (unless strange here is a noun, that comma is unnecessary.) 1“if he don’t move” (this is the only verb in the piece not in standard English; doesn’t,) plimsoles (x 2, plimsolls.) 2the whole story is told in seaman’s language so contains instances of ungrammatical or other usages. Otherwise; laying (lying,) “farther gone that he had thought” (than,) a lay-in (lie-in.) 3mannaged (managed.) 4“there were only a couple of” (there was only a couple.) 5 “You-who!” (is normally Yoohoo!) 6silicone-chip (silicon,) sprung (sprang.)

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

Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1992, 225 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

During their time at University, Pam Stuyvesant, Lucas Medlar and our unnamed narrator took part in some sort of experiment under the direction of a man called Yaxley after which their minds were never quite the same. They are haunted by what they call the Pleroma and Pam has visions* of a white couple, limbs always intertwined, Lucas of a dwarfish figure. These apparitions are occasionally glimpsed by the narrator. The Pleroma – or fullness – is referred to as “the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven” and contrasted with hysterema or kenoma – pain, illusion, emptiness; the life we must actually live.
The novel deals with the fallout from their youthful experience, which encompasses Pam’s marriage to Lucas, the subsequent divorce and his devotion to her when she becomes seriously ill. Between them, in pursuit of a mysterious state/entity called The Coeur, Pam and Lucas invent “Michael Ashman,” who travelled in Europe between the wars and up to the 1950s. As Pam’s condition worsens Lucas writes Ashman’s experiences down and reads them to her. Incorporating dream-like episodes and evocations of the concentration camps – especially Birkenau – these passages can slip into fantasy but also seem as “real” as the main narrative which manifests elements of the fantastic (*as above.)

Harrison has a deceptive style. His prose is eminently readable and flows past smoothly but his meaning is elusive, plastic.

He does mention Thomas à Beckett, though. The murdered Archbishop was Thomas Beckett. The “à” is not contemporary but a post-reformation creation.

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

Empty Space by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 2012, 302 p. Reviewed for Interzone 243, Nov-Dec 2012.

Empty Space cover

Sub-titled on the cover and the main title page as “€œA Haunting,” Empty Space follows on and amplifies the universe Harrison constructed with his novel Light and continued in Nova Swing.

In early twenty first century London, Anna Waterman, obsessed by the memory of her first husband Mike Kearney, shuttles in an affectless way between her psychologist Helen Alpert, her daughter Marnie and other rather shiftless denizens of her world. Every so often on her night strolls she imagines her summerhouse is on fire.

In Saudade City, on the planet Saudade, overshadowed by the lurking strangeness of the astronomical anomaly called the Kefahuchi Tract, riddled by its impossible physics, Enka Mercury and Toni Reno are bizarrely murdered to the sound of a disembodied voice saying, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” Their bodies hang suspended, rotating and slowly disappearing. An unnamed police assistant with data scrolling down her arm helps investigate the crimes.

R I Gaines is struggling to make sense of the mysterious apparition known as the Aleph, the figure of a woman contorted in an awkward way (and mysteriously accompanied by a cat) and who may bear some sort of relation to the Tract.

Meanwhile Fat Antoyne, who is no longer fat, and Liv Hula, undertake a commission from the elusive M P Renoko to transport odd containers called mortsafes in their spaceship “€œNova Swing.”€

Many of these characters are familiar from Light and Nova Swing but here Harrison extends and refines their relationships.

The Waterman sections of Empty Space, at least in the early stages, are related in what seems a straightforward mainstream prose and are at odds with the SF elements – which are as jargon-filled as any devotee could wish. But this highlights a problem.

The trouble with “€˜six impossible things before breakfast”€™ scenarios, with impossible physics, is that if nothing is explicable, if things just happen, then nothing means anything – or everything. When chains of causation are lost narrative becomes problematic and the trust between writer and reader can be undermined.

While considering the Aleph one of Harrison’€™s characters muses that the universe is “€œa useless analogy for an unrepresentative state.”€ This could, though, be a description of the novel Empty Space itself as Harrison is attempting a literary description of that unrepresentativeness, with all the cognitive dissonance that implies.

What redeems the book is Harrison’€™s prose; which sweeps grandly along, his descriptive powers manifest, the Waterman sections being the most flowing, apparently effortless.

Nevertheless; that Harrison in the end brings all the strands together – thus also resolving the whole of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – comes as something of a release – and relief. The connections between the various types of haunting are finally made; though they are more than a little strained. Maybe even impossible: for the strangenesses around Saudade and the wrongness of the Tract physics remain pretty much unresolved.

Still, Harrison devotees and those who loved Light and Nova Swing will find Empty Space a notable conclusion.

Locus 21st Century Poll

Following on from the Locus 20th century polls I posted about a few days ago this is their list for SF novels published from 2000 on.

1 Scalzi, John : Old Man’s War (2005)
2 Stephenson, Neal : Anathem (2008)
3* Bacigalupi, Paolo : The Windup Girl (2009)
4 Wilson, Robert Charles : Spin (2005)
5 Watts, Peter : Blindsight (2006)
6* Morgan, Richard : Altered Carbon (2002)
7 Collins, Suzanne : The Hunger Games (2008)
8 Gibson, William : Pattern Recognition (2003)
9* Miéville, China : The City & the City (2009)
10 Stross, Charles : Accelerando (2005)
11* Mitchell, David : Cloud Atlas (2004)
12* McDonald, Ian : River of Gods (2004)
13 McCarthy, Cormac : The Road (2006)
14* Harrison, M. John : Light (2002)
15= Willis, Connie : Black Out/All Clear (2010)
15=* Chabon, Michael : The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

7 out of 16. I’m obviously not keeping up with modern SF.

BSFA Awards 2012

The BSFA Award shortlist for stories published in 2012 has been announced.

For best novel we have:-

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit.)

Unusually I have read three out of the five already, two of those courtesy of Interzone and its kind reviews editor. Thank you, Jim.

My views on 2312 I posted on this blog only two days ago. Those on Empty Space will be forthcoming.

Intrusion I reviewed here.

As for the short stories I have read only one of them so far, the last on this list; and very good it was too.

Three others, though, are available to read on the net. Doubtless the BSFA will be producing its usual booklet.

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld no. 69)

The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)

Song of the body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)

Limited Edition by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

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