From Isaac Asimov to Iain M Banks: A Science Fiction reading round-up

Here, in chronological order of publication, is a round-up of science fiction books that I’ve read over the last few months.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

This book contains almost no female characters and consists mainly of scenes set in rooms with egotistical male characters out-manoeuvring one another in psychological power games.  That doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy does it? But, you know what? I really did, even though I can’t say exactly why.  The Galactic Empire is crumbling and a Psychohistorian called Seldon proposes to limit the oncoming dark ages before civilization returns by creating an encyclopaedia of human knowledge.   A courageous group of humans are dispatched to a remote planet called Terminus where, as the empire declines, they find themselves in conflict with other local planets. There is something compellingly amoral about Foundation in the way it cheerfully promotes the control of other planets through a combination of threat and psychological manipulation, all of which is based on the Foundation’s possession of superior technology.  It’s part of a long series and I probably will attempt at least the next couple of books. Read it for its immense influence and a sense of new ground being broken in science fiction, but don’t read it for emotional depth or decent female characters.

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man (1951)

My first Ray Bradbury book, although I’d read the odd story in anthologies here and there.  Two things I gleaned from the stories in The Illustrated Man: Ray Bradbury was highly ambivalent about technology and he didn’t like children very much – check out ‘The Vedlt’ for some seriously nasty children.  These are the kind of stories that tend to feature in old episodes of The Twilight Zone: evocative, allegorical and often containing some kind of sting in the tail.  The concerns are very much the concerns of the 1950s: the threat of nuclear war, the role of religion, the implication of enormous technological advances and social changes. There’s one well-intentioned story about racism in which Mars has been colonised by African Americans, but it’s based almost entirely on racist stereotypes.  The gender politics are also those of the 1950s so forget about complex female characters.  Read it for well-written, haunting, stories, but not for its representation of women or characters of colour, or if you just really hate The Twilight Zone.

Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (1966)

I read this because the short story it was based on, ‘He Who Shapes’, comes recommended by Ursula K Le Guin as one of the finest science fiction short stories she’s ever read. I wish I’d sought out the short story rather than read this post- Nebula win extended version, because to me it felt padded and I’m not convinced the additions benefited the story.  A “neuroparticipant” psychotherapist called Charles Render, who treats patients by working within their simulated dreams, is approached by Eileen Shallot, a blind woman who wants to become a neuroparticipant therapist herself, but who needs first to learn to ‘see’ and control a visual environment. This is another story about the possible dangers of advancing technology as well as the dangers of psychotherapy itself, questioning the role of the therapist as a puppet master who manipulates reality. It is very unsettling. The representation of Eileen now comes across as both disablist and sexist – very much a story about a disabled person desperate for a cure at any cost and unable to live a satisfying life with her impairment.  Read it for beautiful writing and imaginative power, but don’t read if you’re not in the mood to feel unsettled, or if you dislike weird endings.

C. J, Cherryh, The Pride of Chanur (1981)

My partner wrote about this book recently and I don’t have much to add to her response.  Feminist cat people in space! What more do you need to know really?  This is a bit of a straight-up space western and it’s a lot of fun to read about the arrival of humanity in space from the point of view of the aliens.  The feel of it, with its focus on interstellar commerce and ships that jump through hyper-space reminded me of Babylon 5.  This is also the first in a series of novels.  Read it for good characters and a fast-paced entertaining story, but not for psychological nuance or emotional depth.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1992)

Red Mars is a serious, and I mean a serious, attempt to imagine the colonization of Mars. I found the book interesting, especially in the ecological issues it raises and the ethics of planetary colonisation and terraforming, as mentioned by Godard’s Letterboxes here.  It has some passable female characters and I think I most enjoyed the sections that were told from the point of view of Russian engineer Nadia, who is a rare example of a female character whose main love in life is her work.  I really struggled with the very long section in which John Boone drives around Mars (which felt almost as long as the three-year sandstorm they were stuck in) because I couldn’t give a toss about John.  The book is weak on characters of colour, none of whom get to be point-of-view characters and who tend to be quite stereotyped. There’s a “magical negro” called “the Coyote” and a Japanese woman called Hiroko who is all spiritual and closer to nature, and has a special relationship with Mars.  I don’t know if this improves in the next two books though I can see from Wikipedia that “the Coyote” does at least get a name and that a lot of the next generation of characters are of mixed ethnicity.  I don’t think I’ll be reading  them though because while I quite enjoyed it, I feel I’ve had my fill of the world Robinson created here.  Read it you like plenty of science and politics in your science fiction, oh and detail, lots of detail.

Ursula K Le Guin, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994)

I would normally give a book by Ursula an entire post, but I don’t have much to add to this review over at Randomly yours, Alex so you might as well just go and read that. It’s a nice little collection of stories, not her best and not one for readers new to her work, but to be enjoyed by fans of her Hainish Universe.

Liz Williams, Banner of Souls (2004)

“Dreams of War was hunting the remnants of men on the slopes of the Martian Olympus when she came across the herd of ghosts”.  Any book that opens with a line like that gets my attention. I wonder if Liz Williams got pissed off with 1970s utopian, feminist, science fiction because in this novel we’re presented with a dystopian matriarchy in which men have degenerated into vicious, animalistic creatures, but in which no utopia has resulted from their demise; the world Williams presents is relentlessly bleak.  If you like Gothic fiction and science fiction, it’s well worth a look because it’s very gothic indeed – check out the haunt tech, a technology that harnesses the power of the realm of the dead. Banner of Souls is readable, fantastically strange and imaginative, but low on emotional engagement and I can’t say I cared about any of the characters.  Read it for the gothic excess and interesting world-building, but not for character development.

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist (2004)

I have a feeling this isn’t the best place to start with Iain M Banks’s science fiction and I probably would have been better off with one of the Culture novels, but although I found The Algebraist quite a challenge in places, I also really enjoyed it.  The story is set in the Ulubis system, part of a galactic civilisation ruled over by the  hierarchal, artificial intelligence-hating, society of the Mercatoria. Ulubis is cut off from the rest of galactic civilisation by an act of terrorism that destroys its artificial wormhole.  A Mercatorial star ship sets out to bring a new one, but also on his way with a fleet of ships is the psychopathic leader of a dangerous cult that seeks to take over star systems. The main character Fassin Taak is an anthropologist who studies the ancient, and notoriously touchy, Dwellers, a “slow” species who live in the clouds of gas giants.  Fassin is given the mission of finding out the truth behind a myth that the Dwellers hold the key to a secret system of wormholes that could break the control of the Mercatoria. The Algebraist is a rambling, intelligent space opera and for me felt something like what might happen if Charles Dickens had written science fiction –  exuberant, over-the-top, full of larger-than-life and grotesque characters, lots of digressions, a narrative that jumps around all over the place, and an underlying political allegory. Fassin is rather bland, but I think he’s supposed to be that kind of “everyman” and the Dwellers are the real joy in terms of characterization in the novel.  On the downside, no interesting characters of colour in here, and while there were a couple of intriguing female characters, they didn’t get much of the story. Read it if you like big, meaty, complex science fiction novels, but don’t pick it up expecting an easy, quick read.

9 thoughts on “From Isaac Asimov to Iain M Banks: A Science Fiction reading round-up

  1. Of those I’ve only read Foundation, and Red Mars, both of which I enjoyed imenseley. It’s been years since i read Red Mars, i was probably in my early 20s the last time I read it. I need to read it again, and pay closer attention to many of the issues you brought up. Stanley Robinson has a new SF novel coming out later this year that I’m pretty excited for.

    • I enjoyed Red Mars and I’m glad I made the effort to read it, but it wasn’t really my kind of thing. Oddly, although I love reading popular science books, I’m not very keen on too much science detail in my fiction! I had the same problem with Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. 2013 does sound interesting though. As for Foundation, I’m not sure what makes it so much fun to read, but it is.

  2. You will find that the second and third Foundation novels do do women slightly better. I haven’t read them for years and years, but loved them when I did. I am glad you enjoyed your first Iain Banks – I find that sometimes in many of his books I just go with it for a bit, and I do love them. And I’m intending to read the two other Mars books, so will let you know!

    • Ha! I’m glad to hear Asimov makes a bit more effort with women as the series progresses. I wasn’t expecting awesome female characters from Foundation, but was amused to find almost no women of any description in there! I can see myself becoming a Banks fan and, yes, you can let me know about the rest of the Mars trilogy.

  3. The Bradbury story with “Negroes on Mars” hasn’t aged well, which is why he removed this episode (or a similar one) from later editions of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. However, the story needs to be considered in the context in which it was written. It predates the civil rights movement by a decade or more, and is as much a reaction AGAINST stereotypes as anything else. Few writers in the SF field were thinking about issues of race discrimination at that time; Bradbury had the foresight and courage to liberate African-Americans and send them off to Mars!

    Decades later, Bradbury reflected on the story and decided that it have been overtaken by events. He went so far as to claim that, in real life, it wasn’t space travel that offered liberation, but the automobile, which allowed African-Americans to get out of the south and head for the cities of the north to a degree never witnessed before. I don’t know whether this is a view which can be substantiated, however.

    • I’m not disputing that they are well-intentioned and anti-racist for stories written by a white man in the early 1950s, or against considering them in the context that they were written, but I don’t think that negates the fact that they come across as rather patronising and racist now. Although the stereotypes are of the arguably more benign – black people are cartoonish, childlike and innocent – variety, than more hostile racist stereotypes, the black people in the stories don’t really come across as characters.

      The story is still in the 2008 edition of the Martian Chronicles that I have, so if Bradbury took it out, it’s been put back in – it describes one character as having a “watermelon head” and the word “piccaninnies” is used, so it definitely feels rather racist now, whatever his intentions may have been. No it hasn’t aged well.

  4. Hello, have you read Judith Merril’s Daughters of Earth (1952)? I thought it might be something you’ll enjoy — I’ll review it in a day or so. A fascinating novella tracking the colonization of space through one woman’s family (inverting the normal 50s account of only male movers through a male’s line) — she even starts the story with “Martha begat Joan, Joan begat Ariadne…” inverting the Biblical trope. One of the most compelling and forceful feminist/revisionist takes on 50s science fiction — HIGHLY recommended. The story can be slightly hokey in the early 50s just emerging from pulp sense but a stunning read.

  5. (it’s in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) with two other novellas — Project Nursemaid (1955) — which is pretty good — about a Colonel is frantically interviewing woman trying to find some to take car of children raised in the low G-environment of the moon — and Homecalling (1956) which I haven’t read yet)

    • Ooh, no I haven’t read that, but it does sound like something I’d really enjoy. I’ll see if I can get hold of it. I do enjoy the macho 50s SF but it would be good to read a revisionist take. Thank you for the recommendation.

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