Thoughts from the SF Gateway

SF Masterwork of the Week: Mission of Gravity

19 December 2014

A brilliant and mind-bending depiction of alien life that still stands as a landmark of hard SF.

Mesklin is a vast, inhospitable, disc-shaped planet, so cold that its oceans are liquid methane and its snows are frozen ammonia. It is a world spinning dizzyingly, a world where gravity can be a crushing 700 times greater than Earth’s, a world too hostile for human explorers.

But the planet holds secrets of inestimable value, and an unmanned probe that has crashed close to one of its poles must be recovered. Only the Mesklinites, the small creatures so bizarrely adapted to their harsh environment, can help.

And so Barlennan, the resourceful and courageous captain of the Mesklinite ship Bree, sets out on an heroic and appalling journey into the terrible unknown. For him and his people, the prize to be gained is as great as that for mankind . . .

 

Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is universally regarded as one of the most important and best loved novels in the genre. The remarkable and sympathetic depiction of an alien species and the plausible and scientifically based realisation of the strange world they inhabit make it a major landmark in the history of hard SF.

 

You can find more of Hal Clement’s work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Emily

18 December 2014

And so, into the home stretch, our final piece by the Gollancz editors comes from Emily and features Philip K. Dick Award-winner, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers . . .

 

The Anubis Gates appeared on my radar when I was a poor, sunlight-deprived student, desperately searching for a way to avoid my Essay of the Day. My preferred magical way of escaping reality at the time was to read Steampunk novels. Along with Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter (who coined the term “steampunk” in 1987) and Homonculus by James BlaylockThe Anubis Gates was one of the defining novels of the genre, although to hear all three discuss it as I had the privilege at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention, the whole shebang apparently started as a bit of a joke.

Upon discovering the wonder that is The Anubis Gates on recommended reading lists, my thought process followed as such:

What’s this? A novel (mostly) set in the nineteenth century, containing actual literary figures from actual history, but with time-travel and magic and evil clowns and ancient Egyptian gods and poetry and cross dressing? Reading it would basically the same as researching this essay on nineteenth century poets, right? Only better. Definitely better.”

As an English Literature student and long-time fantasy fan, it ticked just about every box I had and I was in love before I’d even started reading – the fact that The Anubis Gates also happened to be an award-winning Fantasy Masterworks novel merely confirmed that I had good taste in non-study-related literature. It’s a fantastically thrilling ride from start to finish and for a time-travel novel, the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff actually makes a startling amount of sense.

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Mark

17 December 2014

The trouble with the SF Masterworks list is you take once glance at it and you begin to realise just how little SF you’ve actually read. Well… I do, I expect there are plenty of you out there who’ve read the lot, but please spare a thought for those of us still exploring its treasures. Working in publishing means you’re often reading something new, so the opportunity to catch-up doesn’t come along often, but this summer I made room for a book that I’d been meaning to read for years and I’m so glad I did.

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man in his thirties but with an IQ of only 68. Working at his uncle’s bakery, he seems doomed to be the butt of his co-workers’ pranks, but a glimmer of hope comes with a new surgical technique that might improve his mental performance. Tests on a mouse named Algernon have already been successful and now the scientists are looking for a human subject and Charlie fits the bill.

Written in an epistolary style (I word I confess I had to look up after a recent round on University Challenge) we’re in Charlie’s mind from the beginning and there’s a real sense of joy as you see his perception begin to improve. But it’s not long before his intelligence outstrips that of the scientists who monitor his progress, and with this comes an awareness of the cruelty and condescension of those around him. He seeks out the family that rejected him, and despite his academic excellence his emotional intelligence has some catching up to do when he falls in love.

And then Algernon the mouse dies and Charlie begins to realise that his days in the sun may be numbered.

Flowers For Algernon is a heart-breaking book, but not at all mawkish or sentimental (unlike some of the dreadful TV movies it has inspired). Keyes had worked extensively with students with learning difficulties and his compassion shines through. And you can judge a book by the awards it’s won (and this garnered many, including a Hugo for the original short story and a Nebula for the novel), but when a book has been banned by so many schools and libraries (because, God forbid that a person with a disability might have sexual urges!) it must surely be touching some kind of nerve and revealing some great truth.

Make time for this book. Charlie and Algernon will expand your own mind.

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Darren

16 December 2014

Having asked all of my colleagues to cough up a blog post on their favourite Masterworks, it’s now my turn to put my money where my mouth is**

It’s quite difficult to pick just one book from the excellent range of SF and Fantasy Masterworks – just ask Marcus, he didn’t even try! Different books appeal for different reasons and can move to the top of one’s list depending on mood or the context in which one is asked.

In some ways, my task is made more difficult by Gillian already choosing Mythago Wood, and Marcus choosing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, both of which would certainly have been at the top of my list. So that’s two down. Nor can I choose Gene Wolfe‘s extraordinary Book of the New Sun (always among my front-runners) or Ursula K. Le Guin‘s wonderful The Word for World is Forest – both of which aren’t published until next year.

That still leaves any number of extraordinary works from which to choose from: proto-cyberpunk, space opera, Big Dumb Objects, post-apocalypses, to describe but a few. Although I fear I’ll never manage to carve out the time to re-read it, Brian Aldiss‘s Helliconia Trilogy had an enormous impact on me when I first read it. Likewise influential – for similar reasons of scale – are Larry Niven‘s Ringworld and Frank Herbert‘s Dune, and the stories of Connie Willis are always incredibly clever in both concept and writing.

What to choose? What to choose . . . ?

OK, if I have to pick one book, given the date, I choose Sir Arthur C. Clarke‘s mind-bending Childhood’s End (hardback | eBook). This book took the top of my head off when I first read it as a callow teenager. Beginning as an alien invasion story (of a sort) and containing one of the all-time great set pieces in written SF – an image so striking and irresistible that the producers of Independence Day should pay Clarke’s estate a royalty every time their movie is shown – it then moves off, via a poignant coming-of-age vignette, to cover no less a canvas than the ultimate destiny of the human race. And all in under 250 pages.

I re-read Childhood’s End a couple of times in my twenties and thirties, and then again when Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008.  Still awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Clarke himself once described science fiction as ‘the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug’; as the man who wrote this extraordinary book, he would certainly know.

** Don’t try this at home kids – seriously, you don’t know where that pound coin has been . . .

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The SF Gateway Xmas Sale is Here!

15 December 2014

As mentioned last week, the 2014 SF Gateway Xmas Sale will be a bit different this year. We’ve decided to take our curational duties seriously, this festive period, and will be putting forward a suggested 15 Authors You Should Read in 2015.

To be clear: these aren’t the only authors you should read in 2015. But they are authors we feel aren’t as prominent as they deserve to be – for a variety of reasons we won’t go into here because such things usually cause arguments and we’re not interested in arguing at this end of the year. We’re interested in peace on Earth, good will to all, and reading lovely books with a glass of something lovely in our hand.

So, we hope you’ll enjoy some – if not all – of our selected authors, whose books have all been discounted for Xmas:

Barrington J. Bayley
Pat Cadigan
D. G. Compton
Richard Cowper
Lionel Fanthorpe (and all his pseudonyms!)
Mary Gentle
Tanith Lee
Pat Murphy
Keith Roberts
Pamela Sargent
Bob Shaw
Norman Spinrad
Tricia Sullivan
Ian Watson
Kate Wilhelm

You can find the relevant books by going to the respective Author pages on the SF Gateway website (helpfully hyperlinked above) and clicking on ‘View All Book By . . .‘ at the bottom of the page.

As a courtesy to our US and Canadian readers, we note that our editions of the above authors’ works are available in your territory except for Tanith Lee, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargent and Kate Wilhelm.

The sale will run until about the 12th January – enjoy!

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Simon

12 December 2014

And so we move on to Simon’s selection of favourite Masterworks and, like Marcus, there’s too much classicy goodness there for him to restrict himself to just one choice . . .


Fantasy Masterwork: Viriconium by M. John Harrison

Why Viriconium? Well I could just say that, sentence for sentence, there is no better writer of prose in English working today than Mike Harrison and leave it at that. It’s reason enough for me. But let me elaborate. Our Viriconium volume is a collection of short novels and stories about the greatest fantasy city, the greatest city, there has ever been; Viriconium. The novels and stories can be read in any order. Just as the parts of Viriconium rest against each other restlessly (there is, and can never be, no map of the city), just as its pasts and futures are elastic. Viriconium could be in the far future or the deep past. It could be today or last week. It has even swapped, briefly, with London. The people who live in Viriconium lead lives both ordinary and baroque, there are terrors and pleasures in both. There is a court, Mammy Vooley rules some of the time, gangs run the streets whistling their messages to each other, there are painters, there is a dwarf, there is a plague, there is a war. Viriconium shifts around you. Its beautifully described streets and buildings have come from many times. It takes you round corners into different parts of the fantastic. It gives you surprising perspectives on their vistas. It will pull you in and love you and mug you. You can make a brief visit or you can read endlessly, finding something different every time. Reading Viriconium is like living in a city. It’s yours, it’s personal, it changes, it changes you.


SF Masterworks: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

No SF novel has changed the way I think quite the way that Haldeman’s extraordinary book. I’m very interested in military history; in trying to understand what takes people to war, how it changes them, how they fight, why they fight, what waits for them when they come back, how the society they fight for will feel for them. Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Richard Holmes’ The Firing Line, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Sebastian Junger’s War, Tim O’Brien’s If I should Die in a Combat Zone, Graves’ Goodbye to All That; all remarkable non-fiction works that look at all those questions. But the book that first made me REALLY think about all those questions, really punched me in the gut about the real terrors of war (not always the ones on the battlefield) was Haldeman’s SF novel. Influenced by his experiences in Vietnam, Haldeman used the weapons of SF (vast distances, terrifying tech, the brutality of time dilation) to hammer home the realities of war; the realities that come home: trauma, alienation, guilt, and all the other footsoldiers of PTSD as experienced by soldiers and the societies they fight for. And all via vivid, brilliantly described, awe-inspiring space-battles and terrifying actions on planetary surfaces. In many ways the book acts as a corrective to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Both feature utterly alien aliens, power-armour, unimaginably violent weapons but each attains a very different effect.

I read both when I was fourteen, Troopers first, War second. It was Haldeman’s book that turned me into a pacifist. I can’t think of another single book that has had such a profound effect on my thinking. But the real power of The Forever War comes from just how well written it is. Its elegant, supremely effective prose draws you in, it excites you, it terrifies you. It introduces absurdities with a sly straight face. It’s only once you calm down that you realise you’ve been allowed to think and see things very clearly.

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Gillian

11 December 2014

As noted yesterday, we’re doing our best to help you choose the best in classic SF or Fantasy to give your loved ones, this Christmas. Today, it’s the turn of Gollancz’s publishing director, Gillian Redfearn whose choice is a book we’ve written much about over the last few weeks – and here’s further proof that it really is a favourite of the entire Gollancz team . . .

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood is one of those exceptional novels which change you as you read it. It began as a short story, published in 1979, was expanded into a novella in 1981, and became a full length novel in 1985. It was award winning in every iteration, deservedly so, and the time and work which was poured into this story shows in the near-poetic polish of the prose.

Telling the story of an RAF pilot who returns home after the war, we follow him as he and his family are first drawn to the mysterious Mythago Wood (a wood which is, as it turns out, larger on the inside than the outside), then to the elusive mythagos living within it, to finally become embroiled in a world where the contemporary, the real, the historical and the mythical have blended together – not necessarily with dangerous ramifications, but certainly with heart-breaking ones . . .

This is a powerful, quiet and haunting novel; a story about change which leaves a profound mark on the reader; a writer whose observations linger with you, long after turning the final page.

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Gollancz Editors’ Favourite Masterworks: Marcus

10 December 2014

As we move into the festive period and its seasonal agony of indecision over what gifts to give our loved ones, we thought we’d offer to help by inviting the Gollancz editorial team to tell us about their favourite SF or Fantasy Masterworks. First up: Marcus Gipps . . .

Riddley Walker is one of my two desert island books (the other is Mother London, by Michael Moorcock). There’s something about the rich strangeness of Hoban’s language that repays every reread. It takes a few pages to get back into the swing of the broken down English that his character speaks/writes in, but once my mind resets itself I’m off, every time, caught up again in this post-nuclear England and the journey of young Riddley. It’s a dark book at times, and occasionally a heartbreaking one, but there’s a core of warmth and humanity to it that defies all the grimness. And every time I read it I find something else to admire – this is such a densely-packed book, full of myth and folklore and history. There are guides out there to be found, who will perhaps expand your exploration of this remarkable creation, but if you’ve never read it before I advise you to jump straight in, tune out all distractions, and retune your language centre to the joy and beauty that is Riddley Walker.

What more needs to be said about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? We’ve read it all before, or seen it, or listened to it, or played the game, or used the towel. There’s a reason why it’s reputation stands so high – the book is a little masterpiece, and why familiarity can perhaps reduce its impact and humour, it is still, for me, as comforting and welcoming a read as I can imagine. I recently read Jem Roberts’ lovely authorised biography of Douglas Adams, The Frood (out now in HB), and although the bio was great and fascinating and heartbreaking, the cherry on the cake was the extracts and deleted scenes he’d found in Douglas’s archive. As with all things of such nature, generally we can see why they didn’t make it to the page, but there’s a delight in reading new HHGTTG material, one I thought would never happen again.

Arslan was my first job for Gollancz – a bit of freelance proofreading to try me out. I’m glad I got that job for two reasons – one, because I suspect it ended up playing a part in me getting my current job but two, because it introduced me to a book I perhaps would never have otherwise read. Arslan is a difficult book to read or discuss – there are some remarkably difficult scenes and events contained within, as Adam Roberts discusses brilliantly in his introduction to our edition – but there is also a strange richness to this tale of a fallen America and the brutal warlord who invades and chooses one small town for his base. We don’t really like any of the characters, I think – we can admire some and respect others, but no-one is good or, for that matter, particularly heroic. Life is hard and everyone has to do what they can to survive. Perhaps the science and prediction of how the world might end aren’t the best, but that doesn’t matter, because what this is is a very specific look at the behaviours of a conquered people. It’s brutal and hard, but well worth a read.

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The SF Gateway Xmas Sale is Coming . . .

9 December 2014

It may have escaped some people’s attention (and, to be clear, we’re referring to those who have spent the last few months trapped in nuclear bunkers or marooned on remote Pacific islands) but the festive period is upon us.  Trees are being decorated, wine mulled, cards written, thinly-veiled-excuses-for-a-drink taken up and businesses engaging in an orgy of consumer-baiting promotional activity that will remain unparalleled until their New Year Sales.

So why should they have all the fun?

Yes, the SF Gateway, too, has been caught up in the spirit of the times and so – you guessed it – a promotional sale is imminent (as opposed to immanent – although, thinking about it …). We’re going to do things a bit differently this year, though. In the past, we’ve reduced everything on the site, which, while we’re sure it’s appreciated by those unwrapping new tablets and other reading devices on the 25th, doesn’t really do much in the way of recommendation – and one of the raisons d’être for establishing the SF Gateway website, was to curate the vast number of eBooks we’ve published and offer readers some entry points and recommendations to what to read.

So, with that guiding principle in mind, we’re going to focus our Xmas/New Year sale around 15 Writers You Should Read in 2015.  We’re going to discount every book we have available by these authors, and we’re going to tell you who they are . . . next week. Stay tuned.

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December’s Science Fiction Theatre: GODZILLA!

8 December 2014

If we don’t defend ourselves from Godzilla now, what will become of us?

In 1954, a legend was born. Well, technically it was resurrected, but we’ll get on to that later. Directed by Ishiro Honda, and costing ten times as much as the average feature film, Gojira (Godzilla to us) was Japan’s first attempt at big budget science fiction. With a monster that would enter the lexicon of popular culture, sixty years of sequels and remakes, and the spawning of an entirely new genre: the kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie), I think it’s fair to say that their ‘attempt’ was a successful one.

When a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed near Odo Island, paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads an investigation crew to the island, where giant radioactive footprints are discovered. An alarm rings and Dr. Yamane and the villagers encounter Godzilla, an ancient sea creature that has been resurrected by repeated nuclear tests. Fearing an attack on their homeland, Government officials appeal to the doctor for ideas to kill the monster, but Yamane wants him kept alive and studied. When Godzilla surfaces from Tokyo Bay and attacks the city, Yamane is forced to take drastic measures to destroy the beast.

“It’s impossible! Godzilla absorbed massive amounts of atomic radiation and yet it still survived! What do you think could kill it?”


In 1956 the film was sold to an American distributor (Jewell Enterprises), who cut a whopping 30 minutes out, dubbed it into English, and re-titled it Godzilla: King of the Monsters! New scenes were added starring Raymond Burr as an American reporter observing the monsters rampage from the side-lines. All trace of the anti-nuclear message was excised. For many years, this US version of the film was, for many people, thought to be the original. It was only in 2004 when the complete and uncut Japanese Godzilla was re-released that audiences were finally given the opportunity to see the authentic article.

In the 60 years since Godzilla was released, Toho Studios (the Japanese film company responsible for the franchise) produced over 25 sequels in which Godzilla meets, battles and sometimes even befriends a host of different kaiju, including fan favourites such as Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidora. An awful 1998 US remake has recently been shown up as the travesty that it is by a particularly fresh and faithful 2014 reboot from Monsters director Gareth Edwards, in which Godzilla awakes to save the world from two giant radiation-eating creatures known as MUTOs.


The SFT original Godzilla poster, designed by Daniel Huntley


The latest Godzilla film is impressive, but it’s not a patch on the original. Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Gojira/Godzilla is still an incredibly poignant film, and a fierce indictment of the atomic age. A behemoth of a film (in scope of production as well as name), it is a mesmerising depiction of widespread destruction and human despair that had never been seen in cinema before.


Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic SF in all its guises. Godzilla will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Thursday 11th December at 8pm. Tickets are available here.


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