Revisiting The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) – Hainish Cycle re-read #4

My battered copy of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin.

‘Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling’

The left hand of darkness, p.1

Eleven years ago, I published a post about one of my favourite books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), by Ursula K Le Guin. I don’t disagree with anything I said back then, but it does strike me that in mainly focusing, as most people do, on its famous treatment of gender and sexuality, I failed to write about what it is that I personally love about this book. So that’s what I want to try and capture now, as I revisit Le Guin’s first masterpiece for my Hainish Cycle re-read.

The Left Hand of Darkness is presented to the reader as a package of documents made up of reports, diaries, myths, and legends. The narrative begins with a report from a young ‘Mobile’ named Genli A. about his experiences on the icy planet that his people call Winter, or Gethen. As a representative of the Ekumen, a peaceful federation of worlds, his job is to introduce the Gethenians to the Ekumen and encourage them to become members. Young, inexperienced, and despite his claims to objectivity, clearly unsettled by the Gethenian’s unusual biology – if you don’t already know, the Gethenians only take on sexed roles when they are in the kemmer phase of their reproductive cycle, remaining sexually neuter the rest of the time (read the previous post for more). In any case, it is apparent to the reader that Genli’s understanding of Gethen and its people is partial at best.  

He is hoping to get a meeting with the King of Karhide, which is being arranged by a Gethenian called Estraven, someone he considers an ally, but doesn’t entirely trust. Estraven is a powerful and rather mysterious individual who occupies a position something like a Prime Minister, so Genli is dismayed when he* invites him to dinner and tells him that he can no longer help him with his mission.

“I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the ice-age of an alien world’ p. 14.

Feeling betrayed, Genli goes to the interview with the king, only to find that Estraven has been declared a traitor and banished from the domain. His ambitions in ruins, Genli sets out to the neighbouring, and highly bureaucratic, domain of Orgoreyn, where he hopes to have better luck with his mission.

The narrative is then picked up by Estraven who is trying to escape from Karhide with his life. It quickly becomes clear that Genli has many things wrong about both Estraven and the Gethenians, and is probably walking into a dangerous trap in Orgoreyn.

From this point on, there are just so many wonderful things in The Left Hand of Darkness. The haunting myths and legends that punctuate the narrative. Genli’s strange encounter with Foretellers where he gets an answer to his question, ‘Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of known worlds, five years from now?’ Then there is the horrible but riveting journey over the mountains in a prison van after Genli is arrested in Orgoreyn, followed by his dramatic rescue from the prison camp by Estraven, with everything culminating in their terrifying, exhilarating journey across the Gobrin ice sheet.

‘We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge runners, put on our skis, and took off down north, onward, into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather, and we laughed with joy’’. p. 179.

As it progresses, Left Hand’s narrative journey is really about travelling inwards, about being stripped right back to the core of who you are. It is only at the point when everything else has been stripped away, that Genli can break through his own socially constructed defences and realise the truth:

“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man’. p. 202.

He is finally able to open himself to their relationship, ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’ (p. 203).

I think this is why I return to The Left Hand of Darkness over and over again; it is a real love story, an intense and compelling relationship between two people from which truth emerges. Genli does ultimately achieve his goal, but there is no happy ending. The Left Hand of Darkness is ultimately a tragedy, if a hopeful one.

This novel was a huge leap forward for Le Guin. Her earlier Hainish books are certainly enjoyable, but Left Hand is in an entirely different league of writing. The world building is superb. Gethen is so detailed and fully realised; Le Guin has created a world that feels alien, but also familiar. The cold, the cities, the people, the food, even the vehicles, all feel real. And then the way she conveys information about this world is so skilful. Despite having to impart an entire planet’s history and culture in a short book, there is no sense of “info dumping”.  Le Guin cleverly uses myths and legends, reports, and dialogue to tell us what we need to know.

This brings me to the conclusion that The Left Hand of Darkness is really a story about the act of storytelling itself. It is full of people telling us stories and it ends with a child’s request for a story, “Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars?’’ It is as if, at this moment, Genli and le Guin have become one. After all, she would spend the rest of her life responding to our desire for stories of other people, other lives, other worlds.

A book that I’m sure I will continue to revisit regularly throughout my life.

*I use the pronoun ‘he’ in this post because that’s what Le Guin does in the book. But there’s plenty of discussion about this if you’re interested, including later attempts to address it by the author herself.

References are to my edition published by Orbit Books in 1992.

Science Fiction reading round-up

The one that really got me excited

My ereader showing the cover of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez. It shows a space ship and a planet.

Simon Jimenez’s debut novel, The Vanished Birds (2020), is the first new voice in science fiction to get me excited since Becky Chambers published The Long Way to the Small Angry Planet. I’m not even sure how to describe this book, but I found it quite astonishing, as well as very accomplished and ambitious for a first novel. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but is also entirely its own thing. A great story, but also an allegory about capitalism, colonialism and, most powerfully I thought, about healing childhood trauma. There is an exploration of the price, in human suffering, of new technologies which feels like a response to Le Guin’s famous story, ‘The ones who walk away from Olemas’. It’s not perfect. It feels a little unwieldy and a touch self-indulgent in places, but what an imagination and wonderfully vivid characters. His next book, The Spear Cuts Through Water (2022), is epic fantasy, which is not at all my thing, but based on The Vanished Birds, I’ll be giving it a go because I really want to see what Jimenez will do next.

The one that I finally got around to reading

My ereader showing the cover of The Martian by Andy Weir. It shows a picture of Matt Damon in the movie version wearing a space suit.

I’m always a bit wary of books that have been overhyped, but in the case of The Martian (2014), I was not at all disappointed. I found it a delight. Hilariously funny, emotionally engaging, exciting and interesting too. The narrative shifts between Mark Watney on Mars, Nasa and the perspective of his crewmates on the ship, do feel a little clunky, but who cares when you’re having this much fun. I can see The Martian becoming a comfort book to return to on rainy days when I’m feeling a little under the weather. And I enjoyed the film adaptation too.

The favourite series

My ereader showing the cover of Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells. It shows Murderbot in its armour walking beside a much taller 'bot'.

I re-read the entire Murderbot series three times during lockdown. The sixth instalment, Fugitive Telemetry (2021) is a prequel to the previous novel and a little murder mystery. It’s not one of the best in the series, but I enjoyed it.

The favourite author

Three books by Becky Chambers! The Galaxy and the Ground Within (2021) is the last (hmm we’ll see) in the beloved Wayfarers series. If you liked the others, you should enjoy this one too. If you don’t like Becky Chambers, it will not persuade you otherwise. It’s a lovely story about a group of strangers who are thrown together by circumstances. Her novella, To be Taught if Fortunate (2019), is something completely different. This is a much harder, darker story about space exploration. It’s the first book by Chambers to really upset me in places and the ending is ambiguous. It’s very good, though, and the themes reminded me a little of the movie, Interstellar, only it’s much better. A Psalm for the Wild Built (2020) is the absolute opposite of ‘To be Taught’, a gentle parable about a monk and a robot. This is the first book by Chambers that hasn’t chimed with me. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s thoughtful and comforting, but somehow didn’t engage me and I probably won’t read the rest of this particular series. But it’s good to see Chambers trying different things.

The one that pleasantly surprised me

My ereader showing the cover of Embers of War by Gareth Powell.  It shows a space ship flying towards a planet with a smaller moon.

I think I bought this because it was cheap on Kobo. I didn’t expect much, but ended up enjoying Gareth Powell’s Embers of War (2018) quite a lot. I do like a sentient warship and this is just an entertaining, fast-paced space opera.

What next?

So that’s my last six months in science fiction, apart from re-reads of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin, which I’ll write about separately.

I’ve got some slightly older stuff on the go at the moment, Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh (this one is serious business!) and two books from 2005, the second in Julie E Czerneda’s ‘Species Imperative‘ series and the first in Jody Lynn Nye’s ‘Wolfe pack‘ comedy military SF series.

Julie E. Czerneda, ‘Survival’ Species Imperative #1(2004)

Set in the not-so-distant future, Survival is a SF bio-punk mystery and the first in Czerneda’s Species Imperative series.

Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who studies salmon at a research institute on the pacific coast of North America. Mac is surprised when she receives an honoured visitor, Brymn, the first Drhyn to come to Earth. She is even more surprised when he demands that she leave Earth and help him investigate a mystery.

Brymn is an archeologist who has been studying an area of space known as the ‘Chasm’ where all life has disappeared, although there is evidence that it once existed there. Brymn is concerned that whatever happened in the Chasm is starting to happen again. He also believes that his own species must have originated there and may hold the answer. However, the study of biology is forbidden to the Dhryn so he needs to get help from a biologist.

Mac, who has no interest in leaving Earth and her salmon, is unimpressed. But then the research institute comes under attack from mysterious invisible aliens known as the Ro who are enemies of the Dryhn and may be responsible for what happened in the Chasm. This persuades Mac to agree to Brymn’s request. They almost don’t get away as they are attacked again and Mac is horrified to discover that her best friend Emily is apparently in league with the Ro! She then begins what will be a very strange journey to the Dhryn homeworld and beyond.

The first third of this book is pretty slow. Honestly, I found it rather boring. I considered giving up, but the fun aliens and the interesting mystery kept me reading. Survival came to life once Mac left Earth and I’m glad I persevered with it. I loved the journey with Mac trying to survive on a ship with aliens who don’t even understand that humans need water.

The Drhyn home world is really well done. Mac discovers that Dhryn move through stages of life taking on different forms as they age. The transition can go wrong with horrific consequences and this seems to be the source of the Dhryn taboo on studying their own biology. Mac and Brymn find evidence that the Drhyn did indeed originate in the Chasm and after another devastating attack by the Ro, they make their way to a lifeless planet that must be the original Drhyn home world, where a horrific revelation awaits them.

Survival is well-written, has an interesting mystery and great aliens. The story and the worldbuilding are very good. The best character by far is the alien scientist, Brymn, who is just delightful. The biggest weakness is the human characters. Mac is alright, but rather one-dimensional. Nick, her love interest, is a cardboard cut out of a character and the book improves a lot once he’s removed from the narrative. Emily is probably the most interesting, but we don’t see much of her. A couple of the side characters are also good, but only make brief appearances.

Despite some weaknesses, overall I enjoyed Survival. It was refreshing to read something that’s quite slow and sedate. I’ll definitely read the next book in the trilogy and explore more of Czernada’s work.

The worldbuilding and style of storytelling reminded me of Babylon 5 so maybe give Czerneda a go if you enjoyed that show.

Ursula K Le Guin, City of Illusions (1967) – Hainish cycle re-read #3

‘I will tell you what I believe about you. I think you come from a lost world; I think you were not born on Earth. I think you came here, the first alien to return in a thousand years or more, bringing us a message or a sign’.

City of Illusions, p. 230.

And so I come to City of Illusions, the last book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy. The end of the beginning, you might say. The last time I read this book, I remember it as the one I liked least. Did that change on re-reading? No and yes. It’s still my least favourite, but I was much more impressed the second time around and I would now say that it’s the most ambitious of the three.

City of Illusions begins on Earth. A family living in an isolated area discover a naked man in the woods who has no memory. His amber eyes suggest that he is not entirely human. They take him in and call him Falk. Over the next few years, he learns to speak and function like a human, but still can’t remember his past.

During this time, we find out that the ‘League of All Worlds’, referenced in Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, has been broken and Earth is said to be under the control of a mysterious alien race known as the Shing who rule from a city called Es Toch. Zove, the old man of the house, believes that Falk may have come to Earth from an alien world founded by the ancient Leage before the fall. Determined to find out who he is, Falk decides to leave his friends and travel alone to the city.

About half of the book is taken up with Falk’s journey. He meets an old man in the forest who helps him. He is robbed by others. For a while, he is imprisoned in the camp of a violent group called the Bainaisha where he meets a woman called Estrel with whom he escapes. Estrel claims to be a wanderer who has been to Es Toch and tells him there is nothing to fear from the Shing. They become lovers although Falk senses there is something not quite right about her. Everyone he meets on his journey seems to give him mysterious, coded advice that he doesn’t really understand!

When they eventually arrive at Es Toch, Falk finds (rather unsurprisingly) that he has been betrayed by Estrel who was working for the Shing all along. This is conveyed in a long, hallucinatory sequence, from which Falk awakes to find himself in the hands of the Shing. They claim that they are ‘men’, not aliens, and that they sent Estrel to rescue him after he lost his memory in the ‘accident’ that destroyed his ship. He is introduced to a boy called Orry, the only other survivor of the crash who has been raised by the Shing. They claim that they want to help him remember his past, but unfortunately the procedure will destroy the Falk personality when his previous self is restored.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Falk is quickly convinced that his hosts are sinister alien creatures masquerading as humans. They are suppressing the human population through a combination of terror, drugs and manipulation. He guesses that they probably want to find out where his home planet is so that they can attack it. But he agrees to undergo the restoration procedure in the hope that he will be strong enough to hold onto his memories of being Falk.

His real name, it turns out, is Agad Ramarren, and he is a descendant of Jacob Agat and Rolery from Planet of Exile. Generations later, their people finally left the planet in search of Earth and the League who abandoned them. Somehow, the Falk personality survives the restoration and now the two personalities must work together to escape the Shing and return to warn their homeworld.

My problem with City of Illusions remains the same as the last time I read it. It is a book full of ideas, but unfortunately ideas trump the character development and storytelling that are Le Guin’s strengths as a writer. The characters are not very well developed or interesting and it feels more like a series of scenes strung together rather than a coherent story. It’s like Le Guin is showing off what she can do and it’s a little too much.

But, reading it again, I did feel more impressed by her ambition here. I can see now that City of Illusions is very influenced by the new wave of science fiction with its hallucinatory qualities, it’s focus on subjectivity and the self, what’s real and what isn’t, and its attempt to push the envelope. Le Guin will pick up some of these themes again, more or less successfully, in her most new wave novel, The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Looking back on this early trilogy from the perspective of someone who has read all the Hainish stories, I say again that one of the most impressive things about this whole trilogy is what it reveals about Le Guin’s process as a writer. She had an ability to recognise and develop her own good ideas and drop the weaker ones. From these books, we get the ansible, mind speech and the beginnings of the Ekumen, all of which will become foundations of the world building in later masterpieces like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions are still very much worth reading, both as entertaining science fiction stories in their own right and for what they show us of a great writer’s early development. If you’re new to Le Guin, though, I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

This post is the third in my Hainish cycle re-read.

Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Rocannon’s World (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #1

Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World, is one of those books that now feels more interesting for what it shows us about the development of a great writer, rather than for itself. If Le Guin had published nothing else, I think it would have been forgotten, except perhaps by the most dedicated of science fiction afficionados. This isn’t to say Rocannon’s World is bad – it isn’t – but when you compare it to masterpieces like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, it feels simplistic and underdeveloped. Still, it has good qualities and you can see Le Guin starting to find her voice as a science fiction writer. This book is the first in a loose trilogy of early ‘Hainish’ novels, along with Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967).

Rocannon’s World opens with a prologue, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, which was first published in 1964 as a short story called “Dowry of the Angyar”. A young woman called Semley leaves her pre-industrial, low-tech planet to retrieve a necklace for her dowry, which has fallen into the hands of a galactic power called the League of All Worlds and is being displayed in one of their museums. There she meets Rocannon who gives her the necklace. The story ends in tragedy because Semley cannot foresee the implications of faster than light space travel and returns to find her husband long dead and her baby daughter a young woman. Driven mad by grief, Semley disappears into the forest. ‘Semley’s Necklace’ is a haunting story in which we can already see themes that will feature throughout Le Guin’s work.

Rocannon later goes on an ethnological mission to this unnamed planet, where he discovers that an enemy of the League of All Worlds has established a military base and is killing its people. Rocannon’s ship is destroyed by this enemy and he finds himself alone with no way to contact the League and warn them, unless he can gain access to the enemy’s ‘Ansible’, a device that enables instantaneous communication across space. Rocannon allies with Semley’s people, the feudal Angyar, and with her grandson, Mogien, sets out to try and find the enemy base. He has several adventures along the way and meets the different sentient species that live on the world. Rocannon succeeds in his quest, but the ending, as you might expect, is bittersweet.

Rocannon’s World is still enjoyable to read because, even at this early stage in Le Guin’s career, her writing is lovely and the narrative is well-paced. However, the story feels like a series of scenes which are strung together, the worldbuliding is a bit of a mess (the enemy, for example, are just vague, off-screeen ‘baddies’) and the characters are thinly sketched. We know that the protagonist, Rocannon, is principled and good, but beyond that he’s hardly more than a point of view through which to watch the events of the story unfold. This is very different to the deep and nuanced characters and worlds that appear in the later books. The Angyar ride around on flying tigers called ‘windsteeds’ which is adorable, but not something you’d find in later Le Guin! The League of all Worlds is also a fuzzy, ambigous idea at this point; before developing into the more benevolent Ekumen, it appears to be a rather sinister and ruthless power that may be involved in exploiting less developed planets. The layering of a science fiction story over a high fantasy world is inventive and interesting, but also feels a little odd. It’s like a Tolkein world into which Le Guin has inserted characters with lazer guns.

Having said all of that, parts of the story are really very well done. The bit in which Rocannon and Yahan find themselves in the power of a group of thugs who want to steal the necklace is genuinely tense and scary. For me, the best part of the book is the creepy, mindless, winged beings that take Rocannon and his friends captive. It’s genuinely frightening, although that effect is somewhat spoiled by the introduction, immediately afterwards, of cute little talking furry creatures!

What you do see thoughout the book is the emergence of the powerful themes that will be explored much more deeply in Le Guin’s later works. There is the question of who is ‘human’ and who is ‘alien’? There is the influence of anthropology on her worldbuilding. There are power relations between high and low-tech worlds. There are intense personal relationships between people who come from these different worlds. There is an interest in the ways that perceptions and beliefs about skin colour can structure societies. There is an underlying sense of tragedy and a belief that all actions come with consequences.

Rocannon’s World also contains ambiguous, post-colonial resonances with it’s depiction of a nameless (?) planet being ‘named’ by the galactic power as ‘Rocannon’s World’ and in it’s opening prologue about a valuable necklace being stolen from a people for display in a museum belonging to that power.

One thing that really struck me on re-reading this book, is Le Guin’s ability to recognise her own good ideas and return to them later. The ansible, for example, functions in Rocannon’s World as a classic ‘MacGugffin’, but she obviously spotted its potential and goes on to put it at the centre of one of her greatest works, The Dispossessed. We never see the flying tigers again, but we do see the development of the ansible. Probably a good call!

I enjoyed re-reading Rocannon’s World more than I expected, but don’t start here if you’re new to Le Guin. Start with one of the later and more famous books.

Next up, Planet of Exile, which I loved reading the first time around.

This post is the first in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Science Fiction & Fantasy from Wales

Excited to discover that Wales now has its own science fiction and fantasy magazine called Gwyllion

Gwyllion is a non-profit, bi-annual genre fiction literary magazine which focuses on publishing science fiction, fantasy and horror from Wales. We publish two online issues a year as well as a limited run of physical copies.

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 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.

Sue Burke, Semiosis: A Novel of First Contact (2018)

I’m pretty sure that Semiosis is going to be one of my favourite books this year. This novel is a refreshing take on the classic science fiction trope of humans attempting to establish a colony on a distant, possibly hostile, alien world.

The story is told from the points of view of different characters over seven generations of the human colony on the planet they call Pax. From the struggle for survival of the first arrivals, to the rebellion of the next generation, which moves the colony to a long-abandoned alien city, through the development of a co-dependent relationship between the humans and a sentient plant called Stevland, and finally a confrontation with the ‘Glassmakers’, the original inhabitants of the city.

I wondered if I would find the number of point of view shifts irritating, but no, I found it an extremely effective way to tell the story. It’s almost like reading a series of interlinked short stories, which allows Burke to play around with different kinds of narrative. There’s a murder mystery in the middle and a war story at the end. Telling the story of Pax over different generations also helps the reader to invest in the worldbuilding as much as the characters.

I suppose Semiosis could be called eco sci-fi. The theme that holds the story together is the relationship between the people and the other intelligences that live on the planet, especially Stevland, a kind of sentient bamboo. It’s an ambivalent relationship. Stevland seeks to manipulate the humans to its own advantage, while the humans want to access to benefits that Stevlend can provides, including protection from predators, medicines and liaison with other plants. It’s an uneasy compromise until an encounter with the beings who originally inhabited the city creates a crisis that forces humans, plants and Glassmakers to revaluate their relationships with each other.

I LOVE first contact stories and for me Semiosis had it all. An exciting world to explore, engaging characters and interesting aliens. If I have any criticisms, I would have liked more developed queer characters. It’s often implied that some people are bisexual in this society, but it would have been nice to have had more details about how LGBTQ people would fit in. It felt like a bit of an omission.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Semiosis is ultimately an optimistic novel, which some might call ‘hopepunk’. Try it if you like science fiction by authors such as Becky Chambers and Adrian Tchaikovsky.

I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Interference

Content note: While not a violent book in general, the few instances of violence are pretty nasty. There’s a graphic rape scene in the second narrative ‘Sylvia’, some gruesome murders in ‘Tatiana’ and scenes of violence and torture in ‘Lucille and Stevland’.

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.

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

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 far 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.


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.


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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