MIND MELD: Underrated Authors
Judging by the amount of books we receive here at SF Signal (see 2008′s list right here), science fiction publishing in doing quite well. Trying to keep up with the flood of new books by well known authors is hard enough, what if you want to find something new and interesting? How do you find that ‘underrated’ author whose books you have to read? Well, you ask for help! Which is what we did for this week’s Mind Meld.
I would nominate a few authors, first Stanislaw Lem, who I don’t think has had enough exposure in the West, his seminal book Solaris has apparently never had a translation he was happy with. Other works of his, such as His Master’s Voice rank up there with the best the west has had to offer, and offer a fresh perspective to the usual flawed notions of ‘moral and societal advancement through the pursuit scientific knowledge’ that permeates much of the genre. His later works push the boundaries of what constitutes science fiction like nothing else I’ve seen, dispensing with plot and focusing entirely on ideas, in books like One Human Minute, or A Perfect Vacuum, which consist of a series of reviews of non existent books.
Also I would nominate Olaf Stapledon, writing before the genre was truly formed, but with works like Starmaker and Last and First Men had a scope that has rarely been equaled in all the successive years.
These two are both pretty well known I’d guess, but I can’t help thinking more exposure could only be a good thing.
I’m to pick just one? That’s tough. In that case, I’ll toss Douglas Smith into the hat. With every new story, the more impressed I am with his subtlety and vision. I’ve yet to read a work of his that wasn’t beautifully written, but more than that, his stories resonate with a deep understanding of the human condition as well as a characteristic wry wonder. Reminds me of James Alan Gardner, actually. Stories you can’t forget, even years later. Doug’s published extensively, though only in short fiction to date, but I believe he’s also working on a novel. Thank goodness! When that’s published, it will be on my must-read pile for sure.
I was first introduced to Kathe Koja’s work with her short story “Bonneville” in Jabberwocky magazine back in the early 1990s. After that, I sought out all of the short fiction she had published, and I wasn’t disappointed. Her first novel, The Cipher, was a revelation for me — the way she was able to get inside of people’s relationships, making the ugly and uncomfortable somehow special. But one of my favorite books by any author is Koja’s novel Skin. This book took me on a journey unlike any I’ve experienced. The closest I’ve seen like it is the work of Conrad Williams. Koja has a way of digging deep into people’s fears and personalities, leaving nothing a secret, and yet, she does it with such grace and beauty that you feel like she’s writing about your own heart. In recent years she has turned her considerable talents to children’s and YA fiction, and successfully so. I can only hope she will return to the dark ferocious place she took me to with her adult fiction. In my opinion, she was then and is now a severely underrated writer.
If you had asked this question a month ago I would have said Iain M. Banks, at least in the US market, due solely to the retail/meatspace scarcity of his back catalog. But the planned US reprint editions will hopefully remedy that. I am also tempted to go with Charles Sheffield or Mike Resnick: the former’s Heritage Universe and the latter’s Santiago and Kirinyaga tales rightly belong in the upper echelon of the classical SF canon, yet never seem to make it to any of the fan-penned “best of” lists often linked to by the esteemed and august personages of SF Signal. (Ed. – Flattery will get you, well, we’ll see. Keep it up!)
But I will follow my bitter black heart and go with A.A. Attanasio, in particular his Radix Tetrad which was published between 1981 and 1989. These four novels (Radix, In Other Worlds, Arc of the Dream, The Last Legends of Earth) stand alongside Silverberg and Delaney in depicting the heights of human potential, and play with space and time on scales akin to Benford’s Galactic Center.
Radix had a profound effect on my early adulthood. It came out at an exciting time in my life: I possessed that brooding ennui that can only be fully enjoyed when emerging from one’s teen years; I was dating interesting girls; Punk had exploded and mutated into the proto-indie rock scene that was readily accessible in nearby Boston and Hartford; Omni & Heavy Metal magazine were both really hitting their stride, delivering new flavors of strangeness on a monthly basis. On the other hand Science Fiction was still lit by the garish background radiation cast by the Star Wars trilogy and the hokey spawn it inspired. I sought escape in the nail-biting near-future potboilers of Ben Bova and James P. Hogan. And then this fat novel with an irresistable cover appeared on the scene, with its disillusioned youth protagonist living in a freakishly distorted future. My concepts of what SF could be if it wanted to exploded. Yes, I had read most of the New Wave canon and the first seminal cyberpunk stories that had been popping up, but this was something really different. Most importantly, Attanasio knew how to write stirring, lyrical sentences. Until then only Bradbury and Ellison had impressed with their style. For a time, Radix became my Catcher in the Rye, an anthemic tome of self-actualization for a poet-warrior, with the one drawback being that it was too thick to slip easily into the back pocket of my black jeans.
The middle two books in this “universe” (and one has no choice but to use that term loosely) did not match the sheer lushness of the language in Radix, but each told a compelling story. Last Legends of Earth, with its irredeemably villainous Zotl, enigmatic Rimstalkers, and complex retro-fitted solar system, was a stunning payoff. It delivered widescreen mind-candy with every page.
These books did not, to my knowledge, garner a following among fandom like Dune, or even a literary cult like Dhalgren. There were no devotees like there were for Philip K. Dick (in those happy days before Hollywood exhumed and repeatedly violated him). Attanasio went on to find success with historical fantasies, many of which I read but did not fully enjoy. Solis and The Moon’s Wife were excellent books, but did not touch me the way Radix had. His epic novel Wyvern, however, is the ultimate around-the-world chase story that, to this day, I wish had been released when I was a boy. Although not at all SF, I still consider it the greatest young man’s adventure novel.
In the intervening decades the shape of the future, and the genre, has continued to accrete around us. I have read many books that I consider superior, or enjoyed more, or that have spoken intimately to some more mature part of me. But every once in a while I find a dog-eared copy of Radix in a used book store and feel a little sting of envy for the fortunate soul who will pick it up on a whim and read it for the first time.
Um, all of them? Seriously. While many talented science fiction writers are recognized by their peers in the SF literary community, they remain largely overlooked and under appreciated by non-literary SF fandom. Why? Well, clearly, sitting down to watch that sequel to Space Mimes Forever requires a lot less time than, say, checking out the latest Nebula winner. Add to that the fact that, in our increasingly hectic multi-tasking society, reading for pleasure seems to be going the way of the bowler hat and those Wassup guys. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that all is not lost. Word of mouth is still a terrific way to introduce the uninitiated to the likes of Ted Chiang, Octavia E. Butler, Karen Traviss, and Cory Doctorow (to name but a few). We readers just have to make more of an effort. Next time your buddy’s birthday rolls around, forego the gift certificates to Taco Misterioso and get him/her Essential Ellison instead. Lend out your favorite titles to friends, fellow producers, and the guy who plays Dr. Rodney McKay on your t.v. show. Hell, I’m already on my fifth copy of Old Man’s War! Also, don’t be so quick to dismiss Hollywood’s attempts to mine the rich resources of science fiction literature. Sure, the successes are few and far between, but even in the outright disasters there’s a silver lining, a saving grace in the form of that original source material that can be referenced and recommended. “Sweet Jesus! Ape Lincoln? WTF?!!” “Hey, relax. Go check out a book called Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle. It’ll get that taste of gorilla funk out of your mouth.
All that said, if I had to choose one grossly under appreciated author to champion, I would go with David R. Bunch. Bunch was a civilian cartographer for the Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis who, over the course of his life, wrote an impressive amount of poetry and short stories. His work has been described as surrealist short fiction; his poetic, lyrical prose alternately criticized for being allusive and dense, yet praised for its richness and complexity. In some ways, Bunch reminds me of Gene Wolfe in his unique style and ability to command a reader’s undivided attention.
David R. Bunch is best known for Moderan, a collection of over 40 of his short stories, all taking place in a future in which humans have been replaced by militaristic cyborgs. And yet, at the core of this deeply pessimistic machine world, humanity persists. Speaking of Moderan, Brian W. Aldiss wrote: “The effect is as if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated to rewrite a typical Heinlein-Anderson-Niven-Pournelle future history story. As such it is a unique book in the science fiction field.”
Sadly, Moderan and his other collection, Bunch!, are out of print; his various uncollected short stories now languish in the rare back issues of Amazing and Fantastic. But two of his stories were featured in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions collection. One of these, “The Escaping”, offers up a wonderful sampling of his unique narrative rhythm and unforgettable imagery.
There are all sorts of writers I really enjoy that are fairly well known, but that I think should be superstars. Kage Baker, for one, has a solid following among genre readers, but should be a household name, since the Company novels are the best SF series we’ve got at the moment. Dan Abnett, for another, is well known among fans of the Warhammer 40K franchise, but his stuff transcends its game-tie-in origins, and really ranks among the best science fiction currently being published. But if I had to point to a single author whose work I think deserves a far wider audience than they’re currently getting, it would have to be Kim Newman.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I’ve published Kim’s two most recent collections through my MonkeyBrain Books imprint. But the only reason I published those collections in the first place is that I think that Kim is the best thing since sliced bread, and I wanted more American readers to know it. So there.
On occasion I’m asked to cite influences, or to list the writers who’s work has really inspired my own. Three names on the list are authors I’ve been reading since high school — Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, and Philip José Farmer — but the fourth name I didn’t discover until I was in my late twenties, and I kicked myself for not having started reading his work earlier. Kim Newman is, quite simply, the real deal.
I started, as many readers do, with his alternate history series, Anno Dracula. The later installments in the series are still in print, and while the earlier ones have lapsed out of print in the last few years, a quick check online shows that they’re easily had in affordable second-hand editions. The conceit of the series is simple: Dracula wins. In the world of Anno Dracula, Bram Stoker’s novel is propaganda, a polemic attacking the vampire who’s ingratiated himself into the court of Queen Elizabeth. But unlike agitators and malcontents like Stoker, the cream of English society is quite taken with the new Prince Consort, and becoming a vampire has become the latest trend among the faddish blue bloods. As the first novel opens in 1888, someone has begun murdering vampire women, and the story unfolds as various elements, human and vampire alike, try to hunt down and stop this “Ripper” from continuing his crimes.
As in the later installments in the series, in Anno Dracula Newman mixes fact and fiction liberally, with historical figures like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and George Bernard Shaw rubbing elbows with characters borrowed from other authors, like John Seward, Doctor Moreau, and Mycroft Holmes. In later novels and stories, all of which are essentially stand-alone, Newman brings in everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Elvis Presley to Francis Ford Coppola, from Kent Allard to James Bond to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Beyond the endless fun of playing Spot the Reference, the novels and stories themselves are exceptionally well crafted, with real emotional resonance and often startling profound things to communicate. And, you know, vampires.
If he’d written nothing else besides the Anno Dracula series, Newman would be worthy of praise. But he’s not stopped there. He’s done other alternate histories, like Back in the USSA, a novel of parts all about an America that underwent a Soviet revolution in the early 20th century. He’s done psychological horror, like The Quorum, a kind of post-modern Faustus about a deal with the devil gone wrong. There’s Life’s Lottery, a choose-your-own adventure for adults. He’s even done a Doctor Who story, “Time and Relative”, all about what the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan were up to, right before the events of “An Unearthly Child.”
But it’s probably in his short stories that Newman shines brightest. In “Coppola’s Dracula” (available online), he imagines an alternate version of the filmmaker in the Anno Dracula world who, instead of filming Apocalypse Now based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, instead heads to Eastern Europe to do his own version of Stoker’s Dracula. But interwoven into the presentation of Coppola’s Dracula film are glimpses behind the scenes, like those seen in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, that hint at how closely the whole production is to disaster. “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” shows what was happening in the Soviet Union following the night in which the unburied dead began walking the Earth. “Famous Monsters” tells the story of an alien invader who found a career in Hollywood. “The McCarthy Witch Hunt” (online) reimagines the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s with witchcraft in place of communism, and a young suburban housewife named Samantha Stevens on the stand. Newman seems to delight in mixing low and high culture, the popular with the profound, and one of the most remarkable things about his work is the way he’s able to communicate such real and insightful truths using characters and stories borrowed from disposal entertainments.
The recent DinoShip publication, Dead Travel Fast, collects many of the stories I’ve mentioned. The Man from the Diogenes Club and Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, the two collections published by my MonkeyBrain Books, collect other stories featuring agents of the Diogenes Club, the clandestine branch of the British intelligence community originally founded by Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother, Mycroft. Taken together, the three collections provide an excellent introduction to Newman’s work. And virtually all of Newman’s novels can be found online in affordable second-hand copies. Anyone who enjoys quality genre fiction owes it to themselves to add the work of Newman to their personal libraries.
Kim Newman is the real deal. That’s all there is to it.
I’d have to say one of my favourite current authors is Ian Graham, who penned the fabulous Monument which is, I believe, on sale in the US. The novel is a gritty hardcore fantasy about a drunken anti-hero, Ballas, a large man with a heart of…well, not gold, anyway. Maybe dung. The story is fast-paced, intricately plotted, and the characters original and believable because they are that most beautiful of things, unpredictable. The novel is set across stunning locations, there’s violence and whoring aplenty, and if you want a really well written and engaging fantasy yarn but without all those silly goblins and dragons and shit, check out Monument.
Ian is currently hard at work on a prequel, which I know will be superb. And I also know, for a fact, that he puts in a lot of blood, sweat and tears. He certainly deserves more recognition than he currently receives, because Monument is one of my top five fave fantasy books of all time, and a book you will definitely not regret buying. He might not churn them out every six months, but when he does, his books are jewels.
This is the sort of question that has a lot of answers, depending on who it is that’s handing out the recognition. If we’re talking about mainstream readers and reviewers, I’d really like to see Geoff Ryman, M. John Harrison, John Crowley, Kelly Link, Maureen F. McHugh, and Karen Joy Fowler get their props. These are all authors whose work has a freshness and originality that mainstream fiction often lacks, and I believe it will appeal to readers unaccustomed to reading in genre. Some of them already have their proponents outside of genre–Link is well-reviewed, and Fowler hit it big with The Jane Austen Book Club–but in a perfect world their names would be spoken in the same breath as David Mitchell or Ian McEwan.
If I were talking to genre readers, I’d probably assume they were already familiar with these authors, in which case there are some lesser known novels I’d like to push, books with some of the same verve that characterizes the genre authors above. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a deeply weird novel about a man recovering from a catastrophic brain injury, who uses a huge settlement from the company responsible for it to try to artificially recreate and live within the most resonant moments of his life. It’s the sort of book you either hate with a passion or love with all your heart, and I fell in the latter camp. Allegra Goodman’s Intuition is a fantastic novel about a subject that, even as science fiction readers, we don’t tend to hear about very often–science. It’s a lovingly detailed examination of the shifting relationships and political tensions in a research laboratory when one of its members seems to discover a treatment for cancer. Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award last year, is a deeply frightening and utterly hilarious story about nuclear disarmament, which encompasses a love story, a road trip, and some very scary information about the history of nuclear proliferation and testing. Simon Ings’s The Weight of Numbers reads a bit like a cross between David Mitchell and M. John Harrison–a multi-threaded story moving back and forth between characters, locations, and eras, but investigating, as so many of Harrison’s novels do, the core assumption of science fiction–that there is a rational, comprehensible system of the world.
Oh, and everyone should read Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, if only to understand where so much of fantasy comes from.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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