Thoughts from the SF Gateway

New Book of the Week: The Iron Dream

24 July 2014

Every now and then in SF literature, an author throws you a googlie / curve ball (delete according to local cultural affinity to cricket or baseball; if you follow neither sport, we’re afraid you’re on your own). The Iron Dream is one of those occasions.

A metafictional 1972 alternate history novel, based around a nested narrative that tells a story within a story. on the surface, the novel presents a rather visceral science fiction action tale entitled Lord of the Swastika. But this is a pro-fascist narrative written by an alternate history version of Adolf Hitler, who in this timeline emigrated from Germany to America and used his modest artistic skills to become first a pulp-SF illustrator and later a science fiction writer in the L. Ron Hubbard mould (telling lurid, purple-prosed adventure stories under a thin SF-veneer).

Lord of the Swastika is gloriously over-the-top – a blatant piece of pro-Nazi propaganda masquerading as pulp SF adventure. But The Iron Dream, even though it comprises in large part of Lord of the Swastika is an altogether different beast, a prime example of Norman Sprinrad’s exquisite skill as a writer.

The nested narrative is followed by a faux scholarly analysis by a fictional literary critic, Homer Whipple, of New York University, which ruthlessly exposes the cliches, racism and homoerotic imagery that riddles pulp-writer-Hitler’s novel.

Alvaros Zino-Amaro, writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, observes:

Purportedly written by a hack writer, Lords of the Swastika stays true to its propagandistic vision and showers us with page after page of jingoistic, eugenics-obsessed purple prose and phallus-centric power fantasies . . . We are told of the rise to power of “genetic true man” Feric Jaggar, who becomes head of the Human Renaissance Party, triumphs in a series of character-testing perils . . . and thereby discovers he is the rightful heir to the glorious weapon Great Truncheon of Held.

Zino-Amaro goes on to note the reactions of Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas M. Disch to the novel and its further examination by other critics. The piece – focussing on five of Spinrad’s works – is quite long but well worth reading as an insight into one of SF’s most vibrant, original and, on occasion, controversial voices.

You can find more of Norman Spinrad’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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SF Masterwork of the Week: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

23 July 2014

What do Chesley Bonestell, Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Jr, Arthur C. Clarke, August Derleth, Philip K. Dick, Robert Holdstock, Shirley Jackson, Damon Knight, Andre Norton, Bram Stoker and Theodore Sturgeon all have in common?

And what name is missing from the above list?

The answer, as we’re sure you’re aware, is that they all have major awards named in their honour. And, equally obviously, the missing name is Alice Sheldon – better known to the world as James Tiptree, Jr, the name under which she published her best work. The fact that Sheldon felt she needed a masculine pseudonym in order to be taken seriously is symptomatic of one of the great blights on the history (and to a lesser – but still regrettable – degree, present ) of Science Fiction literature.  The James Tiptree, Jr Memorial Award was set up in her memory to honour work that best explores or expands gender roles in SF.

 

For a decade Alice Sheldon produced an extraordinary body of work under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr, until her identity was exposed in 1977. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever presents the finest of these stories and contains the Nebula Award-winning ‘ Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death’, Hugo Award-winning novella ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ – winner of both the Hugo and Nebula – and of course the story for which she is best known: ‘The Women Men Don’t See’.

This is a true masterwork – an overview of one of SF true greats at the very height of her powers.

Contains:

The Last Flight of Doctor Ain
The Screwfly Solution
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side
The Girl Who Was Plugged In
The Man Who Walked Home
And I Have Come upon This Place by Lost Ways
The Women Men Don’t See
Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
With Delicate Mad Hands
A Momentary Taste of Being
We Who Stole the Dream
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death
On the Last Afternoon
She Waits for All Men Born
Slow Music
And So On, and So On

 

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can read more about James Tiptree, Jr in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

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From the Attic VIII: Short Stories From the ’80s & ’90s (Mostly)

22 July 2014

Two things:

1. SFF has seemed to me to be the one place where it is as easy to discover new writers in short forms as at length.

2. I love short fiction but it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

There are not many novels that turn somehow on a single line the way the best short stories do.  Not just plot twists, but those perfect lines that bring everything into focus, viscerally or emotionally.  Some years back I read a review of a gig* I’d attended where the reviewer referred to a chord change where “your skin turns stripy and your heart inverts.” Some short stories do that for me.  Others are just a more pure distillation of an idea, a character, a mood, or a statement, uncluttered for intensity and impact.

Later this year The Mammoth Book Of Short SF by Women will be published featuring a long list of fabulous writers, but meanwhile I thought I’d bring up a few of my favourites. These are stories that impacted me somehow, maybe the first thing I read by that author that made me her fan, or just stories that I feel are somehow significant.  You’ll notice they sort of span two eras.  The mid 80s was when I first started to seriously read grown-up SF, the contemporary writers who wrote with a strong adult sensibility combined with literary abilities, and over the next few years I discovered a whole bunch of great writers I tend to automatically think of when asked about my favourites. I think we all have a personal golden age like that.  It was also the time I really started reading outside the genre, which is where many excellent women SF writers have found a home over the years.

And then there are stories from relatively recent years, the new (to me) writers who are making genre fiction exciting and stimulating to me currently.  Some of these are more famous than others, but they all deserve attention.  Those late ’80s and early ’90s (mostly) writers first . . . Read more…

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That’s One Small Step for Man . . .

21 July 2014

It’s amazing what we can achieve when we direct our resources and imagination towards goals other than the most efficient methods of killing each other and/or extracting every last penny from the economy regardless of the social cost.

Forty-five years ago, today, human beings first set foot on another world.

 

Yes, of course, there were political drivers behind the space race, but ask the wide-eyed kids (and adults!) who watched that grainy black and white footage of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps what they were thinking and I’ll bet ‘We showed them Russkies who’s boss’ was the furthest thing from their minds.

Great days, great events.

 

The Eagle has landed.

 

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Gordon R. Dickson (Redux)

18 July 2014

As noted last week, we’re at the point in the omnibus programme, where the new releases will be coming less frequently than they have done to date, so while we wait for each new addition to the list, we thought we’d go back and remind you of some of the earlier gems you might have missed.  This week: Gordon R. Dickson . . .

 

From the groundbreaking digital initiative The SF Gateway, come three novels that showcase the incredible range of the award-winning Gordon R. Dickson, one of the founding fathers of military SF, but equally at home in the realm of fantasy: Tactics of Mistake, Time Storm and The Dragon and the George.

 

Unusually, Dickson is as well known for his fantasy as his SF and has been decorated with the Hugo, Nebula and British Fantasy awards accordingly. He has also been short-listed for the World Fantasy Award. This omnibus showcases that versatility, containing the Dorsai! novel Tactics of Mistake, Hugo nominee Time Storm and British Fantasy Award-winner The Dragon and the George.

You can find more of Gordon R. Dickson’s work via his author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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2 Days to Edge-Lit3!

17 July 2014

So, what? You’re just going to copy the earlier post and changes ’10 days to go’ to ’2 days to go’, are you?

That’s the plan, yes.

Isn’t that a little . . . lazy?

Maybe. But has anything materially changed besides the time frame?

Well . . .

I mean, the event is still happening at the same time in the same place, the Guests of Honour and roll call of speakers is still awesome, so why reinvent the wheel?

I guess so, it just seems a little . . .

Look. How about if I change the first word of every paragraph to red type – will that help?

I guess . . .

Well, here you go, then:

 

There seems to be an epidemic of conventions in the UK at the moment.  August is simply awash with geeky goodness, with the second Nine Worlds Geekfest taking place at Heathrow from the 8th to the 10th, the International Discworld Convention (the Ankh-Morpork Grand Exhibition) with Manchester standing in for Ankh-Morpork from the 8th until the 11th, and, of course, the Big Kahoona: LonCon, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, setting off Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matics all across the capital from the 13th to the 18th of August.

But as awesome as all of these August (and, indeed, august) events are, please don’t overlook the excellent Edge-Lit 3 event, taking place in Derby just the day after tomorrow, on Saturday 19th July. Edge-Lit is the spiritual successors to the very highly-regarded Alt.Fiction event and is fast becoming a major date in the SF calendar.

How major? Well, Guests of Honour are Joe Abercrombie and Charles Stross, doyens of British Fantasy and SF respectively, and the roll call of speakers is equally impressive, including Jaine Fenn, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Tricia Sullivan, Freda Warrington and Conrad Williams, to name but a few.

The event runs from 11:00 am until midnight, costs £25 for the day, and SF Gateway and Gollancz are proud sponsors.

So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself over to the Edge-Lit website and book!

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On This Day: Tragedy in Brazil

16 July 2014

The date: July 16, 1950

The place: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (specifically, the Maracaña stadium)

The event: the final match of the 1950 World Cup, Brazil vs Uruguay

 

Sport and science fiction don’t mix, certainly not if you buy into the stereotypes – on both sides. SF fans are all spotty, nerdy, anaemic weeds, living in their mothers’ basements avoiding exercise, members of the opposite sex and personal hygiene – not necessarily in that order. Sports fans are all drunken, loud-mouthed, reason-free knuckle-draggers who would have difficulty even identifying a book, let alone reading one. And, what’s more, never the twain . . .

Except . . . none of that is true, is it?  SF fans are no less likely to be healthy, well-groomed, confident fully-socialised human beings than any other arbitrarily-chosen subculture. Sports fans are as likely to be responsible, intelligent, literate, sympathetic people as any other group defined solely by their recreational interests. And as for the notion that sport and SF are mutually exclusive, there are any number of authors, agents, editors and critics we could point you at to disabuse you of this notion, but – given the day – there’s really only one writer to use as an exemplar.

Step forward multi-award-winner and life-long Manchester City fan, Ian McDonald, whose brilliant Brasyl (winner of the BSFA Award for best novel, and shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Awards) takes as one of its central plot strands, the national shame felt by all of Brazil after the national team’s 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup – the most traumatic event in the country’s sporting history**.

Of course, there are other, more straightforwardly science fictional sports to be found – from Brockian Ultra-Cricket to Rollerball to Quidditch – but for the most seamless insertion of a sporting element into modern SF, we think Ian McDonald‘s Brasyl deserves the prize. You should read it. Then come back here and let us know what your favourite SF sports book is.

 

** well, it was until about a week ago, anyway!

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SF Masterwork of the Week: The War of the Worlds

15 July 2014

As regular readers of the SF Gateway blog will know, our good friends at SFX have kindly agreed to allow us to republish those articles from their SFX Book Club that relate to our SF Masterworks and/or SF Gateway titles. This week, the perceptive Ian Berriman, Reviews Editor at SFX, takes us through the godfather of alien invasion novels, The War of the Worlds . . .

 

No-one would have believed in the early years of the 1880s that a lowly draper’s assistant would transform literature, writing novels which, over a century later, would still be inspiring multimillion dollar motion pictures. But that’s exactly what became of Herbert George Wells.

Read more…

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July’s Sci-Fi Theatre: Rollerball

14 July 2014

Last year, we met the excellent Graham Ainsley and learned of his labour of love, The Space Merchants: an online shop selling secondhand copies of classic SF books, magazines, artwork, etc.  You should go there and check it out. Now. Don’t worry, we’ll wait until you get back.

All done?  Nice. So, it turns out that The Space Merchants runs a monthly SF film club: Sci-Fi Theatre, which . . . well, why don’t we let them explain it . . .

 
 

Even a plant, uh, feels something

- watching the original 1975 Rollerball

Science Fiction Theatre is a small, independent sci-fi film club. The nice people at Time Out have called us “London’s leading sci-fi film club”. May have something to do with us being the only one, but hey, we’ll take it. We’ve put on eight films to date, and next week we’re showing the original Rollerball. We’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

The seventies was a cracking period for science fiction film. Ignoring Star Trek and Star Wars (easily done at SFT, we’ll be honest), it started with A Clockwork Orange and ended with Alien. Those two alone give the decade a gold star. Before Shatner and Lucas did their thing though, there was an enjoyably dystopian little cluster of films. Silent Running in 1972. Soylent Green and Westworld in 1973, Logan’s Run in 1976 and of course, Norman Jewison’s Rollerball in 1975.

Whether it was a post-Vietnam despondency or a fear of looming Reaganomics, the mood in all of these is decidedly pessimistic. What’s humanity got coming for it? Starships and laser-swords? Not quite. Here we’ve got subservience to technology, totalitarian rule and environmental catastrophe to look forward to, with only rampant vanity and media fuelled consumerism to soften the blow. We’ve seen them described them as “message-y”, which fits. The message is invariably a doomed one.

Rollerball is a perfect example of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian mean streak. In a world where politics has failed, a hegemony of transnational corporations run the whole planet. Big business has solved the problems of war, poverty and unrest at the expense of personal freedom. The cartels make all the decisions, while the masses enjoy a docile, enforced peace of TV, consumer satisfaction and ultraviolent sport. Real bread and circuses stuff. And the sport of rollerball is set up as the ultimate circus. Corporate backed, cathartic violence to channel an entire planet’s worth of animal nature into smooth, predictable social control.

All set up perfectly, of course, for a hero – James Caan’s Jonathan E. – to challenge the system by fighting for individual identity and free will in opposition to the business elites. You know the drill.

The appeal of Rollerball isn’t in the detail of this future history, though. Sure, the social commentary is amusing in a heavy handed way, but as world-building goes, the story is never really fully formed. There’s a checklist of dystopian themes here, all only partially explored. How did the corporations take over? Why are women treated so badly? What does the super-computer ‘Zero’ do? Rather than make you switch off though, this lack of detail adds to a strangely pleasant, unsettling feel to the film. The violence of the sport itself doesn’t stick in the mind. At the time it no doubt garnered attention but it ages badly. What sticks now is just this general, sometimes directionless sense of something gone awry.

Is Jonathan E. a hero? Sometimes. On the rollerball track, for sure. He also shouts down the Executives and longs for his one true love. Tick, tick, tick. At other times though, he’s sombre and aimless. Unguided. When he’s asked by a doctor to turn off his fellow rollerballer Moonpie’s life support, there’s no real moment of realisation or resolve. What you get is mumbled, half-formed discontent. “But even, uh, a plant… uh, feels something”. This isn’t an articulate resistance to the system. This is a confused, well-meaning global celebrity who’s got a feeling quite a lot of things aren’t right with his life. A dystopian science fiction mid-life crisis. Poor Jonathan.

The film’s finest moment is like something out of the European avant-garde and a million miles away from the bike and ball scenes that get most of the attention. Well-to-do guests at a lavish dinner party end the evening by walking through the grounds incinerating trees with a small, handheld atomic gun. Are these the manipulative corporate executives revelling to excess? Or are they playing their part as privileged members of the duped masses, the real power brokers hidden from view? Is this casual violence? Vacuous leisure? Disregard for life? It’s not clear, and whether it’s luck or design, this unsettles. In a nice way.

The SFT Rollerball poster, designed by Max Oginni

The SFT Rollerball poster, designed by Max Oginni

Rollerball is a satire on big business, mass media, and violent sport. It’s also a tale of a hero fighting the system, and of the free individual versus an all-seeing illuminati. It never focuses on any of these long enough for one to take hold, but that’s why it works. It’s a general, all-purpose dystopia.

Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic sf in all its guises. Rollerball will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL, on Thursday 17th July at 7pm. Tickets are available here.

P.S. In the short story the film is based on (William Harrison’s ‘Roller Ball Murder’) Jonathan’s anger is a touch more focused and explicit. It includes one of the finest lines we’ve ever read in science fiction. “Everything will happen. They’ll change the rules until we skate on a slick of blood, we all know that”. Harrison adapted the story for the screen himself – why didn’t he keep that in? Anyway, it’s a tight little piece. Definitely worth a read. Mindwebs did an audio version too.

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Joe Haldeman

11 July 2014

We’re at the point in the omnibus programme, where the new releases will be coming less frequently than they have done to date, so while we wait for each new addition to the list, we thought we’d go back and remind you of some of the earlier gems you might have missed. First up . . .

From The SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal sample introduction to Joe Haldeman, one of science fiction’s most decorated authors.

trade paperback | eBook

Joe Haldeman is best known for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning The Forever War, a novel which draws on his experience as a combat engineer in Vietnam, where he was wounded and earned a Purple Heart. This omnibus collects his later Carmen Dula sequence comprising Marsbound, Starbound and Earthbound, which chart humanity’s response to the challenge of alien contact.

You can find more of Joe Haldeman’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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