I got hold of a load of Alan Dean Foster novels recently, so I'm currently reading him a lot. ADF has always been one of my favourite 'easy-to-read' authors. He doesn't do any deep philosophising for the most part, just good, well written light S-F and fantasy, but who wants to read non-stop 'great literature'? (And half the S-F that gets praised as 'literate' and somehow 'better' than the genre's usual assumed low standards seems to me to be more into flowery prose than basic things like decent science, plot and characterisation. Just my opinion, but S-F seems to have a bit of a hang-up on literary style. Maybe too many people have heard the phrase 'it's just science fiction' once too often. Anyway, that's my mini-rant over.) His humanx commonwealth is, I think, particularly impressive. It positively bustles. Where other future histories, like Larry Niven's Known Space and Iain M Banks' Culture give you the big broad sweeps of history (though I'm not saying they don't do it well. I like both authors), this one is more of an ordinary working-man's working person's working being's universe. The closest I can think of is if Heinlein had expanded Citizen Of The Galaxy into a future history.
A couple of other things I really like: The virtually non-religious church, with its Bible, The Holy Book Of Universal Truths, And Other Humorous Anecdotes, which seems to be more into keeping some sort of political and social stability than worship; everything a church should be if you have to have a church, in my opinion. The other thing I really love is the by-your-bootstraps KK-drive used by his starships. If you have to bend or break the currently known laws of physics to move your characters around the galaxy—and let's face it, you do, if you don't want to be stuck with relatavistic effects or stay in our own solar system—you might as well have fun with it. There's a tongue-in-cheekness about it, I think (my apologies to Mr Foster if he meant it seriously), that almost rivals Asimov's famous thiotimoline 'essay.'
All in all, it's a well-thought-out and well-rounded universe, and worth a visit, as are all ADF's novels, both standalone and series. He's also the writer of some of the better novelisations of many TV series and films, many of which would make a good easy introduction to written Science Fiction for younger readers.
Oh, and I should note that he wrote one of my favourite ever short-stories; Gift Of A Useless Man. It has everything; pace, humour, pathos, etc etc etc and a great title.
I gave up reading series by authors I don't know very well many years ago after several bad experiences. Most I don't remember at all, fortunately, but one does stick in my mind; The Amtrack Wars by Patrick Tilley. It started off nicely enough. The initial premise was good, the style, characterisation and such were at least okay, but the series dragged on, and on, and on, and on… You get the idea. In short it seemed nothing but a money-spinner. Get the suckers hooked in so far, and they will continue buying the books long after the initial enjoyment has worn off rather than feel like they've wasted money by leaving the story half-way through. Anyway, as I said, that one and several like it at around the same time made me a bit cautious about spending time and money on such untested ground again.
Such were my feelings when this novel first came to my attention. For one thing, I'd read one of his before and had found it okay but not particularly outstanding in any way. For another, it's a big book, 1200-odd pages, which makes for an expensive book, plus time spent reading it that could be devoted to something more likely to please.
My sister recently got rid of a load of books to make space (I dread to think what would happen if our family ever end up under one roof again—we'd have to rent a second house just to store the damn books, and then there's my record collection…) and I got first dibs, grabbing anything that looked interesting. You've guessed it; this novel was one of them. Well there goes the financial problem, and it just happens that I have a fair bit of time on my hands right now, so I sat back to read…
Learned people who write about S-F often call it the sense of wonder, that feeling you get when a good writer opens up a whole new world in front of your eyes, and boy, this novel drips with it. I've always liked space operas anyway; everything's so big. Big technology, big dramas played out across huge expanses. Well this has all that and more. There's living ships with a wonderfully inventive reproductive process, living space stations fer gawd's sake, supernatural beings, aliens, politics on both planetary and galactic scales, villains that aren't so villainous, heroes that maybe aren't that heroic (plus some that are), a wealth of scientific and technological detail that seems sadly missing in many of these types of works these days. Characters you expect to become major players in the story are suddenly killed off, and seemingly minor characters suddenly become all-important. And there's the body modification and upgrading via circuitry and software that may be cyberpunk's most beneficial and lasting contribution to the rich tapestry that is S-F. (Okay, there had been such things before, but cyberpunk made it much more commonplace.) All in all there's a detailed, richly varied and lovingly created universe there that is displayed for us warts and all. It's not a utopia as one of the characters says, in a slightly different context, "it can't be, it has human beings in it" but it's all the more real for that.
Style-wise, the story shuffles along quite nicely, giving us time to gaze around at the background in awe, as well as following the plot, until the pace suddenly quickens and we're shuttled here and there from one point of view of the action to another, until toward the end we seem to be changing POV at least once in every page, always with a masterly timed view to suspense. You'll be glad by that point that it's a large book; needing two hands to hold it will prevent you biting your nails. I had to stop myself skipping paragraphs to get to what happened next as the excitement mounted.
I just can't wait to get started on the next one…
I've just finished a rather remarkable book, Shades Of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Anyone who's read his Thursday Next series and the spin-off Nursery Crimes novels, will know already that Fforde has a penchant for off-the-wall ideas, but Shades Of Grey, while just as … odd, is a darker affair altogether. It's tighter, too, with none of the playfulness with plot-holes, inexplicable coincidences and "suddenly a shot rang out" type contrivances. If you had any lingering worries that Mr Fforde used such things because he couldn't structure a story without them (an allegation I've seen made by one online critic), this will dispel them instantly.
Normally I dislike plot-spoiler reviews, and try to be as vague as possible about the actual content of a book, while still (hopefully) giving an idea of the 'feel' of the story, but, when talking about one as left-field as this is, I think I'm going to have to be a bit more detailed, simply because, apart from generalisms about dystopias (dystopiae?), à la 1984 or Brave New World, there aren't any tropes I can point to and say 'it's a bit like this.' I'll try to limit myself to the setting rather than the plot but, like most exercises in world-building, the background is very much a part of the plot, so please feel free to skip the rest of the article, with my hearty recommendation to read this book. With that in mind, for those who want a little more, let's be about it!
The novel, the first of what looks to be a trilogy (though, as any Douglas Adams fan knows, that doesn't necessarily mean a three-book series) is set several hundred years after a disaster known as The Something That Happened. What this something was has evidently been forgotten, but has left the human race (or at least the part of it living in Britain) with varying deficiencies in their ability to perceive colour. Society has regressed to a technology level about equal to that of the mid-twentieth century, and has become rigidly dystopian, stratified around each individual's colour perception, formalised via a coming-of-age ceremony based on the Ishihara test, and with families taking their names from the colours they see best. Social strata, with Greys at the bottom and Violets at the top, are organised around the Munsell colour system. For instance, complimentary colours are forbidden to marry. Added to that is a system of genetic inheritence which makes sure that no particular family will stay at the same level from one generation to the next. There's a kind of constant generational convection current, taking some up and some down, and leading to politically arranged marriages whereby each family strives to keep its colour as high up the system as possible.
To this simple, yet bizarre, base, Fforde adds such things as artificial colour which can be seen by all, but is a seemingly finite resource, mined from the artefacts of the preceding civilisation. Artificial colour is employed for medicinal purposes, but can be used, especially in the case of the various shades of green, for recreation. The latter is known as 'chasing the green,' and appears to be treated as a fine thing in moderation, although lincoln is best avoided.
Further technological regressions occur in the form of official 'leapbacks,' which rather arbitrarily, it seems, ban various technologies, but are sometimes worked around by 'loopholing,' which does what the name would imply, such as the ban on railways being avoided by the defining of monorails as railway, singular, as opposed to railways, plural. And, as with any good dystopia, there are endless rules. The rulebook in this case seems very reminiscent of that of a straight-laced private school, with running and shouting, for instance, being ruled against, compulsory attendance at various sports, recreations and communal meals, a restriction of the availability of spoons, and all of the rules being upheld and adjudicated by prefects. What sets it apart from most dystopias, though, is that most of the policing is done by the community itself, rather than by some orwellian overseeing body – a much more insidious proposition, if we stop to think about it, as a good look at any theocracy, modern or historical, will show. They practically run on curtain-twitching and prodnosing.
The plot itself is, so far at least, a fairly standard coming-of-age story, with hints of growing rebellion on the part of the protagonist, Eddie Russet. Indeed it's Eddie's increasing questioning of the society around him that introduces us to much of the history and social structure of his world.
All of which makes this novel sound much dryer than it is in the reading. Yes, it's dark and dystopian, but not in a gloomy, angsty kind of way. Humour abounds, though more in the word-play between the characters than the more slapstick situational comedy of Fforde's earlier work. I love the Thursday Next series for its literary-based witticisms and playfulness, but I've a feeling that this trilogy will stand more re-readings, and turn out to have more levels of message and meaning. The only problem is that the next volume, Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers, seems to have a likely publication date of sometime in 2014. Anyone got a time machine I can borrow?
24 Feb 11
What with one thing and another, t'internet's had to make do without my presence for much of the time since the new year. The upside of this, though, has been that I've spent a helluva lot of time with my nose in a book. And anyone that knows anything about my normal reading habits will know that if I say 'a lot', then it really has been an extraordinary amount of time!
So, you ask, what have you read, Daz?
Well, for starters, I finally got through Asimov on the Old Testament. It's a look at the Bible as history, rather than as religion, so the emphasis is different from that of most other Bible studies. Some parts that would be of utmost importance from a religious perspective are hardly touched on, whilst points of little religious importance get thoroughly dissected, as they intersect with known historical people and events (known, that is, from sources other than the Judeo-Christian tradition). Although always polite about it, Asimov points out in no uncertain words, that the OT as we know it was compiled by religious hard-liners (what we would now call fundamentalists), and tracts to be included were scrutinised as much from a political as a religious perspective. They knew what they wanted people to believe, and they damned well weren't going to include anything that contradicted it. Bad rulers who happened to have sided with the fundamentalist viewpoint have their few good points exaggerated, and good but secular leaders, the opposite. That said, though, this isn't a polemic, and there's no agenda. The good doctor merely adds a dimension that seems sadly lacking in much Biblio-historical work, most of which seems to tacitly accept the veracity of the religion, and anyway mostly concentrates on Christ as a politician or rabble rouser, and treats the Old Testament as a sort of unavoidable precursor to the Main Event. Much the same way that documentaries about British rock and pop treat the pre-Beatles era; it's dealt with in as few words as possible, and swept under the carpet. Anyway, it's a good read, like all his work, and I recommend it. I'm taking a biblical break, though, before starting on his NT work. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing…
Also, purely for reasons of nostalgia, I've reread E Doc Smith's Skylark series. I'm not going to say much about that. It was as good, and as bad, as I expected. Blue-chinned heroics and design it Monday, build it Tuesday, blow up a planet with it on Wednesday superscience. One thing I did notice, though, was that, allowing for the age and class of the author, the changing role of the women in the stories gives a pretty good thumbnail sketch of the way the middle-class view of women's place in society changed over the period the books were written (roughly 1920s to 1960s). Not that it's a women's lib masterpiece, you understand. Some of the scenes involving the 50% of the crew who happen to be female are enough to make you cringe, even in the later, 'less chauvinistic' novels, but it does make a fair representation of the then-current views, I think.
Talking of female SF characters, I've also just about caught up with the whole of David Weber's Honor Harrington series – I think there's one more that I've not yet read. It kind of crept up on me. When I started reading the first novel, On Basilisk Station, I wasn't actually too impressed. It seemed okay to kill a few hours with, but nothing to write home about. Fast forward several hours, and I was doing the good old just one more chapter thing with a vengeance. I 'just one more chaptered' all the way to the end of the book in one sitting. Being military SF, there's a definite link back to Doc Smith's work, though more to the Lensmen series than the above mentioned Skylark novels, and in some of the space-battle sequences it can be seen quite obviously, with coruscating explosions, thrusting laser-beams and so on, but it's so much better than that. Amidst, and after, all the battle-heroics, the accounting always takes place, with the hellish numbers of dead on both sides of the battle, the torn up ships, the bodies (though thankfully not graphically described) burnt to a crisp or floating, bloated, in vacuum. Though Smith, now and then, uttered a trite 'war is hell' phrase or two, Weber describes that hell, and makes no bones about it not being a glorious thing of schoolboy dreams. If this were a medieval battle, he wouldn't be telling us how the armour shone, or how bravely the colours flew; he'd be telling us about the screaming horses and the men trampled underfoot. Space battle for grown-ups.
But, anyway, the pyrotechnics and battles aren't really what make these books so enthralling. Without giving too much away, it's the story of a war between two neighbouring empires (for want of a better word), and like any good history book, it follows what happens on both sides of the conflict, with white-hats and black-hats roughly equally represented in both. We follow politicians and military of all ranks on both sides with just as much empathy as we do Honor Harrington, the lead character, herself. The politicians who start the war on the nominally bad side get killed off pretty quickly in a coup, and their successors do the best they can with the situation they inherit. Indeed, in some ways that's the more interesting half of the story, in the long term – and neatly makes the point that new governments (even by violent coup, let alone election) can't just wave magic wands and make all the bad stuff their predecessors left for them go away – even to stopping a war they never wanted – practicalities and the need for short-term public support (unless you want to be voted out and never get to do anything) get in the way; something real-world electorates and newspaper pundits maybe ought to take more note of. All in all, Mr Weber's built a well-thought-out world here, and it's well worth taking a look at. Oh, and for anyone planning to take an extended holiday there, there's a very good wiki site for those who don't have eidetic memories, and might forget who the occasional character is.
Next up is a history book, 1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller, which does just about what it says on the tin. Heavily interspersed with quotes from diaries (though not the usual quotes – we only get Pepys's 'and so to bed' once in the entire book), early newspapers, court records and so forth, we get a snapshot of life in the word's most populous city at the turn of the eighteenth century. It's arranged by subject, with chapter headings such as 'Marriage,' 'Coffee-Houses, Clubs And Taverns,' 'Fashion,' and my favourite, 'Religion And Superstition,' which only needs the insertion of the word 'other' to make it perfect. The over-all picture is one we've most of us seen and read many times, but the detail is fascinating, and if you're like me the potential for picking up bits of useless trivia makes it a must-have. Did you know, for instance that gossips were originally the ladies who congregated at a friend's house to see her through the last weeks of her pregnancy, along with the birth and the first month after? And how did they pass the time? They talked. And talked. And talked… or how about this more horrific tid-bit:
In A Discourse Of Trade, Sir Josiah Child recognised that the old Elizabethan system of 'leaving it to the care of every parish to maintain their own poor only' was inadequate for present needs. Instead of tackling the fundamental problem, the system encouraged each parish to 'shift the evil from their own doors … thrusting a poor body out of the verge of their own parish'. Anyone not of that parish seeking relief would be harried into the next one, or unlucky claimants would be passed back and forth between parishes while the authorities argued which one was responsible.
…Vagrant women in the throes of labour would be harried beyond the parish boundaries, so that their infant would become the responsibility of another parish.
Ah, the good old days, when Christian Charity and Virtue ruled the land! More cheerfully, and less importantly, did you know that 'black-guard' originally referred to a shoe-shine boy? Or slightly more charitably than with the last quote:
Dr Saussure noted a curious practice that explains the term 'daylight robbery': 'If a person is robbed of a considerable sum in the daytime and on the high road, and if he declares the theft to the sheriff of the county before the sun sets, and can prove that the sum has been taken from him in such and such a place, the county in which he has been robbed is obliged to refund him the sum.'
A very absorbing read, and I thoroughly agree with the reviewer on Amazon who begins 'Just the sort of book that gives history a good name…'
The BBC are apparently having a 'book year' (great timing – just as our wonderful, half 'liberal' no less, government are talking about closing libraries!), which would explain why there've been so many programmes about books of late. One in particular, a half-hour talk-show called My Life In Books, has caught my imagination. The idea is that each night two well known people get to tell Anne Robinson about five books they've been influenced by, or just plain liked. The first is a book from childhood and the final one is a 'guilty pleasure,' i.e. they get to tell the world about a book they'd rather no one knew they like. Erm, run that by me again… But anyway, it's fun. The three in the middle are the ones to watch for, and it's doing wonders for the length of my Ever Growing Reading List. So far, I've noted: The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of 'Joe' Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water by Kate Summerscale, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter and Lanark: A Life In Four Books by Alasdair Gray, although that last one received a hearty recommendation by Anthony Burgess, which kind of gets my back up, as I find Burgess to be a bit of a literary snob (Science Fiction wasn't good enough for him, oh no! He wrote Speculative Fiction. Wouldn't want to be associated with all that childish sciencey stuff, would we…), but I'll try not to let my admittedly equal, though reversed, snobbery put me off trying it.
And on a final book note, friend-by-email Roy, is talking about writing a bit about the 'worst SF book ever'. If it's not too late, my vote is split between Harrison's Bil The Galactic Hero series and Moorcock's The Dancers At The End Of Time. If I really have to make a choice, Moorcock gets it, just don't ask me to narrow it down to a single book.
29 April 11
A friend asked me, a while back, for help finding a decent list of 'books to read before you die'. It set me furiously to thinking, and I realised that my own reading is actually quite narrow, especially on the fiction side of the fence. I read a lot of SF, and I've been known to dabble with the occasional detective yarn or thriller, but apart from that hardly a thing. Well, there's Kipling too, I suppose, whose 'voice' is, I think, one of the best in the language, even when I disagree with what he's saying.
I've read the occasional 'classic' too, though a kind of inverse snobbery tends to steer me away from them. The amount of snobbish exclusivism that gets attached to the words 'classic', and 'literature' is actually quite mind-blowing, while 'popular' becomes almost a swear-word, in some people's mouths.
Case in point, Dan Brown. Now, I've tried a couple of his novels, and personally, I think the characterisation is awful, the characters themselves are based on stereotypes from a thousand bad movies, and the plot-lines are ludicrous. His lack of any descriptive ability is, to me, simply astounding, and his action scenes, told in a monotone, descriptionless style that robs them of any real excitement, seem more like pastiches of such scenes from the same bad movies he draws his characters from.
He sells. Millions of people buy his books and, seemingly, actually read them. No one buys them to put them on display, to give the impression to potential guests that they're well-read. How many 'classics' could say the same? Whether I like his work or not, he obviously writes stuff that appeals to a lot of people, yet finding a decent discussion about his work, and that of other authors of his ilk, by 'serious' critics, is even harder than finding one on SF.
SF, to the literary crowd, by the way, means Burgess, Orwell, Huxley, Ballard, and the like. While they wrote some decent stuff in the genre, I've never yet met a science-fiction reader who would have placed them above Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Banks, Lem, Dick, Bradbury (one of the few writers generally accepted in both camps, as it were, as one of the best), or many others whose names are seldom heard of outside the genre.
All of which rambling and ranting leads me back to my inverse snobbery. I have the constant impression that these nose-in-the-air critics are trying to tell me that my favourite reading matter is okay for the hoi polloi but that, for some ill-defined reason, its very popularity makes it somehow vulgar, and that anyone with pretensions to 'higher culture' should really be reading this other stuff. My 'fuck you, you pretentious git' reaction tends to lead to me, just as arbitrarily, not wanting to read the very things they tell me are must-reads. And yes, I know I'm probably missing out on a lot of fine work because of it. Just call me contrarian.
Anyway, the point of all this is that I'm looking for help compiling a list of 'must read' books. If you feel like it, I'd love it if you could sent me a list of ten to twenty that you think everyone should at least try. So if you want to, please send your list either to me personally, via my contact form, or on the brand-spanking-new comments widget at the bottom of this post. (I seem to have gathered a cadré of readers who prefer to talk via mail than on my forum. Whether you'll all still prefer that to the comments board, I don't know, but I thought I'd give it a try. I'm still more than happy to chat via mail to anyone who prefers that.)
A few, not rules so much as preferences or guidelines:
Please feel free not to be influenced by my view of 'classics'. I recognise that my bias isn't necessarily logical.☺
I'd like to make the list as varied as possible as to genre/subject, so try not to have more than one or two in any particular pigeonhole, as 'twere.
To most people, including, I'm fairly sure, Maria—whose question to me started all this—'reading' means predominantly fiction, so try to weight your lists at least 80% in that direction. Obviously, if you're like one of the few people I know who hardly read any fiction, that's going to be a tad difficult, so don't feel too bound by it.
No more than one novel from a series. I'd rather you name the series and, if you have one, put your favourite in brackets, eg: 'The Discworld series - Terry Pratchett (Pyramids)'.
Feel free to add brief comments about each book, but please don't let the comments grow past a paragraph, or they'll obscure the listiness of the list.
Try to include some that you feel are unfairly forgotten or dismissed, or relatively unknown. Maybe works that are overshadowed by a better known work by the same author.
Where non-fiction is concerned, try to favour books that a reasonably well educated newcomer to the subject could follow, and which aren't trying to sell a 'groundbreaking new theory'. In fact the latter should be considered closer to being a rule. I instantly distrust authors who publish 'groundbreaking new theories' in the popular press, rather than peer-reviewed journals. The cynic in me wonders just why they'd feel the need to. And introducing someone new to the subject via a book that may turn out to be hogwash, or even genuine but mistaken, would seem a little unfair.
This one's a rule, not a guideline: No Harry Potter. I don't mind other children's books, or books for young adults (sometimes they're better written than 'adult' books by the same author), but anyone who was going to read HP has most surely read them by now. And to be honest, I found the adulation of JK Rowling, for 'inventing' a genre that she didn't invent, damned annoying.
[EDIT]In which I find myself corrected. I have been set upon mercilessly by my sister and Amy, who point out that my reasons for not allowing Harry Potter a place in the list are … ummm …
misguided falacious bullshit. As any true sceptic should be, having had their nose rubbed in the fact that they're in error, I'm happy to correct myself. The HP rule is hereby rescinded.☺[/EDIT]
Right, that said, here's my list (I'll keep it to ten):