Future Classics: #5

Not a typo in the subject line, because now we reach the other tie.

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Spirit cover

Spirit is Jones’ most recent novel, and the other science fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, as Karen Joy Fowler explores:

The reader picks up a sprawling space opera with certain expectations: a fast pace, exotic settings, mysterious aliens, badly behaved (and also much-abused) nobility, plenty of off-world adventure and intrigue. In her new book, Spirit, Gwyneth Jones delivers all these and more.

The plot of the novel is loosely modelled on Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Jones is not the first writer to find that a classic swashbuckler translates effectively into outer space, and, in this case, the fun of finding familiar elements strangely transformed more than compensates for any predictability in terms of how the plot will go. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Jones’s book features an exiled emperor, a conspiracy involving imperial restoration, an impregnable prison, an unjust imprisonment, a fellow prisoner with wisdom and wealth to bequeath, a daring escape dependent on the removal of a corpse, unimaginable treasure, fabulous fetes and balls, appalling betrayals and the intricacies of vengeance.

To this, Jones has added a great many elements not found in Dumas’s book (and surely the Dumas is the poorer for it): space travel, a Hegemony of many planets and many “numinally intelligent bipeds”, an ill-starred diplomatic mission to a world of bloodsuckers, chitinous serpents that can be saddled and ridden, robots, body modifications and, as the Edmond Dantès character is female in Jones’s retelling, bizarre pregnancies and childbirth.

Other reviews: Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons; Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons; Nic Clarke, for SFX; Duncan Lawie, for The Zone; by Cheryl Morgan; and by Ian Sales.

And here’s a thing: you can download the full text of the novel from Jones’ website. It was release online in January of this year which, I think, counts as its first US publication — which means it’s eligible for a Hugo. Isn’t that interesting?

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (2002)

Speed of Dark cover

Winner of the Nebula Award and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Speed of Dark bowled over many reviewers with its examination of the introduction of a cure for autism; John Grant, for instance:

In sum, The Speed of Dark is one of those exceptionally rare novels that has the power to alter one’s entire worldview, and reading it is a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience. It is impossible to avoid superlatives when speaking of it, even though one’s all too aware that one may be perceived as perpetrating hyperbole. Well … tough. I cannot remember when last I enjoyed a novel this much, but it must have been a very long time ago.

Other reviews: Adam Roberts, at Infinity Plus; and Jayme Lynn Blaschke at SF Site. See also an essay by Moon, “Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative.”

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #8

Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (2008)

Lavinia cover

Le Guin’s revisioning of the later parts of Virgil’s Aeneid from the point of view of Aeneas’ wife was widely hailed as a masterpiece; within the genre, it picked up a Locus Award for best fantasy novel, made the Tiptree Award honor list, and was nominated for the Mythopoeic and BSFA Awards. Adam Roberts was as effusive as anyone:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful, haunting new novel, due out in the UK in May 2009, has already been published in America. Accordingly, the bound proof I read came pre-endorsed for the Britreader: “a winning combination of history and mythology featuring an unlikely heroine imaginatively plucked from literary obscurity” (Booklist). That rather undersells it, actually. “Deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves’s I Claudius” (Publishers Weekly). That’s more like it. Although Le Guin’s pre-Roman first person narrative has a very different flavour to Graves’s Imperial Roman first person narrative, they are of a similar stature: classics in essence as well as theme. “Arguably her best novel” (Kirkus). Arguably so. Certainly I enjoyed this novel more than any Le Guin since the 1970s; and that (it’s almost tautological to add this) means that I enjoyed it more than pretty much any novel since the 1970s. It possesses a depth, clarity and wonder greater than most of the fiction being published nowadays.

Other reviews: Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian, Tobias Hill in The Observer, Cecelia Holland in Locus, John Garth in The Telegraph. See also a four-part discussion of Lavinia started here last year, and continued here, here, and here, with follow-ups here and here.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

The Ones That Got Away

Any cutoff point for a poll like this causes problems; ten years may be a neat round number to think with, but it does a disservice to books that lie just on the wrong side of the line. Based on the number of times they were nominated by mistake, plus the number of wistful wishes that the poll extended back just one more year, the following three books published in 2000 might have been, in a different poll, serious contenders.

Ash by Mary Gentle

Ash cover

2001 was the year of Big Genre-Crushing Books on British sf award shortlists: specifically, Ash and Perdido Street Station. Mieville took home the Clarke, of course, while Ash walked off with the BSFA — you wonder whether a reversal of those fortunes would have changed the way the decade looks now. Online commentary on the book is relatively scarce, but thanks to the internet archive we can still watch John Clute wrangle with it:

Very simply, Ash works.

There is much more to talk about: the brilliance of the conversations and debates; the astonishing clamour of combat; the roundedness of almost every character in the vast tale; the sense of continuous argument; the occasional moments when Ash and her gang act as though the world were a game, and all they needed to do was turn off the VR machine to return home, and you almost begin to think none of them is ever going to die (but you are very wrong). And there is Ash herself, whose life is genuinely hard, and who (unlike some of Gentle’s earlier heroines) pays dearly, time and again, for what she does to others. She may be something of a Temporal Adventuress, but she pays for it. She pays.

There is more, much more. (Ash is also extremely funny.) But enough for now. Buy the four volumes, or the one. Sit in a corner. Open the book. Hold on.

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Wild Life cover

Wild Life is a book that’s lurked on the fringes of my consciousness since it won the Tiptree Award; here’s Jo Walton enthusing about it:

Wild Life is the story of Charlotte, a Victorian writer of romantic adventures and mother of five, who sets off into the wilderness in search of a lost child and finds something stranger than she could have imagined. (I don’t want to tell you what, because I don’t want to spoil it.) The way the story is written, with diary entries intercut with newspaper cuttings, fragments from Charlotte’s stories, and vignettes of the interior lives of other characters, leads you forward over an abyss you don’t know is there. It’s moving, it’s effective, and it would be a very good book even without that. Charlotte’s early feminism, her rebellious bicycle riding, her fiction deeply influenced by H. Rider Haggard, her ways of coping with her housekeeper and the neighbour who wants to marry her would be enough. I’d have enjoyed the book if that’s all there was to it, a historical perspective on the Pacific North West and logging and nineteenth century independent women. But there is more, and that lifts it from a good book into something altogether astonishing.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber cover

Nominated for just about everything going when it was published — Hugo, Nebula, Philip K Dick, Locus, Tiptree — Nalo Hopkinson’s second novel is an act of vivid and original world-creation, as Gary K Wolfe described in Locus:

Hopkinson, however, reminds us that most of the world does not speak contemporary American middle class vernacular, and never has. Instead, she adapts the convention of unchanging language to her own variety of Caribbeanized Creole, so that the characters in her indefinitely distant future — the planet Toussaint has already been colonized for two centuries when the novel begins — still say things like “It ain’t have no doux-doux here” while sprinkling their speech with references to “dimension veils” and “nanomites”. The resulting dissonance is only one of Hopkinson’s techniques for making us question the hegemony of American culture in SF worlds, but it’s the most immediately striking. And when the heroine Tan-Tan and her father Antonio are exiled to the low-tech prison planet of New Half-Way Tree after he kills a rival in what was supposed to be a non-fatal duel, we find ourselves in an even more distinctively non-Wester environment that calls to mind both aspects of West African folklore and Caribbean folklore (in the culture of its human inhabitants) and of Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (in the cultures of its native species).

Future Classics: #9

Farthing by Jo Walton (2006)

Farthing cover

Farthing, the start of the Small Change alternate history series, was nominated for the Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial, and Sidewise awards (among others). Adrienne Martini was typical of the book’s reviewers:

Despite the parallels to today’s current political climate (just substitute “Liberal” for “Communist”), the murder mystery is the spine from which the rest of the book moves. A Scotland Yard inspector, who has his own reasons to avoid prying eyes, is brought in and the narration alternates between his point of view and Lucy’s. It’s an effective technique and one that keeps you flipping through pages, despite the fact that the identity of the murderer is fairly well telegraphed in the first few pages. Lucy and the inspector make you want to know why it was done and, more importantly, what will be done about it.

But Farthing is also a book about fascism and the parallels between her Britain and today’s climate is never didactic and always effective. It’s also a book about husbands and wives, however, and about class and sex. It is quite an achievement, brothers and sisters. Hallelujah.

See also Paul Kincaid’s review from the New York Review of Science Fiction; Sherwood Smith at SF Site; David Soyka in the Internet Review of SF; and (with a few reservations) Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #10

Strictly speaking, #10 equal, since we start with one of two ties.

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Bold as Love cover

Jones’ Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel, and the series it inaugurates, is probably one of the landmark generic hybrids of the past decade, being both near-future science fiction and Arthurian fantasy. As Francis Spufford put it:

The salient oddity of Bold as Love is that its achievement is rooted not in the festival scene of 2001, but in the world of 1971. It substantiates the dreams not of present-day apocalypse-minded teenagers, but of their counterparts 30 years ago, who read Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and relished the fantasy of the Rolling Stones playing gigs in the rubble of liberated cities. Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; Jones has an equally sexy guitar hero put the reverb into “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. This book reopens the door to a particular stylised world next to our own, where the slender-hipped male heroes of pop culture are freed from time and place to do cool, violent deeds. It’s a rock’n’roll world, but it’s English. It’s a world where the young Mick Jagger is always to be found jamming in the Hundred Acre Wood, his gun lying on the grass beside him among the forget-me-nots.

Other reviews: Chris Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City, David Soyka for SF Site and Kathleen Bartholomew in Green Man Review. See also Sheryl Vint’s take on the concluding volume, Rainbow Bridge, for a sense of how it all pans out, and a 2003 interview with Jones. Oh, and the Bold as Love website, where you can download the full text of the first four volumes of the series.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (2004)

City of Pearl cover

Another series-initiating book, this time the well-received six-volume Wess’Har War series. Stuart Carter reviewed it with the sequel, Crossing the Line:

Another glorious aspect of these two books is that they’re almost the antithesis of everything Trek: humans haring round the universe imposing their morality and point-of-view upon anyone who can listen, and always, eventually, turning out to be right, or at least admirable. And if we’re not even admirable then at least we have bigger guns than everyone else to console ourselves with. In Karen Traviss’s universe we’re seen as being far from admirable and even further from right, and it looks like being a very hard, possibly even fatal, lesson for us to learn. A warning to the unthinking patriots amongst you: you may find these books somewhat unpalatable.

I’ve followed quite a tortuous route to discovering Karen Traviss’s novels: she’s English, I’m English, and yet neither of these books has a UK publisher, so I’ve had to get them from the US, a fact that both perplexes and saddens me since both City Of Pearl and Crossing the Line would seem to be a very English type of SF, and English SF at its very best, too. If you want to read something that will leave you thinking, perhaps if you’re a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson or, more generally, of intricately gloomy English science fiction, then this series is one you want to read — I promise.

Other reviews: Christ Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City (hang on, I’m getting deja vu), and Russ Allbery. See also 2006 interviews with Traviss at Infinity Plus and in Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

The 2010 Contenders

No books published in 2010 received enough nominations in the poll to make it into the overall top ten. This is probably not a surprise; the books haven’t been out for very long, so fewer people have read them. And some 2010 books received enough support to suggest that, were this poll to be run again in a couple of years, they might have matured into strong contenders. I thought it would be worth breaking those books out into a separate post, since their poll ranking is probably not reflective of the strength of feeling about them — and because they may be awards contenders next year. And so here they are:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City cover

Lauren Beukes’ second novel has been picking up rave reviews all over the place. John Clute reviewed the book in his Scores column at Strange Horizons:

Zoo City may dive a little too glamorously into terrible high-rises and worse tunnels, and its protagonist (who survives the tale she tells) may wear her deformations and her scars and her cabaret presentation of self like war ribbons, and the present tense of the tale’s telling may try a little officiously to shove our faces in the fleuve of the overwhelming nows of an alternate-2011 urban South Africa (Johannesburg is hardly exited), but throughout the horrors and the almost synaesthesical complexities of the scenes unfolded we get a sense of vigour, some of it irrepressible. The main joy of Zoo City is the energy of the thing, that it doesn’t stop for breath until it stops for good.

Also worth noting is a strong showing for Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland; thanks to Moxyland‘s first US edition this year, both books are Hugo-eligible.

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn cover

I think of Bujold, rightly or wrongly, as occupying the sort of position in US sf that Iain M Banks occupies in UK sf: absolutely central in her home country, somewhat marginal beyond its borders. I’m not sure any of her books has ever been published over here, and as a result I’ve not read any of them (although the recent free ebooks of her entire back catalogue may change this). On the other hand, Cryoburn may also be a suitable jumping-on point, for all that it’s the latest entry in a long series. Tansy Rayner Roberts:

Cryoburn, while not actually hitting the heights of my very very very favourite Vorkosigans (honestly it’s hard to top Memory which is one of the best books I’ve ever read) has all the ingredients of a very successful Miles Vorkosigan outing. It also shows that yet again, Bujold is not afraid to take risks, to change up any patterns her series has developed, and even the world itself. I’m not going to address in the least the most important change she brings down upon Miles’ world, because it’s the massivest spoiler of all spoilers, but suffice to say – this is, like Civil Campaign and to some extent Diplomatic Immunity, a book which could stand very successfully as the last of the series, and yet unlike both those volumes it could as easily be the new beginning that refreshes the books so entirely that we see another five out in the next decade.

Feed by Mira Grant

Feed cover

Winner of this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not A Hugo), this is the first of Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant’s books to be published in the UK, and was one of Publishers Weekly’s top five sf/f of 2010. It’s a zombie novel, but don’t let that put you off. Roz Kaveney:

Mira Grant’s Feed is less well-written [than The Passage] but has a can-do brio that Cronin would regard as whistling showtunes in the dark. Grant’s zombies are the result of experiments gone wrong – everyone is infected and everyone might turn in a moment. Yet civilisation does not collapse, and there are even elections; business as usual. Grant isn’t writing a horror novel at all – just an SF novel with zombies in it. And with bloggers – her heroine would die, or become undead, for a scoop.

Scoops follow her around. Hardly has she and her brother and team been embedded in a Presidential campaign than a saboteur tries to get the Candidate eaten or turned. Georgia and Shaun are supremely irritating young smart-arses, but Feed is a perfect antidote to Cronin’s gloomier excesses; sometimes after a well-cooked heavy meal, you really need a tub of ice-cream, with sprinkles.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death cover

Okorafor’s first published adult sf novel is another one that’s been appearing on end-of-year lists, not just Publishers Weekly but also Amazon US. Matt Cheney loved it:

So much reverberates between the lines of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death that the greatest marvel among the many here is that the novel succeeds in creating music and not cacophony. Archetypes and clichés jangle against each other to evoke enchanting new sounds, old narratives fall into a harmony that reveals unseen realms, and the fact of the book as artifact becomes itself a shadow story to that on the pages within. Okorafor is up to all sorts of serious, necessary mischief, setting up one expectation after another and dashing them all like dominoes made of dust. When the dust settles, rich realities emerge.

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Blackout cover

All Clear cover

As Willis notes on her website, and as pretty much every review of either volume has noted, this is one novel split into two volumes: a sprawling epic set in London during the Blitz. Clute again:

Indeed, the least useful pages of All Clear are spent tracing its cast’s ultimately baulked attempts not to see anything, and it does take a while to grasp the beauty of All Clear, the intense humility of its portrait of London as her cast increasingly ignores Dunworthy’s strictures, especially in two superb, hugely extended setpieces: one devoted to the terrible first bombing raid on 7 September; the second massively expanding on the events first depicted in “Fire Watch” as Saint Paul’s almost burns at the end of December. Almost certainly some bad mistakes leak into the text (how else, given the oceans of data she had to attempt to master); but I for one found nothing to complain about. The main errors I noted myself were in fact easily correctible: Willis seems to have consulted a contemporary map of the London Underground, which seems to have led her to assume that the Victoria and the Jubilee Lines, both constructed decades later, were there in 1940; nurses bewilderingly tell patients their temperature in centigrade; and the term “disinformation” seems not to have existed before 1955, the first year it was used to describe false information created, usually by a government, for purposes of deceit. But none of these slips opened any plausible gulf into the alternate realities whose potential irruption haunts her cast. All Clear is a song of London, a song of England, and she has gotten the song right.

Recap

My ten nominations for the best sf novels by women from the last ten years, then:

  • UFO In Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo
  • The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  • Life by Gwyneth Jones
  • Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
  • Hav by Jan Morris
  • Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
  • Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo
  • Maul by Tricia Sullivan
  • The Modern World by Steph Swainston
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

Looking at that list all together, I’m more than happy with the quality of the books, but it is in some ways a skewed list. It is a list of books published in the UK, because even in the age of Amazon those are the books most visible to me, most easily available to me, and at the top of my TBR as someone who’s interested in the British sf field. There are major writers I’ve never read at novel length — Elizabeth Bear, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nalo Hopkinson — largely for this reason. (The one US-only book on my list, Life, is by a British writer whose work I already follow.) It’s also a list with many edge cases, at least half of which is published “outside the genre”, which risks creating its own stereotype about how women write sf. Now the question is: how will it compare to the results of the overall poll? All will be revealed over the coming week — and if you still haven’t sent me your ten picks, you have a couple of hours left to do so.

Maul by Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul cover
Maul was my first encounter with Sullivan’s fierce, fluid novels, thanks to its Arthur C Clarke Award nomination, and remains my favourite of the ones I’ve read, not least for the elan with which its central metaphor is constructed and elaborated. Justina Robson’s review sums the book up well:

Maul deals with plagues: biological plagues, political ideology, sex and shopping. […] All the elements of this novel work very hard all the time, carrying not only a complex plot and fascinating ideas about microbiology, but a heavy satirical charge aimed at contemporary culture and also at SF itself. That it manages so well and is so entertaining is testament to Sullivan’s skill and intelligence. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 tonight, Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

Hav by Jan Morris (2006)

Hav cover
The expansion of Jan Morris’ 1985 fictional travelogue Last Letters From Hav with a sequel section describing her return to the city years later is a unique and striking novel. Ursula Le Guin’s review in The Guardian perhaps puts it best:

This lack of plot and characters is common in the conventional Utopia, and I expect academics and other pigeonholers may stick Hav in with Thomas More and co. That is a respectable slot, but not where the book belongs. Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality. The “sciences” or areas of expertise involved are social – ethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. Hav exists as a mirror held up to several millennia of pan-Mediterranean history, customs and politics. It is a focusing mirror; its intensified reflection sharply concentrates both observation and speculation. Where have we been, where are we going? Those are the questions the book asks. It poses them through the invention of a place not recognised in the atlas or the histories, but which, introduced plausibly and without violence into the existing world, gives us a distanced, ironic and revelatory view of everything around it. The mode is not satiric fantasy, as in the islands Gulliver visited; it is exuberantly realistic, firmly observant, and genuinely knowledgeable about how things have been, and are now, in Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Downing Street. Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy; and Hav is a splendid example of the uses of an alternate geography. If, swayed by the silly snobbery of pundits as contemptuous of science fiction as they are ignorant of it, you should turn away from Hav, that would be a shame and a loss.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet (2006)

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart cover
One of those novels that simply cast a spell on me, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a fantasia on the moral complications of science. Three of the men involved in the development of the first nuclear bombs — J Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard — are transported from the moment of the first atomic test forward in time to March, 2003, where they have to come to terms with the world they created. As Abigail Nussbaum’s review explores, the great strength of the novel is its depth and generosity of characterisation:

Millet does a masterful job of maintaining a balance between the impossibly weird and the ordinary elements in her novel. It is all too often the case in surrealist fiction that characters are overwhelmed by the weirdness they encounter. They cease to be human because their responses to the impossible strain credulity. Millet never falls into this trap. Her characters, modern and historical, major and minor, sympathetic and villainous, are never less than entirely believable, and almost always likable.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.