Book Review: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Originally published to Geek Exchange.

When a man steals a car and drives to the end of a lane, where he commits suicide, it sets off an unfathomable horror on an English family. The premise of Neil Gaiman’s first novel in five years is the basis for a subtle, intense read that may very well be his best fantasy yet.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a man revisiting his childhood home in England, following his memories down a country lane to a house that he vaguely remembered. There, he abruptly remembers his past, and the tragic events that set into motion a horrifying presence that was unleashed against the world. A man stole his family’s car and committed suicide in it. Something has been released, and our narrator comes across a strange family, the Hempstocks, who know things that they couldn’t possibly know. The youngest, Lettie, becomes the narrator’s only hope to staying alive while dangers from around and within come for him. Lettie is a strange young girl. She claims that the duck pond in her back yard is an ocean, while her grandmother claims to remember the Big Bang.

There’s an understated feeling to this short novel, a multi-layered narrative that flows smoothly as the pages turn. It’s a story about memory and stories, and I get the sense that this is a story that is a very personal one for its author. Our young narrator is a shy, bookish boy who’s afraid of the world around him, but taking comfort in his familiar surroundings.

Gaiman strips away the comfort following the upheaval of his world. The death of the Opal Miner stirs up something dark, and unwittingly, our narrator is partially responsible for the utter terror that follows him and young Lettie Hempstock when they go to investigate. There are things beyond the world that simply do not belong in ours, and it finds its way into the places where he’s the safest. There’s a visceral sense of horror that bubbles up and grows as it slowly takes over his life and surroundings, leaving him with a single safe way out. This is a fantasy of a different caliber, one that is both subtle and powerful as the narrator observes an entirely new world around him. This is a raw novel, full of emotion, one that refused to let me go until I finished it.

There’s an almost epic sense of proportions in this novel, a tragic good verses evil story fought on the tiniest level, and it succeeds in the most heartbreaking way. Gaiman is a master storyteller, one who carefully constructs his characters and makes their lives miserable for an incredible payoff for the reader.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a powerful, masterful work of fiction, one that resonates long after the last page has been turned and the book put away on the shelf. Quite simply, this short, incredible novels is one of the best of the year, and is not to be missed.

 

Interview with C.J. Cherryh

Late last year, I wrote about C.J. Cherryh about her career for Kirkus Reviews. During the research process, Cherryh kindly agreed to be interviewed. Here’s our conversation:

Andrew Liptak:  Where did you first come across science fiction, and what about it made you stick with reading it?

CJ Cherryh: My dad gave me a copy of Tarzan and the City of Gold—when I was about 7. Before that it was comics. I graduated to Conan at about 9-10. Read every ‘lost world’ I could find and was a fanatic listener to Tom Corbett on radio. When I found books of the same ilk, I read them. Age 9-10 family got a telly and I got addicted to Flash Gordon. Beyond that, I wrote my own.

AJL: I saw that you had begun writing when you were disappointed with the cancellation of your favorite television show at a young age. Did you continue to write between that time and when you began to publish professionally?

CJC: Yes. Daily.

AJL: Where did you first come up with your first novel, Gate of Ivrel? What was the writing and publication process like?

CJC: I’d sent Don [Wollheim] Brothers of Earth and he sent me a letter saying it wasn’t quite in their size range. First time I’d gotten a publisher to answer in person, so I wrote Gate in 2 months while teaching a full schedule. Ate at the keyboard, slept when I could.

AJL: How did Donald Wollheim first come across your stories at DAW Books?

CJC: I targeted Don, finally taking a systematic approach to sending out books, because I went through my own library and investigated who was the editor who had bought most of my favorite books—figured we had similar taste.

AJL: Serpent’s Reach was your first Union-Alliance novel. How did you go about constructing that world? Was there anything particularly different about the writing and publication process from your earlier novels?

CJC: I don’t know that it was the first. But I researched real astronomy to find a couple of stars in the right relationship and built the ecology based on what I thought might result from that class star. (Beta Hydri.)

[Her first was Brothers of Earth – this question was the result of me misreading her ISFBD entry]

AJL: Your novels are notable for their female protagonists in a field that was considered male-dominated: how was this received by readers while they were being published? 

CJC: My goal is to create characters that men can identify with just the same as women identify with the male heroes. Everybody wants to be a hero in what they’re reading.

What some of the Union-Alliance influences? I decided to set up a situation in which there were no ‘evil’ superpowers, just superpowers doing what superpowers do re their own survival, and to write stories from the viewpoint of people on both sides.

AJL: Who were some of the authors who inspired you?

CJC: Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Don Wollheim, Andre Norton, and Publius Vergilius Maro.

The Rise of the Paperback Novel

My latest post is up on Kirkus Reviews, this time pulling back from the trenches and looking at what my boss calls the 20,000 foot strategic picture. Throughout the column, I’ve largely looked at authors who’ve shifted the genre from point to point, but over time, I’ve started getting interested in the larger forces at play: the publishers and reading habits of Americans. As I work towards putting these columns towards a book, I’ve begun looking at some of the other influences outside of the arts world that have shaped SF.

One notable example of this is the actual medium in which people are reading. SF is a neat example of this, going from Dime Store novel to pulp magazine to mass market paperback / hardcover book, and now, to eBooks.

A while back, I went to a talk where the speakers described government and rules as the sort of software that makes society run in a particular way: in many ways, it’s a technology in and of itself. By the same token, these invisible systems that we construct – logistics, education, and science, are examples of this sort of technology: it’s not just the gadgets that we construct, but the way we make people live in a society that isn’t a hunter-gatherer one.

The paperback novel is one example of a technological innovation that really changed a lot in the publishing world: it not only changed how people began to read stories, but how they were produced in the first place. Authors had to shift their habits, but also the very types of stories which they had begun to write. Thus, the science fiction of the 1930s is vastly different in style, structure and content than that of the 1970s. It’s an interesting thing to examine.

This is the first part of two columns: the next is going to look at another major element that we might not think of often when it comes to the writing of books: chain and super bookstores.

Go Read The Rise of the Paperback Novel over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, Kenneth C. Davis. This is *the* book to read if you want to read about how paperback books came into being, in a great amount of detail. This is an excellent read, although my copy has been falling apart.
  • The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, Al Silverman. This is a memoir from a major publisher, and he provides some interesting details into the workings of that world.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition, John B. Thompson. This is a new-ish book on the publishing industry, and it provided some excellent overviews on the broad history of the book and how it has been sold.

Web:

Huge thanks for Betsy Wollheim and David G. Hartwell for their input.

Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

Originally published on Geek Exchange.

A man named Charlie Manx has a special car that he uses to take children to a magical place called Christmasland. The problem is, once they arrive, they can never leave, and they never realize the horrible truth to the man and place. This is the background for Joe Hill’s latest novel, NOS4A2. This novel is Hill’s magnum opus, an incredible work of fiction that is equally fantastic, horrifying and utterly impossible to put down once you begin.

At some point in the 1980s, a girl nicknamed Victoria, (Brat to her father) lives in a troubled home. Her parents don’t get along, and to escape the arguments, she rides her bike through the woods, where she finds a covered bridge. It’s not really a real bridge, however: it’s a conduit that allows her to find lost objects. She’s soon after introduced to a new world: there’s certain people with abilities to enter another world, one that’s split away from the real world, and powered by their imaginations. Armed with a totem, they can use this conduit to accomplish certain things. In Vic’s case, it’s her bike. Maggie, a librarian, it’s scrabble tiles. For Manx, it’s his terrible car. When Vic and Manx’s worlds collide, it sets them on a path that’s filled with madness, terror and violence.

Joe Hill has established a name for himself when it comes to dark speculative fiction. His collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, is an excellent read, his comic series Locke & Key, as well as his first two novels, Heart Shaped Box and Horns have received wide acclaim. NOS4A2 adds to his superior backlist and it’s easily going to be one of the best books released in 2013.This novel is a long, sprawling narrative that covers decades of the character’s lives, and it’s by far Hill’s most complex novel to date. Despite that, it breezes by quickly, and it’s a testament to Hill’s ability to weave together a number of divergent characters and each of their actions without losing sight of the overarching picture.

A delight throughout NOS4A2 is the tiny references peppered throughout: Charlie Manx at one point carries around a silver hammer – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, anyone? Music titles, like many of Hill’s other works, work their way into the prose many times. There’s a character named de Zoet, which in and of itself doesn’t mean much, until one follows Hill on Twitter for a while, where you might have seen that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was one of his favorite books. When the characters get a glimpse into Charlie Manx’s head, there’s a neat reference to Hill’s fantastic comic series Locke & Key on the map with Lovecraft Keyhole. Beyond these references, there’s also Hill’s wondrous preference for the double entendre. The titular car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is entirely perfect for this sort of story, while Vic’s own ride, a Triumph Motorcycle, likewise is born for the role that it plays in the story.

At its core, NOS4A2 is about a single, basic concept: the importance of loving relationships. Vic comes out of a home that has quite a bit of tension that feels typical for the 1980s (especially if one’s reference point for suburban culture is films like ET and Terminator 2), and has a difficult relationship with her parents. She eventually moves out, taking off on her bike and ending up finding Manx, who attempts to kill her. She’s saved by Lou, a biker fleeing from his own problems. With Manx apprehended, Lou and Vic become an unconventional couple, with a little boy, Wayne.

Through Manx, we see that relationships are far more important. In many senses of the word, he’s a type of vampire, one who’s sustained by the empathy and emotions of the children that he kidnaps, forging an ever-depleting pool that he continually draws upon. His helpers, terrible men who kidnap and murder in his name, are strung along in a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of their own, one that leaves them shriveled up and ultimately, dead.

The problems don’t stop with Manx’s apprehension, and his relationship with his captured wards goes both ways: Vic, now an illustrator for a popular novel series calledSearch Engine, goes crazy as she begins to receive calls from the children of Christmasland, who are going hungry without their master. The episode forces Vic to rethink her memories and childhood, which adds in an entirely new level to the horror that she faces: while she thinks that what she experienced were false memories, they were in reality, completely true. That, to me, is something far scarier than the violence, blood and gore that we see throughout the book. It’s still scary, but Hill knows exactly where to twist the knife to crank up the temperature for his characters.

Amongst this drama is an overarching theme of modernity versus tradition. Manx, by his own admission is over a century old by the time that the book begins, frequently rails against the flaws of women in society: modern dress styles, tattoos, sexual behavior are all lifestyle choices that he feels compelled to work against, and often help him select his victims: children whose parents are deemed immoral are often the ones selected for Christmasland. On the other side of the line are the characters who inhabit of modern society. Vic is a single, tattooed parent who drives a motorcycle. Maggie is a punk-rock lesbian librarian. Lou is an overweight geek who’s willing to go with the flow, and so on. They’re products of their surroundings, and as alien to Manx as the vampire is to them. In a lot of ways, this book works with and without the supernatural elements, as the cultural clash sets up a comparably horrifying motive for Manx’s actions throughout the book.

Finishing the book, it’s easy to see the battles that are waged between the characters, time and time again. On one side, Vic is backed with her loving family, who go to extraordinary lengths to keep her safe, informed and loved. Manx, on the other hand, has his insatiable hunger and his car, and his anger and iron grip on long-gone traditional life simply isn’t enough to sustain him.

Hill balances all of these relationships throughout the novel, building up a convincing base as we follow Vic throughout her childhood and adult life, and looking back, it’s an impressive effort that really succeeds once all the cards are on the table. Moreover, there’s not a single instance when this novel is bogged down with unneeded exposition, explanation or road map. He sets the characters into play, and lets the story take over. It’s a fun, exhilarating ride.

NOS4A2 as a whole is quite possibly Hill’s best book to date, and it’s easily one of the best that will be published this year. Balancing a complicated story, incredible characters and a really horrifying sense of dread and discomfort, this is dark fantasy at its absolute peak. Hill pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, and already, he has us eagerly waiting for more.

Interview with Ken MacLeod about Iain M. Banks

Recently, I wrote about Iain M. Banks for Kirkus Reviews. In conducting the research for that post, I spoke with one of his friends, fellow SF author Ken MacLeod, who graciously agreed to answer my questions. Here’s our interview.

Andrew Liptak: When did you first meet Iain Banks?

Ken MacLeod:  At Greenock High School around about 1969 or 1970. He claimed we met when I approached him to write a story for the school magazine (a story the teachers who had the last word on what went in rejected as too sweary or too gory) but I have only the vaguest recollection of the incident.

AL: Were the two of you close friends throughout High School?

KM: Not exactly. I have to be a bit tedious and specific here. There are two towns adjacent to Greenock, which is a small town on the Firth of Clyde on the West coast of Scotland. Upriver is Port Glasgow, which is where most of the maritime industry used to be, and downriver is Gourock, which was originally a resort – back in the day when steamship excursions on the Clyde were the best holidays most people could afford. Over the years the towns basically merged at the edges. Anyway, Iain’s family lived in Gourock, where his father worked for the Admiralty. Iain went to Gourock High School, which only catered for students up to their third year and the exams then known as O-levels. Anyone who wanted to do the next grade of exams, Highers, which were what you needed for university entrance, had to go to Greenock High School. So Iain arrived along with several other boys and girls in our fourth year. I was already part of a clique who thought they had deep thoughts and who were considered promising by our English teacher, Joan Woods. She encouraged us to form a creative writing group or something like that. Joan was a remarkable and much loved teacher who right from the start did innovative off-curriculum things like getting the first or second-year English class to analyse Simon and Garfunkel lyrics after listening to the album, and to study poems so new that they were literally only published as duplicated handbills. Years later I amused and surprised Brian McCabe by quoting a line or two one of his early poems from memory.

Anyway – the meetings of the writers’ circle began in some public room but soon became evening gatherings in Joan Woods’ living-room, and they continued even after the students involved had gone on to university. Several of us remained friends with Joan for many years afterwards. At some point in his high school years Iain became part of that clique, and we became closer friends when we were both at university – he at Stirling, I at Glasgow. We had an interest in SF in common and we used to meet on Saturdays when we were both home for the weekend, go out for long walks with our pals or go round to see Joan, who put up with our antics and gave us coffee and biscuits.

AL: Can you describe a bit about what he was like in person?

KM:  He was cheerful, affable and sociable, but enjoyed solitude — he sees to have done a lot of thinking while walking or driving. Very generous and loyal to his friends — he made a lot of new friends in the course of his career, but remained close to the friends he already had from his schooldays, and to his family. He had remarkable equanimity — in all the years I knew him I never saw him in a bad mood, or show more than a rare and momentary annoyance. He had a penchant for ordering and organising things: bookshelves and CDs and tools and so on, which I think went with how carefully he planned everything from his books to his schedule for the year. He had this focus and work ethic along with a capacity for recklessness, spontaneity and risk-taking — which, now I come to think of it, was quite measured and calculated as well: he took care to endanger only himself, and he could now and then get hilariously drunk in company but never drank alone.

AL: To the best of your knowledge, how did he begin to write science fiction? 

KM: The best person to ask is David Haddock, editor of the fanzine ‘The Banksonian’, even though I was there at the time and he wasn’t. He’s done the research, asked Iain questions and correlated reminiscences from interviews and so on.

You can find his talk outline on Iain’s pre-publication writing here.

However, as far as I know Iain’s first extended work of fiction that was actually typed and not handwritten was ‘TTR’ [The Tashkent Rambler] – a huge sprawling work set that wasn’t SF but was set in the (then) near future. (In the interviews with Andrew J Wilson cited below, he says that it was inspired by Catch-22 and Stand on Zanzibar.) Then after a couple of abortive novels, one of which was SF, he wrote the first draft of ‘Use of Weapons’.

AL: Where did he discover science fiction, and what about genre stories attracted him to them?

KM: Probably through TV series like Thunderbirds, Dr. Who and Star Trek, then SF books in the local libraries. Like every British SF writer of our generation, he’d mention seeking out the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF books on library shelves. He read very widely in all kinds of fiction even in high school, and gravitated towards SF by I guess his mid-to-late teens – in his final year in high school he wrote a dissertation on SF, and it had sections on ‘The Escapist Stuff’, ‘The Hard Core’, and (though I can’t swear to the title of this one) ‘The New Wave’. He’d read all the standard Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and then found the New Wave – Spinrad, Ballard, Keith Roberts, M. John Harrison – with Aldiss, I guess, as the bridging figure. The ‘New Worlds Quarterly’ paperback series was a big influence, both the stories and the criticism, mostly by Clute and Harrison.

AL: His first book was The Wasp Factory, a non-genre story: it’s not often that we see genre authors writing outside of the genre to the same regular schedule as he did: why do both? 

KM: He’d already written, sent in to publishers, and had serially rejected ‘TTR‘, Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, The State of the Art, and The Player of Games. So he thought he’d try something mainstream and middle-of-the-road … I remember him telling us he was writing a mainstream novel and sounding almost apologetic, as if we might think he was letting the side down. But I think he continued to write both literary fiction and SF because he could and also because the mainstream novels sold better.

AL: I remember reading somewhere that he wrote science fiction simply because he loved it. 

KM: Yes, that seems about right. He would say he enjoyed it slightly more than writing non-genre fiction (which is a genre in itself, one he and I sometimes labelled ‘LF’, ‘lit-fic’, or ‘lie-fi’).

AL: Do you recall what his reaction was like when he finally sold Consider Phlebas? Was there a sense of relief?

KM: Glee, I seem to recall. He was very pleased to have an SF novel published at last, but I don’t think he ever doubted he eventually would.

AL: What inspired his Culture novels and the world he built?

KM: The way he explained it was that he wanted to write about a morally and psychologically flawed mercenary fighting on the side of a genuinely good society, and so proceeded to work out what kind of society he himself would most like to live in. When he told me about this society I told him it was communism, in the sense of the Marxian vision of a society of abundance without classes, the state, or money. He came to agree but I don’t think that influenced anything that went into the Culture: he just worked it all out from first principles. I’ve written about this here and here.

AL: I know there’s been a number of people who have pointed to his Ringworlds as being directly borrowed from Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld. Was there a sense of ‘let’s add in everything that’s cool’ to the Culture novels?

KM: No – look at all the trad space opera cool stuff he left out! He may well have been inspired by Ringworld, but he arrived at Rings by his own route. As far as I can recall he worked out Orbitals first – he figured out how big a rotating structure would have to be to have centrifugal force of one gravity on the inner surface and a 24-hour day, quickly realised that no known material could sustain it, and handwaved in force-fields to hold it together. If you can do that you can do Rings, so he threw them into the background but I don’t think there’s a story specifically set on a Ring.

AL: What did Banks hope to accomplish with the Culture: where there certain things he sought to cover and examine? 

KM: His running gag was that he’d sought to capture the moral high ground of space opera for the Left. He wanted to write big-scale colourful adventures that were well written and weren’t Social Darwinism Within that he explored particular topics -the themes are pretty much worn on the sleeve: there’s an ongoing debate over the morality of outside intervention, for instance, and responsibility in general. But I think the themes kind of emerged from the settings and stories.

AL: What particular right-wing elements of space opera was he uncomfortable with?

KM: Basically the unimaginative projection of present-day societies into the far future, and the not exactly hidden endorsement this gives to aspects of these societies, such as imperialism and militarism as well as capitalism. He was just as sceptical of Asimov’s more liberal version of that, taking suburbia to the stars. I seem to remember him saying that Dune – which he enjoyed and admired, though he derided the ending (he said something like “‘History will call us wives’ – come on, Frank, is that the best you can do?”) was somehow absurd in postulating an interstellar humanity that wasn’t just imperial but feudal. I replied that it wasn’t really compatible with the materialist conception of history, which made us both laugh at such a mild and obvious demurral.

AL: Which of the Culture novels were his favorites?

KM: He always said Use of Weapons was his favourite – I think partly because it’s a very strong book, but also because it’s full of the joy of inventing not only the Culture but also the other worlds where the action is set, a joy that’s itself shot through with his own youthful vigour and sense of discovery, and of making use of all the knowledge and experience he’d had up to that point. Beyond that it’s hard to say. Look to Windward was one he was fond of, partly because of the intensity of its moral seriousness.

AL: He wrote several non-Culture SF novels. Why did he take the break in the 1990s?

KM: The break wasn’t quite as big as it seems. We have to bear in mind that the sequence of writing wasn’t the sequence of publication. Against a Dark Background was the second SF novel he wrote, though it was published fourth. After Consider Phlebas, he revised his three already-written and oft-rejected space operas. It may be just a matter of chance that the non-Culture one was the last of these. By this point he wanted to ‘write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn’t the Culture … I’ll go back to that in the next science fiction novel.’ (‘Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill: Conversations with Iain Menzies Banks’, Andrew J Wilson, Foundation Vol 42, No 116, Winter 2012/2013, 2014). It’s interesting that the next Culture novel, Excession, is a departure from all the earlier works in that the attention is much more on the Minds, we see them and other machines more often as viewpoint characters, and the Culture is brought bang up to date with nanotechnology and virtual reality and much more intimate interfaces between humans and machines than we see in the earlier work. But all that is adumbrated in Feersum Enjinn, which I think is his first real 1990s, post-cyberpunk SF novel.

AL: Did he have the same goals with those books as the Culture novels?

KM: There was the same moral sentiment, and the same exuberance of creation, but without the constraint of having to think ‘Now, how would a truly good and immensely powerful society respond to this appalling situation?’ Though of course one of the non-Culture novels, Transition, has in that respect a Culture analogue in the Concern.

AL: Why write outside of the series?

KM: He wanted to explore other possibilities – to set a novel with megastructures in it on Earth, in the case of Feersum Enjinn, or a universe full of aliens and empires in our own future, in The Algebraist. Also, quite simply, he came up with ideas that didn’t fit the Culture universe and he didn’t want to be locked into one series, however open-ended.

AL: What was the first thing from him that you read? 

KM: A pun-filled parody spy-thriller-type adventure story hand-written in a school exercise book and illustrated with montages of pictures clipped from magazines, mostly Sunday colour supplements. (A technique inspired by Terry Gilliam’s graphics from Monty Python, and possibly Private Eye covers and the alternative/underground press of the time.)

AL: Can you tell me a little about the Scottish SF circle? I know that there’s a solid knot of authors from there. 

KM: Well, it’s more of a loose skein really – there are separate knots of fans and writers in Glasgow and in Edinburgh, and I don’t know about any other local concentrations though they must exist. There’s a very active fandom and writers’ circle in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there is a loose circle around people who were members of the Edinburgh University SF/F society years ago, and the friends they’ve accumulated along the way, with Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson as central figures. There’s also an overlapping circle of writers who met through Andrew Greig, who used to live in South Queensferry and who I first met many years ago when he was writer in residence at Edinburgh University. I introduced him to Iain, and he introduced us to novelists and poets such as Ron Butlin, Regi Claire, Ian Rankin, the late Edwin Morgan, Brian McCabe, Lesley Glaister, all of whom became our friends too.

AL: Is there something about Scotland that sets you guys apart from the rest of the genre field, either politically, environmentally or otherwise?

KM: I think in most respects we’re fairly typical of British SF writers. The famous Caledonian antisyzygy can be seen in my writing and in Iain’s, but by and large you’d be hard put to distinguish Scottish SF from British SF as a whole. Besides – as I think it was Paul McAuley who said – there just aren’t enough of us to be a statistically valid sample.

AL: Did Banks have plans for other Culture novels beyond Hydrogen Sonata? What might it have covered?

KM:  He had an idea for a novel about a character who had stored some of his memories in ammunition, so every time he used his weapon he lost part of himself. He hoped to have left enough of an outline and notes for me to write something from if he didn’t have enough time left to write it himself, but sadly his illness didn’t even leave time for even an outline. It was a generous idea, and typical of Iain, in that he inisted he would like me to write the novel in my own way and not in a pastiche of his, but even so I think I would have found it almost impossible.

AL: What was his writing process like, and how did he construct The Culture as a world?

KM: He read widely, thought a lot, made page after page of notes of ideas, and then when the time came to write another book he would look through his notes, extract or otherwise come up with a story idea, write a detailed outline and then sit down for two or three months and bang the thing out at a rate of about five thousand words a day. He constructed the Culture initially with a lot of drawings of ships and orbitals, weapons and drones and so on, maps of locations, lists of names … ship names and character names, which he had a real knack for inventing or finding. There’s a minor character in Against a Dark Background called Elson Roa, the leader of gang of solipsist bandits, and after I’d read it in draft Iain showed me where he’d found it: a broken street sign for the street where he lived, Nelson Road.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars

Throughout my years of stalking the science fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, there’s been a trilogy of books that’s always caught my eyes, but which I never quite picked up to read. They were Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, with its distinctive covers which matched the titles of the books. I had attempted to get into Red Mars over the years, but never got very far.

A couple of years ago, I picked up 2312 and found myself engrossed in Robinson’s world and vision of the future. At some point after that, I actually met him when he attended a conference in Massachusetts, where he kindly signed a couple of his books for me. Since then, I’ve started re-reading Red Mars, and actually getting into it a bit more.

Robinson’s works fly in the face of what a lot of science fiction seems to revel in: it’s optimistic, and isn’t extrapolatory; that is, taking a darker version of the present day and transplanting it into the future. He’s built fantastic worlds that feel all the more plausible and relevant today than that of most of his colleagues.

Go read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a short section on Robinson’s works, particularly related to the Mars trilogy.
  • The Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley. Haley has a page devoted to the Mars trilogy in this book.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. There is a fantastic critical examination of Robinson’s life and works in this book.

Web:

Additionally, many thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson himself for agreeing to answer my questions. We had an excellent discussion, which I’ll post up later. I can attest that he’s probably the nicest guy in the solar system.

 

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.

2014 Award Eligibility Post!

 

The Science Fiction awards season is upon us, and I have something that I can actively promote: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction!

War Stories has 23 short works in it. Of those, two (Graves, by Joe Haldeman and War 3.01, by Keith Brooke) are ineligible, as they’re reprints.

The anthology as a whole can be nominated for a Locus Award for Best Anthology.

The following stories can be nominated for Best Short Story in the Hugo and Nebula categories:

    • War Dog, Mike Barretta
    • The Radio, Susan Jane Bigelow
    • Valkyrie, Maurice Broaddus
    • Contractual Obligation, James Cambias
    • Where We Would End a War, Brett Cox
    • Non­Standard Deviation, Richard Dansky
    • Always the Stars and the Void Between, Nerine Dorman
    • One Million Lira, Thoraiya Dyer
    • The Wasp Keepers, Mark Jacobsen
    • Mission. Suit. Self, Jake Kerr
    • Ghost Girl, Rich Larson
    • Black Butterfly, T.C McCarthy
    • Warhosts, Yoon Ha Lee
    • In The Loop, Ken Liu
    • Invincible, Jay Posey
    • Enemy States, Karin Lowachee (Read it here)
    • In Loco, Carlos Orsi
    • All You Need, Mike Sizemore
    • Coming Home, Janine Spendlove

The following stories can be nominated for the Best Novelette category:

  • Light and Shadow, Linda Nagata
  • Suits, James Sutter

Galen Dara, for her cover art and interior illustrations is eligible for the following awards:

  • Hugo Award, Best Professional Artist/Fan Artist
  • Chesley Award, Best Cover Illustration, Paperback Book
  • Chesley Award, Best Interior Illustration

I do hope to see some of these stories on the awards ballot. You can read Karin’s story on Apex Magazine (and I highly recommend this story – it’s fantastic!). This book was a real treat to edit and put together, and I’m very, very proud of what is in it.

Personally, I’m not eligible for Best Editor, Short Form, because I don’t have 4 editing credits under my belt. However, I am eligible for a couple of things:

    • Best Short Story: Fragmented, Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, May/June issue.
    • Best Related Work: History of Science Fiction column. I’m guessing that this column in general can be nominated, or individual pieces. It’s really a collective work, however.

Up to this point, the following columns have come out in the 2014 calendar year:

There’s a couple of additional columns coming this year, and they can be included as well.

After all that, there’s a couple of other places to consider: Lightspeed Magazine and Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, which should be eligible for Best Semiprozine, and John Joseph Adams for Best Editor, Short Form. I’d also recommend looking into the works of Usman Malik, Ken Liu and Jaym Gates, each of whom have published this year.

When it comes to novels, Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance (Jeff Vandermeer), The Emperor’s Blades (Brian Staveley), Breach Zone (Myke Cole), The Martian (Andy Weir), Defenders (Will McIntosh), The Three (Sarah Lotz), Cibola Burn (James S.A. Corey), Rooms (Lauren Oliver) and Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) were all some of the best books that I picked up over 2014 (plus a couple of others that I’m currently reading.

I look forward to seeing what’s on the ballots this year!