The Culture of Iain M. Banks

Last year, I was shocked to read that Iain M. Banks announced that he had cancer and was going to die within months. I had first come across him when I picked up Consider Phlebas, and several of its sequels when my Waldenbooks shut down and liquidated its stock: his books were amongst the first that I grabbed and stuck in the backroom to hold while we waited for the store to close. I really enjoyed the novel, although I’ve yet to really pick up any of the others. I was facinated by the depth and breadth of the Culture.

Banks plays a critical role in the resurgence of space opera in England, leading a number of other well-known authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others around the 1990s. Space opera is a type of story that’s not been well recieved, and Banks sort of bridges the gap between authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and C.J. Cherryh and those such as James S.A. Corey.

I have a growing stack of Culture novels that I’ve picked up over the years, and I look forward to digging through them. After Banks passed away in 2013, I think it’s best to savor them.

Go read The Culture of Iain M. Banks over on Kirkus Reviews.

Print:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss speaks about Banks briefly, as his career was just starting up.
  • SciFi Chronicles, Guy Haley. Haley’s book has a page about Banks and his works. This is a neat book, and while it’s not terribly scholarly or anything, it provides a LOT of information to work with.
  • The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. Cramer/Hartwell have a fantastic introduction to Banks’ short story in this fiction anthology and a look at the evolution of Space Opera as a whole. Banks is noted as someone who brought a new resurgence to the genre in the late 80s/90s.
  • Science Fiction, Roger Luckhurst. Luckhurst speaks about Banks and his works in some critical detail.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes some space to Banks, placing him in context with a greater SF movement in English space opera.

Online Sources:

This was probably the first time I found a lot of online sources, commentary and interviews with one of my subjects. Here’s where I went for information:

I’d also like to throw out a huge thanks to Ken MacLeod, who agreed to speak with me about Banks and his life. I’ll put the interview up in a bit.

The Worlds of C.J. Cherryh

C.J. Cherryh is an author that I’ve come across quite a lot, but was never one that I really ever got into. Recently, I’ve become more interested in her books, particularly Downbelow Station, which prompted me to take a look at her career. It’s a facinating one that pulls in some of the legacies of her predecessors (such as Robert Heinlein and similar), and newer innovations that made her career different than that of her predecessors: she was primarily a novelist, rather than someone who started in the pulp magazines.

Go read The Worlds of C.J. Cherryh over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Writers Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. This volume has a solid biographical sketch of Cherryh.
  • Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith. Bacon-Smith’s book had some excellent insights into the work of women during the 1980s which I used for the Russ piece, and it once again came in handy this time.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch. Disch has some interesting things to say about how genre fiction changed with female authors being influenced by one another.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Brooks has some good points about genre placement.
  • The Faces of Science Fiction: Intimate Portraits of the men and women who shape the way we see the future, Patti Perret. Perret has a photograph and paragraph from Cherryh, which I found particularly helpful.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a solid, critical section on Cherryh’s works.

Online sources:

 

Many thanks as well to Cherryh herself, who kindly answered some of my questions. I’ll post that up at some point.

The Radical Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ wasn’t an author I came across when I first came across science fiction: she was someone that I slowly became aware of more recently, when I started working at this on a more professional and critical level. Part of this came from friends who were interested and researching her, and over the last couple of years, I’ve gained an appreciation for the few works that I have read.

What I find most interesting is her relationship with the genre: many of the arguments she put forward back in the 1960s/70s/80s still hold true today, and if anything, they’re even more relevant. For me, Russ makes a lot of sense, and her arguments not only apply towards better representations of men and women in science fiction, but make an excellent argument for simple innovation in writing science fiction. I can see why she was frustrated, and why she was angry.

Go read The Radical Joanna Russ over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith. This is a book that I think I need to pick up for my own library at some point: it’s a very interesting survey of SF literature.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. Solid biographical sketch of Russ here.
    The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany. Delany has a short essay on Russ’s Alyx stories, and it’s a good one.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch. My feelings on Disch’s book is complicated: it feels a bit argumentative at points, but he has some interesting insights into Russ fit with other contemporaries during the 1970s.
  • Across The Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, Larry McCaffery. McCaffery has an excellent oral history interview with Russ, which provided me with a wealth of information, but some good ways to look at science fiction as well.
  • We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, Brit Mandelo. Brit’s a friend of mine, and I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now. She’s become a good expert on Russ through this book and her column on Tor.com.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes a good amount of space to Russ in this book, placing her in some good context with her peers.
  • NY Times Obituary: This obit has a number of good, critical details of Russ’s life.
  • Joanna Russ Biography: This was particularly helpful figuring out where she worked, year to year.
  • Russ, Joanna: Clute has a short, insightful biographical sketch of Russ here.
  • Joanna Russ (1937-2011): Locus’s obituary, which provided some minor details.

The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr.

Science Fiction publishing is full of strange characters, but there’s one story that seems to really capture people’s attention consistently: James Tiptree Jr., a brilliant figure who seemed to appear out of nowhere, earn a number of awards, and maintained a fairly elusive personality in science fiction circles. It wasn’t until a decade of writing that it was revealed that Tiptree wasn’t actually a guy: it was a woman named Alice Sheldon, with an utterly fascinating background: she had traveled the world, participated in the Second World War, worked for the CIA and had a PhD.

Sheldon proves to be an interesting figure, challenging a number of preconceptions for gender in science fiction (not just with her alter ego). What’s interesting about Sheldon is that she endured and wrote about a number of the same issues that we seem to face in science fiction right now: how are women represented in fiction and how are female authors treated differently than their male counterparts? Sheldon’s story is illuminating when it comes to this.

This post comes at a sort of weird time, as blogger Requires Hate was revealed as Benjanun Sriduangkaew: The revelation comes as one personality is drastically different from that of the other, and there’s been a lot of discussion around that topic. The Tiptree/Sheldon situation is vastly different, but it is interesting to see just how people use pen names. There’s a number of women who have resorted to the practice: C.L. Moore, Andre Norton and others, with each rationalizing their use differently. Moore, for example, was worried about her employer finding out and firing her (he wasn’t a fan of the pulp magazines). Sheldon wanted to compartmentalize her professional academic and writing lives. Others wanted to make sure that they were actually considered for publication – for good reason.

Go read The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr. over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Transformations: The Story of Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Mike Ashley: Ashley has a couple of insights into Tiptree’s early stories.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980. Ashley devotes more space to Tiptree in this volume.
  • Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery. Tiptree pops up quite a bit in here, with some good analysis on his stories.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. There’s a pretty comprehensive biographical sketch of Tiptree in this book.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, by Eric Leif Davin: This book is a detailed study of women in science fiction, but largely before Tiptree’s entry into the genre. However, Tiptree pops up quite a bit.
  • Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, edited by Mary Flanagan + Austin Booth.  This mixed fiction and critical theory anthology has one of Tiptree’s stories in it: The Girl Who Was Plugged In, which is a fantastic read.
  • Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, Guy Haley. Alice Sheldon has a great entry in this neat book.
  • The Battle Of The Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier: Larbalestier looks at a number of Tiptree’s prominent stories.
  • Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Justine Larbalestier. Larbalestier edits this volume, and it has one of Tiptree’s stories (And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hillside), along with some analysis by Wendy Pearson.
  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, Larry McCaffery. Tiptree/Sheldon doesn’t have an interview in here, but there is a good interview with Joanna Russ, who provides some good contextual information.
  • James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Philips: This is the definitive biography of Sheldon and her personal. My post is a pale reflection of what’s in this book, and I highly recommend this detailed, interesting and outstanding biography.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts: Roberts devotes some good details about Tiptree’s place in the SF genre.

Joe Haldeman’s Forever War

When I was in High School, I devoured Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, but it wasn’t until I’d left graduate school that someone forced me to read The Forever War. When I did, I sort of missed the point of the book, and going back to it recently with this research, I’m finding that it’s a book that’s growing for me each time I read it. It’s certainly one of the best SF novels that I’ve ever read.

I’ve interviewed Joe several times already, and we included him in War Stories, with his story Graves leading off the TOC. Going back and looking at how his book was written has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while now, and after writing up this column, I have to say, I need to give the book another read to fully appreciate it, I think.

Go read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War over on Kirkus Reviews.

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss has some interesting points to make here about TFW and its placement in genre literature.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley. Ashley notes where Haldeman began writing and where he was able to first publish his stories.
  • Science Fiction Writers Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. Blieler has a good biographical sketch of Haldeman in this edition.
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Haldeman himself has some things to say about his own book. My 1991 edition has a good author forward.
  • Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, Guy Haley. This recently released book isn’t terribly academic, but it has a page devoted to Haldeman (written by Damien Walter). Overall, it’s a really neat, (dense) book with a TON of material. Good for flipping through.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol 2, Frank Magill. Magill has a solid review of TFW in volume 2.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about Heinlein’s interactions with Haldeman in 1975 here.
  • Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George Slusser and Eric Rabkin. There’s a fantastic essay from Haldeman called Vietnam and other Alien Worlds, which is well worth reading. (Here’s a good source online.

Online Sources:

  • Interim Report: An Autobiographical Ramble by Joe Haldeman. This is a fantastic autobiography from Joe, which provides some extremely helpful details about his life.
  • Many, many thanks to Joe Haldeman himself, who agreed to be interviewed for this. I’ll post up our conversation at some point in the near future.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time

One of my favorite books is easily A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. I can’t remember when I first read it, but when I went back to it a couple of years ago, I was struck by its prose and outstanding story.

What’s more astonishing is that it was rejected dozens of times from publishers, before going on to win one of the major awards for YA literature. Moreover, it’s still highly relevant to any teenager or young reader today.

Go read Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, Madeleine L’Engle. This was a moderately useful book, as it contained some biographical elements.
  • Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, Leonard Marcus. This is an astounding book, and I wish that each one of the authors that I’ve looked at had something similar. It’s an entire book of oral histories, conducted with people who worked with or who were close with L’Engle. It’s a fantastic source.

Online Sources:

  • Madeleine L’Engle: Short biographical sketch from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • The Storyteller: Fact, fiction, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle. This is a fantastic article on the life of L’Engle, and Zarin does a great job parsing out the complexity of her character. It’s well worth a read.
  • Obituary. L’Engle’s obituary from the New York Times, which provides some interesting details about her life.
  • L’Engle, Madeleine. Biographical entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
  • ALA’s Banned Books Page. The American Library Association’s home page for their Banned Books week, which includes links to the lists of books that are frequently challenged and banned.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book to review for SF Signal, looking for something different. That book was Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it turned out to be one of those books that quietly never quite left my head.

Thinking about Roadside Picnic and its authors, as well as our last column on Stanislaw Lem, we get a good starting point for examining how science fiction developed outside of the United States. Given that a lot of SF has been published here in the US, we appear to be a leader in the genre, for better or worse.

At the same time, we forget, ignore or simply don’t realize that authors such as Lem and the Strugatskys were as big as the giants in the United States: on par with Bradbury, Asimov or Heinlein. Examining their publishing experiences and approaches to the genre is good to highlight the limits and potential of genre, but also where US authors and fans tend to put on blinders for the world around them.

As awareness of foreign SF grows (see Clarksworld’s Chinese SF project, funding now), it’s important to realize that a) this isn’t a new phenomenon, and b) SF isn’t limited to the United States and England.

On top of all that, go read Roadside Picnic. It’s a phenomenal book.

Go read Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology after Utopia, Edith Clowes. This is a particularly detailed volume on Russian literature, and partiularly looks at the science fiction’s complicated relationship with utopian fiction and their own country’s political history. This particular book looks at how the Strugatsky’s works fit into this.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Landon discusses the brothers at length, with a fairly good analysis of their works.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Frank Magill. There’s an excellent review of Roadside Picnic here.
  • Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature, Rosalind J. Marsh. This book has a good look at works of the brothers.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers, Stephen Potts. This is a short book, but a good overview of the brother’s works and career.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a couple of paragraphs of the brother’s career and how it fits into a bigger picture.
  • Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Robert Staicar. There’s an excellent essay about the brothers here.
  • Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This was my introduction to the brothers: the 2012 translation, which threw me at first, then drew me in completely. It’s a Weird book, while also a Hard SF one at the same time. It still sticks in my mind, years after reading it. Ursula K. Le Guin opens the book, while Boris provided an afterword.

Online Sources:

  • SF Encyclopedia. As always, the SF Encyclopedia has a good, comprehensive entry on the subject, particularly when it comes to their placement in the genre.

Two obituaries for Boris, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times helped provide some details of their lives, as well as some critical look at their careers:

I hate to do it, but I had to rely a bit on Wikipedia’s entry for the brothers, which provided some minor details, although I tried to rely on entries that were backed up with sources.

Stanislaw Lem and His Push For Deeper Thinking

Almost ten years ago now, I picked up a copy of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and was struck at how different it was compared to a number of the other books I was reading at the time. It was an interesting and probing novel, one that I don’t think I fully understood at the time. (I still don’t).

Lem is an author who is truly uninhibited by genre convention. Last column, I looked a Ursula K. Le Guin, and have been thinking quite a bit about how science fiction authors began to put themselves into a box midway through the century when it came to ‘hard’ science fiction. Limiting a story in some regards requires one to limit one’s own imagination: after all, we’re talking about fiction, where authors can make up whatever they choose. Lem was one of the authors who could make up a considerable story and then deliver it.

Go read Stanislaw Lem and His Push For Deeper Thinking over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss. Aldiss has a delightfully snarky section devoted to Lem and his works here: both recognizing his brilliance, but also deplicating his attitude towards his fellow authors as well.
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Mike Ashley. This work has a couple of sections on Lem, which were very helpful in figuring out where he first was translated into English.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley. This installment of Ashley’s series contains quite a bit more information on Lem’s interactions with the SF community in the 1970s.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition. Richard Bleiler. This book of thumbnail biographies contains one on Lem by Peter Swirski, which is an excellent survey of Lem’s life and works.
  • Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. This book provided some excellent information on Lem’s legacy.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature vol 5, William Magill. Magill’s text contains an excellent analysis of Lem’s Solaris, which helped me understand the book a bit better.
  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews With Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, edited by Larry McCaffrey. This is an excellent book of interviews, and while Lem isn’t interviewed, he is brought up a couple of times.

The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of science fiction’s greats: her stories Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed rank among the genre’s best works, and she moves easily between science fiction and fantasy, writing things that science fiction authors had barely touched before she came onto the scene. To say she was influential is to undersell one’s words.

I have to say, of all of Le Guin’s works that I’ve read, the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most was A Wizard of Earthsea, which I read years ago. Of all the fantasy novels I’ve picked up, it’s probably one of the ones that’s stuck with me the most.

I’ll say this once: there’s some columns that have come together quickly. Others are far harder to put together: case in point, trying to summarize the influence of one of the genre’s greatest living figures, Ursula K. Le Guin. Never mind that her fiction still challenges me and makes me feel incredibly tiny, or that her words are something that I can hardly imagine coming close to in style or grace. This was a hard one to write, but rewarding, all the same.

Go read The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss devotes a number of pages to Le Guin and her influence on the genre, holding her critically at arm’s length, which is interesting to see: few authors have really had this treatment in this particular book. He acknowledges her stance in the genre, but chastise her for being preachy.
  • In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood. Atwood actually dedicated this collection of essays (which is very reminiscent of Language of the Night), and devotes one essay to her, where she discusses her fiction in a very useful way.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion, by Susan Bernadro and Graham J. Murphy. This is a dedicated volume on Le Guin, and I found it to be exceptionally helpful with some publication details and commentary on her works, especially the stories I haven’t read (yet).
  • Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, by Elizabeth Cummings. Another critical survey, this one likewise had some helpful commentary and details.
  • The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany. Delany’s complicated survey of the genre is a dense, detailed one, and contains a good section on The Disposessed.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, by Thomas Disch. Disch’s history is a decent one that I’ve used before, but I was a little surprised to see him absolutely castigate Le Guin and other feminist authors here.
  • The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s book of essays on science fiction and introductions to her book is possibly one of the best non-fiction books that I’ve read on the subject. It’s an excellent demonstration that Le Guin is an utterly powerful, brilliant and intimidating figure in the genre.

Online Sources:

30 Years of William Gibson’s Neuromancer

 

I’ll have to confess that I read Neuromancer only a couple of years ago, and at the time, didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was a book about computers, written before computers were really a thing. The strange thing about William Gibson’s fantastic novel is it’s staying power and how it’s positively brimming with fresh ideas in a genre gone stale by the early 1980s. Going back to re-read Gibson’s works (especially in Burning Chrome), I’m shocked at how vibrant and raw his writing is.

Neuromancer is one of the more important books to enter the genre, and as it celebrates its third decade in print, it’s an interesting one to go back and look upon and to understand just how revolutionary the title was at the time.

Go read 30 Years of William Gibson’s Neuromancer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Authors, Larry McCaffrey. There’s a fantastic interview with Gibson in this book, which provided some keen insights into the development of Neuromancer. It’s also online here.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes several pages to Neuromancer and Gibson’s influence, providing some key insights into how Neuromancer came together.
  • Modern Masters of Science Fiction: William Gibson, Gary Westfahl. This short book came out last year and is part of the fantastic Modern Masters series from the University of Illinois Press. This particular volume is excellent: it’s a detailed look at Gibson’s works, and a bit about his life

Fittingly, a number of sources came from the internet, through interviews or blog posts from Gibson: