2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

The Books that 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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December Acquisitions

We didn’t buy each other any presents this year because we spent our December budget on going away for the holidays. However, any hopes that this decision would result in less stuff entering the house were quickly dashed by the presence of secondhand bookshops in the town where we stayed.

I was very pleased to pick up Elizabeth A. Lynn’s fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor (1979 – 80), which I mentioned in my post about her short stories. You’ll often see one of these in secondhand bookshops, but rarely all three together.

Lynn Trilogy

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Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories (1981)

Lynn0001

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.

Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.

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This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

From After Ellen, Whatever happened to the cast of But I’m a Cheerleader? This reminds me, actually, that I haven’t written a post about But I’m Cheeleader for my lesbian movie marathon series yet even though it’s one of my favourites.

Peter Bradshaw writes about Victim, the 1961 film that starred Dirk Bogarde and explored homophobia in a way that was remarkably direct for the time.

How science fiction cover art gots its pulpy sense of wonder. I do love pulpy science fiction cover art.

A post about Sarah Schulman, one of my favourite lesbian writers, and one who I don’t think gets enough critical attention

From Lambada Literary, the 20th anniversary of Jewelle Gomez’s lesbian vampire series, the Gilda stories. I still haven’t read these stories because they’re difficult to get hold of in the UK.

From Bad Reputation, a guest post by author Juliet Mckenna, The Representation of women in Fantasy: What’s the Problem?. It got a bit of a debate going in the comments.

From Geek Sugar, a list of science fiction and fantasy books that have been banned in the last two decades

From Tor.com, Five classic science fiction films steeped in noir

From The Guardian, an article asking, is there too much CGI in monster movies these days?

Also, from the Guardian, With Conan and The Thing back at the cinema it’s like 1982 all over again. I’m not happy about this latest fad for remaking almost every decent SF and fantasy film from the 1980s.

One for fans of Star Trek: Voyager, a video showing the amusing consequences of the show’s appearance on teen jeopardy

George R.R Martin & Lisa Tuttle, Windhaven (1981)

Written by two highly regarded authors working in genre fiction, Windhaven is a science fiction/fantasy novel of the kind that appeals to both young adults and regular adults.

The story is set on a planet predominantly covered by a vast, dangerous ocean, where the only land consists of a few scattered islands.  Some generations previously, a spaceship from Earth crashed on this planet.  The crew hoped to be rescued, but when their children grew up they rebelled against their parents, dismantled the space ship and used the material from which it was constructed to create wings that could be used by flyers to facilitate communication between the islands. These wings are passed down from parent to child. Thus the society of Windhaven becomes divided between the land-bound majority and a high-status flyer elite who serve the land-bound communities, but also remain above the law.

Windhaven is the story of large-scale social change seen through the eyes of one individual, Maris, the liminal figure who stands between the flyers and the land-bound.  Maris is the adopted daughter of a hereditary flyer who, despite her obvious skill in the sky, is ordered to give up the wings to his biological child, her younger brother who has no desire to fly.  Maris refuses to comply, steals the wings and calls a council of flyers to debate the issue.

The first part of the novel covers Maris’s upbringing and the council at which she succeeds in making a fundamental change to society, namely, that flyers must now compete with land-bound for the right to use the wings.  The second part of the story takes place a few years later as the effects of the changes really start to be felt and Maris, now a respected flyer, must deal with the consequences of her actions in the form of Val, a land-bound boy with no respect for flyer traditions whose actions attract the hatred of the hereditary flyers.  Val is one of the most vivid characters in the book, infuriating, utterly unsympathetic, but not necessarily wrong in principle; he challenges Maris to think about where her loyalties lie.  The third part of the book tells the story of Maris’s later years when she is yet again called to deal with a crisis that stems from the changes she caused in her society and this time it might claim her life.

It’s refreshing to read a book set in a society that’s not divided along the lines of gender – in Windhaven social life is divided by status as flyer or land-bound – and the authors make efforts to embed this throughout the narrative. Maris has lovers, but sex is no big deal.  It’s also refreshing to have a well-rounded, brave, female protagonist who is represented as having agency and being capable of bringing about social change, as well as taking responsibility for her actions.

The novel features the strong characters and detailed world-building that you would expect from Tuttle and Martin and, for a book written by two people the narrative is pretty seamless.  If I have any complaints, I think it could have been a little longer, with more time given to the stories of the minor characters – I would love to have heard more about Val’s later life from his perspective, but he diminishes in the third section of the book.  I found the ending told in epilogue a little abrupt and again, would have liked an ending which told me something more about how the society has developed since we last saw Maris and her friends.

Still, it’s a good read if you’re looking for some intelligent, easy-to-read, science fiction and fantasy that isn’t going to inflict any nasty surprises on the reader.  I think it would make a nice gift for teenage girls in particular.