2020 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

An ereader with the cover of Network Effect by Martha Wells. It shows Murderbot standing on top of a space ship.

2020 was the year of Murderbot. I actually read Martha Wells’s delightful series about a grumpy, rogue cyborg and its (not) friends twice during the course of this year. I particularly enjoyed the new novel-length installment, Network Effect, which begins with our hero on the planet of Preservation working for its favourite human, Dr Mensah. Tasked with protecting members of her family while on a research expedition, Murderbot is reunited with its old (not) friend, a ship A.I. known as ART (Asshole Research Transport) and encounters a range of threats, including alien remnants and the usual corporate baddies, all the while trying to stop the stupid humans from getting themselves killed. Wonderful, heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read this year. Book six, Fugitive Telemetry will be published in April.

A copy of Jo Walton's book My Real Children on a table. The cover is a picture of a woman sitting on a suitcase and facing the sea.

However, the prize for the best work of SFF that I read this year has to go to My Real Children (2014) by Jo Walton. I suppose the book could be categorised more as speculative fiction, or alternative history, than strictly science fiction. It has elements of fantasy too. This story about an elderly woman with dementia who realises that she can remember two different lives is so rich, powerful and multilayered. I loved it and I don’t generally like alternative histories. It’s just a brilliant novel about women’s lives. This was my first book by Jo Walton and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

My other favourite this year was Semiosis (2018) by Sue Burke. This is straight up science fiction which takes the classic and well-worn trope of humans trying to establish a colony on a hostile alien world and does something really fresh with it. The story is told over multiple generations of characters resulting in the feel of linked stories that are held together by the colony’s relationship with a sentient plant called Stevland. Great characters and worldbuilding and a narrative that enables Burke to tell different kinds of story. There’s even a murder mystery. I loved it.

I also re-read one of my old favourites A Closed and Common Orbit, the second in Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series.

The cover of Nalo Hopkinson's collection, Falling in Love with Homonids. It shows a picture of a woman with thick black hair floating above her head.

Another really good read was Nalo Hopkinson’s short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Some of the stories are a little closer to horror than I tend to like these days, but I really enjoyed them. The stories, which bring together the modern world with Afro Caribbean folklore, are thought provoking and powerfully imaginative. Some of them have really stayed with me since reading the collection. Check her out if you like short stories by Neil Gaimen, Kelly Link and even Stephen King.

My hand holding a copy of the Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF. The cover if a picture of people looking at a time travel machine.

The only anthology I read this year was The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) edited by Mike Ashley. I love a time travel story and most of the ones collected here are good, so I enjoyed it, although I did notice the lack of authorial diversity on offer. However, a few of the stories are absolutely superb and ‘Red Letter Day’ by Kathryn Kristine Rusch will haunt me forever!

I also read and enjoyed two works of high fantasy, although its very far from being my favourite genre. I found Babara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (1985) hugely enjoyable. Set in an alternative medieval Scotland, a witch called Jenny Waynest and her partner, John Avesin, a noted dragonslayer, are persuaded by a young man to go back to his kingdom and kill a dragon. Of course they find that there are far worse things than dragons! A cracking fantasy adventure with a middle-aged couple at its heart which manages to say something quite profound about women and power.

The other work of high fantasy (and the oldest book I read in this genre) was The Dancers of Arun (1979) which is the second in Elizabeth A Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy. I didn’t like it as much as the first one, Watchtower. The characters weren’t as interesting to me and the protagonist has a relationship which is, how shall I put it? … extremely slashy! But like all Lynn’s work it’s so beautifully written that it just carries you along. I probably will read the third book.

Moving on to books that didn’t work so well for me, there was the final installment in Theodora Goss’s Athena Club trilogy, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). I loved the first book and liked the second but I’m not sure how I feel about the third. I quite enjoyed reading it and, in a way, I think it’s the tightest of the trilogy. Alice is a delight of a character. However, there were issues, including an evil ancient Egyptian woman (did we need this really?), a weird valorisation of the British empire (why?) and a painfully clunky romance between the protagonist and Sherlock Holmes. I’m sorry, but if you want to involve Sherlock Holmes in a heterosexual romance you need to do a LOT of work to develop that and make it work, not just throw it in with hardly a conversation between the characters and hope for the best. Overall, I found it a rather disappointing end to a trilogy that started out with a lot of potential.

A copy of Melmoth by Sarah Perry lying on a table. It has a black cover with a gold embossed pattern.

Then there were two books which might have disappointed me more because they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype than anything else! I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens (2019) enjoyable to read in the sense that it was very clever and had glittering prose, but it felt like more style than substance to me. Although the modern part of the story had some moving and powerful moments, the Tudor bits never really worked for me and got increasingly messy as it went on. Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry also rather disappointed me. It’s very well-written, but it just had this tone of “I am using genre fiction in a clever way to convey very imporant points about history”. I felt like I was being thumped around the head. Both left me rather cold. It seems odd to be putting such lauded books on my ‘disappointing’ pile but there you go.

An ereader showing the cover of A Memory Called Empire. It shows a figure approaching an enormous spiked throne.

Finally, I’m sad to say that I did not enjoy Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019). I was looking forward to this book. An ambassador getting involved in intrigue on an alien world sounds like just my kind of thing. Great ideas, but personally I found the characters and the world increasingly dull as it progressed.The only character I liked was dead for most of the story. I slogged all the way to the end and it felt like a very long haul for not much reward. Everyone else seemed to LOVE it though, so don’t let me put you off. Perhaps I’m just missing something with this one.

So overall, a mixed bag for science fiction and fantasy in 2020. Looking forward to more dragons, space ships, aliens and rogue cyborgs in 2021.

#20BooksofSummer Book Three – Mike Ashley (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013)

My hand holding a copy of the Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF. The cover is an image of a time travel maching being built.

I bought The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF after seeing it recommended by Jo Walton in her regular Tor.com reading list column. I LOVE time travel stories, so I was really looking forward to reading this anthology.

The overall quality of the stories does not disappoint. Some are excellent and a lot are very good. But I was surprised by the lack of diversity represented in the authors contributing to this anthology. Out of twenty five stories, seven are written by women and, as far as I can tell, no authors of colour are included. That might be unsurprising for a book from the 1960s or something, but this anthology was published in 2013 and the majority of the contributors are older white men. Yes, they are mostly good stories, but I’m sure there are plenty of stories about time travel written by a diverse range of authors, which are just as good and would bring more richness and variety to the perspectives on time travel presented here. I mean, there are a lot of stories about middle-aged white men either trying to change the past or stop the past being changed. So that’s a major weakness in my view, but what about the stories that are included? I’ll start with my favourites.

There are three stories that use time travel brilliantly to explore feminist themes. ‘Time Gypsy’ by Ellen Klages is an absolute delight which also manages to make serious points about the history of homophobia. It’s a feminist, lesbian time travel romp in which a scientist is sent back in time to retrieve the work of a researcher who died in a freak accident. There’s a great twist. ‘Scream Quietly’ by Sheila Crosby is about a Victorian woman who uses time travel to escape an abusive marriage. Wait for the pay off! Molly Bram’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Cataclysm’ is a sharp and funny take on alternative timelines as an artist tries to get back to her own time by travelling through a range of possibilities where she meets her increasingly alarming alternative selves.

Then there are several stories that pack quite an emotional punch. Liz Williams’s ‘Century to Starboard’ is a truly haunting story about a luxury cruise ship lost in time, sailing helplessly into an ever more distant future. ‘Die Tomorrow’ by Simon Clark is a stunning meditation on grief in which a man mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter latches onto the possibility of changing the past. I was bawling by the end. ‘After Images’ by Malcom Edwards is a powerful story about a man contemplating the end as he waits trapped in a moment of time between the ignition of the atom bomb and the end of the world. ‘In the Beginning, Nothing Lasts’ by Mike Stahom is a quietly devestating story in which people not only age backwards, but have to live their lives again in reverse. In this story about mistakes and regret, a woman waits for the resurrection of her son who died in a childhood accident.

I also loved Sean McMullen’s ‘Walk to the Full Moon’ which features an encounter between contemporary humans and a time travelling band of homo heidelbergensis. It’s about different types of intelligence and also a sweet love story. One of my favourite time travel stories (not included here) is Terry Bisson’s ‘Scout’s Honor’ which is about Neanderthals, so it’s nice to see homo heidelbergensis getting a look in,

The final story in the anthology, ‘Red Letter Day’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is also one of the very best. It was voted most popular story by Analog the year it was published and you can see why. Every year, on Red Letter Day, teenagers receive a letter from their selves written thirty five years in the future. It might be a letter of encouragement. It might contain a warning. The protagonist is a school counsellor tasked with looking after the kids who don’t receive a letter, a difficult job she has taken on because she never received one. Now she’s just a few years away from the year when she will have the chance to write one, so why didn’t she? I’m sure most of us have wondered whether we would take the opportunity to send a message back in time to our younger selves, but would it do more harm than good? ‘Red Letter Day’ is a tremendous story about the unfixed nature of destiny and our ability to change the future.

There were a number of other stories that didn’t blow my mind but I enjoyed and thought were very good. ‘The Truth about Weena’ is a witty response to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but is probably more fun if you’ve read the novel, which I haven’t. ‘The Wind over the World’ by Steven Utley is a bleak story about a future in which we are able to send people back to the Siluran age. It’s really about survivor guilt. ‘Darwin’s Suitcase’ by Elizabeth Malartre has Charles Darwin being confronted by a young man who wants to change the past, but can he convince the great scientist not to publish his next book? Fritz Leiber’s ‘Try and Change the Past’ from 1957 is the oldest story in the anthology. It suggests changing the past would be harder than we might like to think. ‘Needle in a Time Stack’ by Robert Silverberg is also about changing the past, but this time features a man trying to stop someone from meddling in his own past and ruining his life. ‘Real Time’ is a hard-hitting, ambiguous story about a time cop trying to stop changes to the time line … or is he? ‘Legions of Time’ by Michael Swanick is an interesting story about a woman who finds herself recruited to fight in a time war. ‘Twember’ by Steve Rasnic Tem is a melancholy story about a future in which the world is plagued by moving time anomalies that do terrible damage to the people caught up in them. ‘The Chronology Protection Case’ by Paul Levinson’ considers the possibly of what the time continuum might do to protect itself from human interference.

Then there were some which just didn’t connect. ‘Coming Back’ by Damien Broderick, ‘The Very Slow Time Traveller’ by Ian Watson and ‘Traveller’s Rest’ by David Morris where not my thing (the Watson one is probably really good if you like very long, dense, complicated stories). I’m dubious about the inclusion of ‘The Catch’ by Kage Baker. It’s a good story, but if you haven’t read the Company novels (I have) you will be a bit lost and won’t feel the emotional impact. My biggest NOPE, though was ‘The Pusher’ by John Varley. The story plays on the suggestion that the protagonist is a predatory paedophile. Don’t worry, he isn’t, but it’s very uncomfortable to read and it made me feel manipulated as a reader and that seemed to be the point, which I didn’t like. Christopher Priest’s ‘Palely Loitering’ is beautifully written, but I found it overlong. It also features the tired theme of a rather unpleasant male character pursuing an idealised mystery woman who he thinks he deserves. I could have lived without it.

So, overall, a very enjoyable read, but it definitely could have done with more authorial diversity and some of the stories could easily have been replaced with others to achieve this end.

Barbara Hambly, ‘Dragonsbane’ (1985)

Dragonsbane begins in the bleak Winterlands, with a witch named Jenny Waynest meeting Gareth, a young nobleman who is seeking Lord John Aversin, a legendary dragon slayer. There is a dragon terrorizing the Southlands and Gareth has come to ask for Lord John’s help, with offer of a reward from the king. But when Jenny takes Gareth to meet his hero, he’s in for a shock. The famous Dragonsbane is a middle-aged, bespectacled scholar who is responsible for overseeing a small, muddy town. It’s true that he killed a dragon years ago, but by poisoning it and then sneaking up to hack it to death with an axe. John and Jenny are also long-term lovers and have two children together, much to Gareth’s disapproval. However, they agree to go with Gareth on the condition that the king will help them to defend their town against the bandits who plague the Winterlands.

But all is not as it seems. Gareth hasn’t been completely honest with them and the dragon seems to be a particularly ancient and powerful one. Worse still, there may be something even more dangerous than a dragon waiting for them in the shape of the sorcoress, Zyerne, who has wormed her way into the king’s affections and household.

Zyerne is seeking a source of magical power hidden deep in the caves of the gomes where the dragon has taken up residence. Jenny’s powers are average at best, and John isn’t much of a warrior, but they will have to find a way to defeat the dragon and prevent Zyerne from getting what she wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has her own internal battle to fight with the temptations and the price of power.

I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, but I really enjoyed Dragonsbane. It’s a pacy, exciting read and the real strength is in the characters. Jenny and John are delightful protagonists. It’s so refreshing to have an older, experienced hero and heroine who have a healthy, adult relationship with each other. Gareth, the young, awkward man, trying to be a warrior, is also very endearing.

And then there’s the dragon. Morkeleb is the best dragon I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel since reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. A complex alien being with his own needs and desires, I loved him.

I had one problem with Dragonsbane and that’s the representation of Zyerne. The novel is clearly working through its own ambivalence about female power, and when it comes to Zyerne, this ambivalence tips over into outright misogny. Without giving too much away, the character is a one-dimensional villain who uses ‘sexy’ wiles (of course) to get her way. There’s no attempt to give her any nuance or complexity, or to really dig into her motivations. She just wants power, so she’s evil. I felt this could have been much better done.

But overall, I found Dragonsbane a very enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ll be checking out the sequels. Recommended if you’re looking for a fantasy world to sink into.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.

The Albums that Made Me #5 – John Williams, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (soundtrack) (1982)

The second John Williams soundtrack to make it onto the list of music I was listening to during my most formative years.

My mum took me to see E.T. at the cinema when it came out. I would have been about 6 years old. I found it scary and upsetting and only really liked the bit when the kids’ bikes take flight. I was too young and sensitive for this movie and I don’t know what my mum was thinking. I’ve never actually watched it again!

However, I did absolutely love the soundtrack and nagged my parents until they bought me the cassette. I have clear memories of putting it in our old cassette player in the kitchen and dancing up and down the room.

It’s another beautiful, sweeping score, but as with the Star Wars soundtrack, I don’t think I could bear to listen to this now. The emotions would be too overwhelming.

Top track: Flying theme

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time (2015)

In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species.  She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world.  But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….

A long, long time passes.

Continue reading

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.

 

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.

 

 

 

The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.

 

 

400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.

 

 

I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.

 

 

Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.

 

Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.

 

 

I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.

Non-Fiction

Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.

 

I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.

 

 

 

The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Food

The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

How The Left Hand of Darkness Changed Everything

Lovely article by Becky Chambers about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’m currently re-reading for about the millionth time, How The Left Hand of Darkness Changed Everything.

I’ve got Chambers’s own third novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few, saved to read over Christmas.

The Albums that Made Me #2: Star Wars (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) 1977

By John Williams

Like many Gen Xers I’m completely imprinted on the original Star Wars trilogy and the music that accompanies it.

I decided to make this soundtrack the second entry on my list because I have no memory of when I first started listening to it. The overwhelming emotional effect that it has on me feels like something that predates language and psychological defense mechanisms! It’s almost too exciting. My parents were fans of the film and we had the album on vinyl as far back as I can remember, so it was probably playing in our house from around 1978.

The music is incredibly beautiful and stirring and is, in many ways, what makes the film brilliant. Orchestral soundtracks would never be the same

I’m sure it fueled my imagination and love of science fiction, but I don’t think I could sit down and listen to the Star Wars soundtrack now. I might have a nervous breakdown or something!

Top track: Main Theme

Babylon 5 – ‘Sleeping in Light’

Twitter reminded me that today is the twentieth broadcast anniversary of the final episode of Babylon 5, ‘Sleeping in Light‘. The episode is set twenty years in the future and follows John Sheridan and his friends as they prepare for his death while, at the same time, the station is being decommissioned.

I remember crying all day after watching ‘Sleeping in Light’. But I was crying in a good ‘I’m sad but satisfied’ kind of way. If I have any criticism of the episode, I feel it’s a little self-indulgent about Sheridan. I would also have very much liked to find out what happened to Lyta and Lennier, but they may have been planning to tell those stories in spin-offs and sequels that never happened. Still, it’s a beautiful finale that respects the integrity of the characters and the story and, overall, feels right.

I owe a lot to Babylon 5. It got me through some difficult times in my early twenties. At one point, I had terrible insomnia and the only way I could get to sleep was to put on an episode and watch until I dropped off.

As well as being an absolute masterpiece of character-driven arc storytelling, I think Babylon 5 proves that a strong creator can engage thoughtfully with the fans and maintain artistic integrity, without ever becoming emotionally manipulative, exploitative or even abusive.

Now that it really is twenty years later, Babylon 5 is still a story I can return to and rely on to be there for me when I need it and that’s really precious.

Perhaps its time for a re-watch.

New Books

I got some expenses back from work and decided to spend it on books, all of which happen to be part of series.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries (Murderbot #2)

I enjoyed the first one and everybody raves about Murderbot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) 

I read Ancillary Justice ages ago and keep meaning to continue with the series.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightening (The Sixth World #1)

This is a new one. I saw people talking about it online and thought it sounded like fun.

Star Trek TOS: ‘The Devil in the Dark’

Twitter informed me that the Star Trek episode ‘The Devil in the Dark’ (1967) was first aired fifty-one years ago on 9th March 1967.  This reminded me that it’s probably my favourite episode from the original series.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a mining planet where the miners are under attack from a terrifying alien creature that lives in the depths of the tunnels.

I adore ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and think it brings together the elements that make Star Trek great.

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2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

1. Books I Loved

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony.  As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together.  I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `

A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances.   Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible.  The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)

Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall.  This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.

Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)

Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course.  The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end).  It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.

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What lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-century nuns

I saw the new Ghostbusters with my 11-year-old daughter. It was the first movie she’d ever seen in which a team of female heroes are never subjected to the male gaze—in which they are always the agent, never the possessed. It was the first movie like that I’d ever seen, too.

There is spirit possession in the new Ghostbusters: you’ve seen one scene in the trailers, where one of the Ghostbusters is briefly possessed an evil ghost but quickly saved by one of her colleagues. Female friendship, female cooperation, is enough here to drive out evil. When women’s bodies are the battleground, women just as quickly become the warriors. Nor are women uniquely susceptible to possession: the hunky male receptionist is possessed, too, and must be saved.

The first Ghostbusters movie suggested to boys that if they just hung around long enough, women would see that their other options for possession were far worse than just giving in. The newGhostbusters movie tells girls that there’s another option. They can possess themselves.

What Lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-Century nuns

There’s always room for another story

And there’s lots of room for just—I hate to say hack writing—I guess ordinary storytelling is really what I mean. There’s always room for another story. There’s always room for another tune, right? Nobody can write too many tunes. So if you have stories to tell and can tell them competently, then somebody will want to hear it if you tell it well at all. To believe that there is somebody who wants to hear that story is the kind of confidence a writer has to have when they’re in the period of learning their craft and not selling stuff and not really knowing what they’re doing.

Ursula K le Guin, Interview Magazine

Read the the whole thing. It’s great.

Elizabeth A. Lynn, ‘A Different Light’ (1978)

In a future in which most hereditary diseases have been cured, Jimson Allecca is one of the unlucky ones. His rare form of cancer is treatable only as long as he stays on the colony world of New Terrain. To leave the planet, he’d have to get on a star ship and go for a ride through The Hype. Doing this would quickly and fatally accelerate his condition.

Jimson is a celebrated artist with a privileged life, but he decides that his desire to experience “a different light” is more important than reaching old age. He undergoes a sinister telepathic examination and receives permission to leave New Terrain.  While hanging around in Port City, looking for a ship to take him off-world, he meets Leiko Tamura, an-out-of-work pilot who becomes his lover. Leiko introduces him to the Port Bar, Rin’s, where he meets Ysao, an engineer and a giant of a man.

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Nicola Griffith, Slow River (1995)

In a final, desperate bid for survival, Frances Lorien Van de Oest, heiress to a vast fortune, escapes from her kidnappers and finds herself thrust, naked and bleeding, onto the cold dark streets of an unknown city. There, she is picked up by a charismatic thief named Spanner and reborn as Lore, someone for whom identity has become a fractured, shifting, untrustworthy thing.

Slow River unfolds gradually. The opening narrative, told by Lore in the first person, is set three years after the kidnap, and a few months after her breakup with Spanner. The second narrative tells the story of life with Spanner, beginning immediately after Lore escapes from the kidnappers. The third follows her upbringing, at two year intervals, from the age of five until she is abducted. This triple narrative structure creates a powerful sense of momentum. Lore’s stories move forward in parallel towards a point of convergence, both in terms of time and self.

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SF Link Round-up

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SF Link Round-up

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Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)

“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.

A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence.  These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.

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2013 in Science/ Speculative Fiction

Top 5 Novels

I can’t pick an overall favourite because I loved them all for different reasons.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)
Despite the objections of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, a postgraduate history student called  Kivrin insists on travelling back in time to the fourteenth century. I don’t know how a Medievalist would respond to Willis’s depiction of the period, but not being a Medievalist myself I just enjoyed it as a great story about death which managed to be entertaining and profound at the same time.

Nancy Kress, Steal across the Sky (2009)
Aliens set up a base on the moon and state their intention to atone for a crime committed against humanity by their ancestors.  This is a lovely little novel which takes the question of belief in the afterlife as its starting point. If we could prove the existence of an afterlife, how would this knowledge change us and our world?  I enjoyed it enough to forgive the ‘dead gay best-friend’, even though that’s a trope I particularly loathe.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)
More time-travelling historians in this charming, delightful, fluffy romance. I would definitely recommend reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) beforehand and you’ll have to leave your feminism at the front cover if you want to enjoy it fully.

Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite (1993)
But if you do want some feminist science fiction, look no further than Ammonite. A researcher travels to the mysterious planet called Jeep where a virus wiped out all the male colonists hundreds of years ago.  Somehow the remaining women have found a way to survive and reproduce. This is an intense and profound book about self-discovery.

Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden (1997)
This is the first in Baker’s popular ‘Company’ series about cyborgs who are employed by a mysterious company to manipulate the past. It’s very funny and deadly serious at the same time.  I can’t wait to read the next one.

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A SF and Pop Culture Round-up

Everyone’s been tweeting this article, I Hate Strong Female Characters. Sophia Mcdougall seems to have articulated something that a lot of people have been feeling.

On a related note, Anne Billson posted about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the scarcity of female role models

This is an interesting post from NPR’s blog, At the Movies: The Women are Gone. It makes the important point that the lack of women in the movies has nothing to do with the popularity or income-generating potential of women-centred movies:

They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by “we,” I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says “win some, lose some” and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every “surprise success” about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.

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The 10 short stories that got me into reading science fiction

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek.  I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old.  A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those nineties SF shows.

Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre.  When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.

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