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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

Science Fiction: a Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst

British Library, 2016, 254 p (including 2 p Preface by Adam Roberts, 3 p Introduction by Roger Luckhurst, 2 p Notes on Contributors, 1 p Picture Credits and 18 p Index.

Science Fiction: a Literary History cover

Adam Roberts’s Preface notes SF’s relative ubiquity in today’s world and praises this book as as compact and exhaustive an introduction to the subject as you will find. Roger Luckhurst’s Introduction, by way of reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Garden of Forking Paths (which presaged many-worlds theory by a considerable time,) acknowledges the impossibility of summing up SF in such a short space as a single book but hopes it will provide pointers to newcomers to the genre and to old hands alike.

The overall approach is more or less chronological. Chapter 11 sees Arthur B Evans tackle early forms of SF in The Beginnings. Roger Luckhurst himself covers the transition From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction in Chapter 2. The Utopian Prospects of 1900-49 are considered by Caroline Edwards in Chapter 32. There is some overlap in time here with Mark Bould’s Chapter 43, Pulp SF and its Others, 1918-39. Malisa Kurtz examines immediate post-war SF in Chapter 54, After the War. Chapter 65 has Rob Latham look at The New Wave ‘Revolution’. Chapter 7’s voyage From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century6 is undertaken by Sherryl Vint. Gerry Canavan brings us up to date with Chapter 8, New Paradigms, After 2001. Each Chapter is repletely referenced and has a list of “What to Read Next” at its end. Imagine my satisfaction when finding I had read most – if not all – of the relevant recommendations. Plus I am in the process of ticking off another right now.

Perhaps the most interesting part (because the most remote) was Chapter 1 wherein Evans identifies many instances of SF or proto-SF from before 1900 and exemplifies two of its fundamental attributes at that time; diversion (imagination) and didacticism (cognition) – or, as Jules Verne’s editor/publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel put it, instruction that entertains and entertainment that instructs. Well before the twentieth century subterranean or interplanetary adventure became well established – along with time travel – and u- and dystopias have always abounded. It is noted that early interplanetary spaces were modelled on colonial spaces – Space Opera and Star Wars your origins lie here. Indeed the colonial adventure (King Solomon’s Mines etc) can be considered as SF. Examples of the genre emanating from outwith the anglo- or francophone spheres are given due note, including SF works from pre-revolutionary Russia, Africa, Asia, Latin America – and also by black US writers – of which I was not previously aware.

The New Wave chapter laments that “unique talents” such as R A Lafferty, D G Compton, David R Bunch and Edgar Pangborn are little read these days. In one of those omissions Luckhurst acknowledged would occur discussion of one of my favourites from the time, Richard Cowper, is absent.

For anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the genre this is an admirable place to start. It also provides potential new avenues for aficionados to pursue.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“by adding this own critical observations” (his own,) “the series of six novels … are set” (the series is set.) “But all is not perfect.” (But not all is perfect,) Cerillas’ (Cerillas’s.) 2“Has strengthened African-American will and prepared them for an international liberation movement” (“them” is the wrong pronoun here but to avoid it the whole sentence needs recasting.) “An imperial cabal of … plot to undermine the ..” (a cabal plots.) “As the new intake are given” (the new intake is given,.) “Slovakia’s defence strategy, and the novel’s SF element, employs the technique of…” (notwithstanding the parenthetical commas that “and” requires a plural noun; so, employ the technique.) 3“a series of coups weaken the fascist grip” (a series weakens the grip.) “The expedition… encounter” (the expedition encounters.) 4”from embracing the ‘the divine right of machines’” (omit the “the” before the quote,) “as the scientific elite have developed…” (the scientific elite has developed,) “the dark side of the Moon” (every side of the Moon is dark, for 14 days out of 28; I believe the “far side” was intended.) 5fit (fitted,) New Worlds’ (New Worlds’s.) 6ascendency (ascendancy,) a missing full stop, “between this world and the our present” (either “our” or “the”, not both,) “thus rejected earlier version of speculative genres” (versions of,) “it was posed to become” (poised to become.)

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

East of Laughter by R A Lafferty

Morrigan, 1988, 176 p.

East of Laughter cover

How do you describe the indescribable? This is Lafferty in all his bonkers glory.

The novel starts with a focus on one Atrox Fabulinus’s “one hundred and one tests to tell whether you’re dreaming” and in chapters one to three we are also introduced, by way of lists, to the Group of Twelve (who actually number fifteen.) Fabulinus (the Roman Rabelais) is one of the seven giants who scribble the world into being and also one of the pillars on whom the world rests. The twelve decide they are. (Dreaming, that is.) “To be real is to be unique. To be unreal is to be common. There is only one chance in all infinity of it (the world) being real. But there are a billion billion and ongoing billions of chances of it being unreal.”

Along with Fabulinus the Group of Twelve comprises Hilary Ardri, Jane Chantal Ardri, Leo Parisi, Perpetua Parisi, Gorgonius Pantera, Monika Pantera, John Barkley Towntower, Solomon Izzersted, Denis Lollardy, Caesar Oceano, Laughter-Lynn Casement, Mary Brandy Manx, Hieronymous Talking-Crow, Countess Maude Grogley. (Some of them are spares.) To call them characters would be to stretch the word beyond breaking point. You don’t read Lafferty for characters. Nor for plot – though there is one; involving the murders of successive members of the group and of others’ elevation to Scribbling Giant. They also roam the world day to day (chapter by chapter) taking in Frisia, Dublin (East of Laughter is apparently Lastoir de Gaire in Dublin,) East Sussex, the Isle of Man, Lecco in Italy and a castle in Germany. And there are eight days in the week for some and nine days – the ninth slotted into gaps in the other days – for a select few.

To give a flavour of the writing a (partially shortened) piece of dialogue runs, “Yes, to all appearances the atoms are empty boxes….. They lack detail…. They contain only rough schematics of even rougher schematics..” This situation is then compared to buying an expensive car and receiving only a child’s drawing of a car. The dialogue continues, “But this isn’t the way I remember them! I remember them as totally detailed…. Great God of the Atoms, you have short-changed me! Oh mend your ways! The atoms of the apparent universe are completely unworthy of you.”

Pedant’s Corner:- Skirried? Past tense of skirr? That ought to be skirred surely? Apparently skirried is in a Thackeray story. Aquafer, titonium.

Psycho Shop by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny

Vintage, 1998, 207 p.

Psycho Shop cover

Both these authors have a venerable Science Fiction pedigree. Bester was an undoubted star of the 1950s with Zelazny coming to prominence in the next decade. In their respective primes they rarely if ever disappointed. In his introduction to the book Greg Bear refers to them both as SF jazz greats, whirling in like golden dust-devils, blowing new tunes in new styles and tempos. He also explains how the book came to exist, Zelazny being offered the opportunity to complete one of Bester’s unfinished stories. (By Psycho Shop’s publication date both authors were deceased. So it goes.)

The premise is suitably mind boggling, involving as it does a tethered black hole, a channel between universes which can change people’s mental attributes. A black hole which has been stolen from the future.

Alf Noir (who is really Paul Jensen but we don’t know that till later) is on assignment from Rigadoon magazine to investigate the Black Place of the Soul-Changer in Rome, and the mysterious man called Adam Maser associated with it. While Alf is there a certain Edgar Poe turns up to utilise the device. He is told an L v Beethoven, and a Lucy Borgia have also. One of the clients is from a culture where everyone’s speech is inflected. Not all in the same way but in this case every fourth word. Another has a $hoping li$t utilising chemical symbols. Elsewhere in the book we meet Bertrand Russell and Mother Shipton, who scries by aggression.

In parts this reads like the wilder imaginings of R A Lafferty whom Bear surprisingly does not mention in his introduction. A character’s alias is Etaoin Shrdlu – the most common letters in written English. In one chapter the text employs diagrams and drawings. Clones hang in a cupboard ready to be popped into at a moment’s notice.

Bizarrely – or not, as this is a Bester/Zelazny book – poetry is referenced several times. In his persona as Alf, another character refers to Noir/Jensen as the sacred river. And the whole thing hangs on a canto by Ezra Pound.

Noir/Jensen can be considered as a variation on the Francis Sandow of Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead and To Die in Italbar but Psycho Shop is really a magnificently bonkers one–off. No spoiler really as the joy here is the journey but the black hole is revealed as a means to smuggle information past the Big Crunch and the new Bang.

Great stuff but not one for those unused to SF, though.

Pedant’s corner. Unfortunately the text is prone to USianisms. In 1940s London they meet an RAF major. In the RAF there is no such rank. They do however have Squadron Leaders. The said major also claims to be “shipping out.” That would be being posted.

Space Chantey by R A Lafferty

Dobson Science Fiction, 1976, 123p.

 Space Chantey cover

The title implies a romp along the lines of a sea adventure. And in many ways Space Chantey is just that – a picaresque work whose main inspiration is not difficult to discern. It has a group of spacefarers roaming the galaxies and encountering, among others, fatally attractive songstresses and a race called Polyphemians who farm men with the attributes of sheep. A modern Odyssey, then. Lafferty doesn’t stick rigidly to that template, though, in particular with his ending.

Each chapter is preceded by an illustration and a piece of Gilbertian style verse which verges on, if not crosses over into, doggerel but can be amusing. Other such verses are sometimes included within a chapter. The tone throughout is jaunty, light hearted, almost off-hand – which detracts from any serious occurrences such as deaths – and characterisation is almost non-existent. That lends a certain distance to the reading experience.

Lafferty’s œuvre is replete with the outré: who else would have titled a Science Fiction book Not To Mention Camels? (And who could resist reading a story titled Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne?) But his skittishness sometimes makes reading him a touch difficult. You have to go with the flow.

Written in 1968, Space Chantey is not at all representative of SF either then or now. It is, however, very Lafferty; an example of a truly unique vision and idiosyncratic writing approach.

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