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 among 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 fascinated 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 received, 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.
Go read The Culture of Iain M. Banks over on Kirkus Reviews.
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 fascinating 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.
Joanna Russ wasn’t an author I came across when I first came across science fiction: she was someone who 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.
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.
Go read The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr. over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog.
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. Since going back to it, I’ve found that it’s a book that’s grown on me each time I read it. It’s certainly one of the best SF novels that I’ve ever read.
Over on Kirkus Reviews, I’ve gone and taken a look at the background of the novel. Go read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.
Marcus Sakey’s latest book is the second in his Brilliance saga. A quarter of a century ago, a small percentage of the population was born with special abilities: pattern recognition, heightened senses, and others that set them apart from the rest of the population. The result was a society that has begun to take advantage of their gifts: the United States is in the midst of a technological boom, while tensions have begun to emerge between abnorms and normal, not unlike we’ve seen before in comics such as The Uncanny X-Men. A Better World picks up shortly after Brilliance leaves off, where agent Nick Cooper toppled a president while working under the Department of Analytics and Response (DAR). The first novel in this cycle was an excellent look at the response to differences: fear, restrictions, monitoring, and more. It’s an interesting look at a move from a far freer society to a militarized police state.
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 the Kirkus Reviews blog.
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 the Kirkus Reviews blog.
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 at the Kirkus Reviews blog.
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.
Go read The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin over on Kirkus Reviews.
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.
I’m a sucker for graphic novels with great protagonists. A good case in point is Ben Hatke’s recently completed Zita the Spacegirl comic series—comprised of Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl—published earlier this summer. Framed with Hatke’s outstanding artwork, the series is an earnest, adorable and kick-ass story following Zita’s adventures far out in space.
For years, I’ve had friends tell me that I should be reading Octavia Butler’s works, especially Kindred. I actually own a copy, and it’s been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to pick it up. When it came to the point where I’d start writing about the 1970s, it was pretty clear that Butler would be one of the authors that I’d be covering, and I picked up the book as part of my research. She’s a powerful author, and I’m a little sad that I didn’t read the book earlier. Researching Butler’s life is fascinating, and it’s becoming clear to me that some of the genre’s most important works emerge from outside of it’s walls.
Go read Octavia E. Butler: Expanding Science Fiction’s Horizons over on Kirkus Reviews.
Ringworld is a novel that’s always stuck with me. I picked it up alongside authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, and other authors from that point in time. Foundation and Dune are two books that are among my favorites, but Ringworld has long been the best of the lot. It’s vivid, funny, exciting and so forth. Reading it again recently in preparation for this column, I was astounded at how well it’s held up (as opposed to Foundation) in the years since it’s publication, and I can’t wait to read it again.
Go read Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Known Space Stories over on Kirkus Reviews.
When I worked at a bookstore (the now defunct Walden Books), I had a co-worker that loved Andre Norton. I’d never read any of her books throughout High School, although I was certainly familiar with her name. I wish now that I did.
Norton wrote largely for what we now call the YA audience: teenagers, with fantastical adventures throughout numerous worlds and times. She was also largely ignored or dismissed for writing ‘children’s literature’, which is a shame, because it’s likely that she had as great an influence on the shape of the modern genre as Robert Heinlein, who’s Juvenile novels attracted millions of fans to new worlds. Norton was the same, and influenced countless readers and writers for decades. It’s fitting that the major SF award for YA fiction is titled The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Go read Andre Norton’s YA novels over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog.
I defy you to find someone who doesn’t know the story of The Wizard of Oz. It’s an enormously popular story, so ingrained into our popular culture world that statements such as ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ need no reference. Oz is on par with stories from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley – we know what happens without even reading the works. As such, it’s good to go back and take a look at their place in SF’s canon, because they are very influential, and it’s easy to see why: they’re fantastic, eminently readable stories that hold up with their sense of wonder.
Recently, I attended ICFA down in Orlando Florida, where I had dinner with a couple of authors, notably Ted Chaing. We had gotten on the topic of robotics, and he mentioned that Tik Tok from Ozma of Oz could be considered one of the first robots in SF. It’s certainly an early appearance of a robot, and with that in mind, it’s interesting to see how much of Oz prefigured some of the modern SF genre.
Go read L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies have a curious history, and never would have come about but for the creation of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and some of their financial troubles. For those interested in science fiction history, the focus of the books are a nice match: the first three volumes were explicitly put together with the idea of charting the evolution of the genre. While they’re incomplete (two women in the entire book – I’m really sad that there wasn’t a Moore Northwest Smith story in there, or anything by Francis Stevens) by modern standards, it’s pretty much the entire Golden Age of SF in a single book. In and of themselves, they are a historical curiosity, and an interesting read altogether – a lot of the stories still hold up nicely.
Go read SFWA and the ‘Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ Anthologies over on Kirkus Reviews.
Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His novels include The Devil’s Alphabet, Pandemonium, Raising Stony Mayhall, and the collection Unpossible. His new novel is Afterparty, a near-future SF novel about neuroscience, drugs, crime, and the numinous. (For more information about Afterparty, check out Daryl’s Afterparty Tour page.)
Andrew Liptak had the opportunity to speak with Daryl about the genesis of Afterparty and more…
Andrew Liptak: Afterparty takes place in a reasonably near future US where computer and pharmacological technology has reduced the cost for manufacturing drugs. How did you come to a story about this?
Daryl Gregory: I like how you asked that: How did I come to this? And now all I can hear in my head is David Byrne shouting, “Well? How did I get here?”
I’ve had a passing fascination with McCaffrey’s books over the years, even as I never really dabbled in them. (I owned one book, Dragonflight, years ago.) I was always somewhat intimidated by the sheer size and scale of the series, and I was always more interested in SF than I was Fantasy (although now, I realize that that was a bit misguided.) Anne McCaffrey was always an author I was aware of: one of the female authors alongside the Asimovs, Herberts and Heinleins in my high school library.
Yet, in recent years, as I’ve been researching, I’ve become aware that McCaffrey has occupied an important role in the genre: she’s an extremely successful female author, but she also writes in such a way (and is marketed as such) that she’s an excellent gateway into the SF world for a huge range of readers.
Go read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons over on Kirkus Reviews.
I’ve been a fan of Game of Thrones since I first caught it a couple of years ago, and I’ve been impressed with the HBO series as I’ve continued to watch. When Season 1 hit, I pulled out my copies of A Song of Ice and Fire and started the first book, alternatively reading and watching the show. I’ve found the books to be a trial to get through, but I’ve ultimately enjoyed them.
I’ve found Martin’s rise to real fame in the last couple of years to be an interesting thing to watch, and it’s equally as interesting to look back and remember that he was a fairly prominent SF author throughout the 70s and 80s, and with this past weekend’s release of Season 4, it’s a good time to look back on his roots.
Go read The Transformation of George R.R. Martin over on the Kirkus Reviews Blog.