Thoughts from the SF Gateway

New Book of the Week: Saturn Patrol

23 October 2014

Back in the ’50s, when novels could be 40,000 words long and the pulps ruled the world, publishing was a very different beast than it is now.  Dozens of short, purpose-written books were churned out each month, in popular genres such as Romance, Crime, War Stories, Westerns and, of course, Science Fiction. The writers for these pulps would churn out stories at prodigious rates, to be published under house names for a set fee, with the copyright owned by the publisher. Many a fine SF writer got their start writing these work-for hire books but, in return for the regular pay cheque, they were subject to the whims of their employers.

One of these whims involved approaching the produciton process in a slightly idiosyncratic manner – take, for instance, E. C. Tubb’s first novel, Saturn Patrol. This is the story the way we heard it:

Tubb had written a space adventure to be published under the Curtis Warren house name King Lang. The publisher wanted to call it ‘Saturn Patrol’, but that was news to Tubb. He pointed out that the story didn’t take place anywhere near Saturn – the ringed planet didn’t even feature.

‘That’s too bad, because I’ve already had the cover printed. Look: Saturn Patrol.’

So Tubb did the only thing he could think of that didn’t involve writing a whole new story (and losing both time and money as a consequence). He went back to his story and added a line to the second paragraph:

The ship stood like a dirty finger, poised on the landing field at the edge of town. Once sleek sides were marked and scarred, stained with tarnish and mottled with poorly applied patches. One fin was twisted, and the plastic of ports and turrets clouded with flight strain and neglect. Yet, despite the general air of decay, something of the original beauty still showed. The clean, utilitarian lines of a perfect machine in the long curves, the subtle swellings of the venturis could still be seen.
     Gregg Harmond, who had once served on many a fine spaceship in the now defunct Saturn Patrol, could see it. He thought now: “It’s the loveliest thing ever made.”

Mission accomplished.

 

Saturn Patrol is our New Book of the Week. You can find more of E. C. Tubb’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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On This Day: Doris Lessing

22 October 2014

On this day in 1919, Doris May Taylor Lessing was born in Kermanshah, in what is now Iran, but was then Persia. She spent her early life in Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia), moving to the UK in 1949, where she almost immediately set about building her astonishing body of work.

A serial collector of literary awards, beginning with the 1954 Somerset Maugham Award and culminating, of course, with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, Doris Lessing was a literary giant. She is all the more remarkable for having built such a career and repuation while unashamedly writing science fiction along side her mimetic works. Dare we suggest that if more ‘literary’ writers had the same good grace to acknowledge the toolkit from which they liberally borrowed ideas, the world would be – if only ever so slightly – a fairer place.

Happy Birthday, Doris Lessing, we salute you!

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Richard Cowper

21 October 2014

From the vaults of the SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal introduction to one of the unique voices of British science fiction, John Middleton Murry, Jr, who wrote his best work under the pen name Richard Cowper.


The son of the famous critic John Middleton Murry, Cowper announced himself to the science fiction world in 1967 with Breakthrough, which found favour for a subtlety and richness of characterisation not seen in most contemporary SF. The idea of a transformed future England became his signature leitmotif and it is this theme that informs the Corlay tales contained in this omnibus. This is the complete Corlay sequence, featuring introductory novella ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and novels The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship and A Tapestry of Time.


You can find more of Richard Cowper’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: The Penultimate Truth

20 October 2014

A masterly tale of political deception from the most significant writer of SF in the 20th century.

World War III is raging – or so the millions of people crammed in their underground tanks believe. For fifteen years, subterranean humanity has been fed on daily broadcasts of a never-ending nuclear destruction, sustained by a belief in the all powerful Protector.

Now someone has gone to the surface and found no destruction, no war. The authorities have been telling a massive lie. Now the search begins to find out why.


The Penultimate Truth is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Philip K. Dick’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: Pavane

17 October 2014

Our SF Masterwork of the week is acknowledged as one of the earliest and still one of the finest alternate histories ever written. And who better to take us on a guided tour of this very different Britain than a writer who knows a thing or two himself about counterfactuals – the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author of The Separation (among many, many fine works), Christopher Priest . . .


Although it was written more than 40 years ago, Keith Roberts’s novel Pavane remains one of the finest science fantasy novels of all time. More than that, it’s a novel capable of being judged by the highest standards, in-genre or outside. You can say of many novels that they are well written, well told, unusual in subject matter, deeply serious, highly entertaining, a feat of sustained imagination, original, moving, gripping, and so on – it is vanishingly rare to find all such qualities in one place.

Pavane first appeared in 1966 as a series of five long short stories in Impulse magazine. They produced a flood of letters from its readers, who wanted to know more about not only the author (who was then almost unknown) but also about the Dorset landscape and people described in the stories. Odd and intriguing clues were scattered about: it was obviously fiction, but what were the facts behind the stories? A modern reader feels the same intrigue.

A book version came along about two years after the stories appeared. More recent editions have included a sixth story, “The White Boat”, which Roberts wrote a little later.

The novel opens with a brief historical note: “On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying.” The woman is Queen Elizabeth I, and her assassination opens the way to a successful invasion by the Spanish, and Britain falling under the rule of the Pope.

Thus the scene is set for an alternative history scenario. By 1968, when the novel proper begins, England is a feudal place of wild heaths and thriving forests, towns with Latinate names, medieval castles, rural communities and craft industries. Taxes are raised as tributes and tithes. The repressive rule of the church in Rome means that most modern technology doesn’t exist, or knowledge of it has been suppressed because it’s deemed heretical. There are no telephones, radio, TV, aircraft – a handful of cars owned by the wealthy chug along on under-powered two-stroke engines, using sails if there’s a following wind. Goods are transported in huge road-trains hauled by steam traction engines. There’s no broadband – messages are sent by clacking vanes on semaphore towers.

The first story, “The Lady Margaret”, sets the tone of the book: it’s a detailed, authentic-seeming description of a young haulier taking his road-train across Dorset on a delivery trip. Almost nothing happens: he sets out from Durnovaria (Dorchester) late on a cold winter’s afternoon, he delivers goods to a depot in Poole, he calls in to see a girlfriend in Swanage on the way home. He picks up a new load. While crossing the heaths he suffers a violent attack by a gang of routiers – during this he contributes to the death of his best friend.

By the time you’ve finished the opening story, Roberts’s simple but magnificent prose has built up a compelling picture of what it feels like to live and work in this society. The story is full of allusions and references, some of them mysterious (at first), but most of them deftly sketching in the extraordinarily rich details of the world. You learn what it’s like to fire up a traction engine; you feel the wintry cold of the footplate, the dark mysteries of the heaths, the sensual smells and sights of the towns. You believe in the characters and start to care about them.

Five more episodes remain, and the world of Pavane continues to unfold like the stately dance its name implies. You realise that the story of this humdrum but beautiful traction engine is where the society itself starts to change: heresies are about to break out; the repression from Rome will self-destruct. Marvellous scenes and revelations are to come, and it’s not for me to spoil them for you here.

The novel seems to be at first, and of course it is, an alternative history. But later it changes, becomes something more. The end is oblique: we follow the events clearly enough, but the consequences of those events indicate more of a parallel history, a statement about our own modern world.

Pavane is the sort of novel that readers are always instinctively searching for, and which many writers would give the good part of an arm to be able to write. Keith Roberts never wrote a better novel than this, but then few other writers have come close to it either.


Pavane is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Keith Roberts’ work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.


This piece was written by Christopher Priest and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Christopher Priest‘s latest novel is the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA and John W. Campbell Memorial Award-shortlisted, The Adjacent, which is available in paperback and as an eBook. His website is www.christopher-priest.co.uk. You can find his work via the Orion website and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.



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Norman Spinrad by Paul Di Filippo

16 October 2014

Over at the excellent Locus magazine website, Paul Di Filippo has some words of praise for one of the great original and confrontational voices of the genre – and a suggestion for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America . . .

Whenever discussion turns to candidates for the next SFWA Grandmaster Award, the name of one author who is fully entitled to such a distinction is notably missing. I refer to Norman Spinrad. After a career that began in 1963—that’s fifty-plus years and counting, folks—and which includes epochal work during the seminal New Wave movement; a continuing stream of top-notch, impassioned, always varied novels and stories thereafter; two stints as SFWA President; and a wealth of critical essays that have helped to elucidate the intellectual and narrative storyspace occupied by fantastika—well, one would think such credits would render the possessor a shoe-in for the honor.

You can read the full article at the Locus website (and we recommend you do), and find Norman Spinrad‘s work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website.

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On This Day: E. C. Tubb

15 October 2014

Courtesy of our friends at the Hugo Award-winning Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – and, in particular, their excellent On This Day function – we are able to celebrate the birth of one of the great figures of British science fiction: Edwin Charles Tubb, born on this day in 1919.

Author of over 100 novels, including the 33-volume Dumarest Saga, E.C. Tubb was a stalwart of post-war British SF, a founder member of the British Science Fiction Association and the first editor of Vector,  the critical journal of the BSFA. Tubb was among the very first authors signed by SF Gateway and we’re delighted to be able to make his work available once more – in eBook format and with a selection of his work in trade paperback omnibus edition:


trade paperback | eBook

His reputation for fast-moving and colourful SF writing is unmatched by anyone in Britain

~ Michael Moorcock


You can find E.C. Tubb’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 Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Damon Knight

14 October 2014

From the vaults of the SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal sample introduction to the extraordinary short fiction of Damon Knight, one of the most important figures in modern science fiction.

 

trade paperback | eBook

 

Author, editor, critic, fan: few people have had such a great and varied impact on modern SF as Damon Knight. From membership of seminal SF group the Futurians, through years of incisive reviews and criticism, to editorship of the influential Orbit series of anthologies, Knight bestrode 20th-century SF like a colossus. After his death in 2002, the SFWA Grand Master Award was renamed in his honour.

The four volumes contained in this omnibus represent the best of his acclaimed short fiction – Far Out, In Deep, Off Centre and Turning On – including his retro Hugo-winning ‘To Serve Man’, surely the only SF story to inspire episodes of both The Twilight Zone and The Simpsons!

 

You can find more of Damon Knight’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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New Book of the Week: Zero Minus X

13 October 2014

It has been claimed that between the years of 1958 and 1964, Lionel Fanthorpe was the most prolific genre author alive, writing under a bewildering array of pseudonyms and house names, and producing a book per week for the now-defunct Badger Books. One such house name – occasionally used by John Glasby and Tom W Wade – was Karl Zeigreid, under which, Fanthorpe produced such melodramatic pulp adventures as … ZERO MINUS X!

 

Man is an intelligent mammal. His intelligence lies in his brain. In mammals the tissues of the central nervous system are irreplaceable. The human brain contains something like 100,000,000,000,000 neurons, but 100,000 are destroyed on average each day of a man’s life. Cosmic rays and general internal and external radioactivity account for most of this destruction.

Hunger and Gradey decided on an illegal experiment. They brought up a small group of children in a strange artificial setting where there was practically no radiation. The setting was improved. The environment grew more shielded as generations passed. At last the Thinkers exploded into a world that had not dreamed of their existence. The world was facing other complications at the moment. An alien had appeared from the other side of the cosmos!

Humanity was faced with two potentially deadly enemies; could they be turned against each other, or was one a secret friend?

 

Do not read too much Lionel Fanthorpe at one go, your brains will turn to guacamole and drip out of your ears

Neil Gaiman

 

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October’s Sci-Fi Theatre: Seconds

9 October 2014

“This may hurt a little”

Seconds is just one of those films. Those who like, it love it. Those who don’t, well, they probably have no idea the film exists. The former spend a lot of time recommending the film to the latter.

In it, directionless/depressed/disappointed/disappointing Arthur Hamilton is given the chance to be ‘reborn’ as successful Malibu artist Tony Wilson. We’re talking faked death, new face, new body, new name, new life – the works. It’s not a story about technology or science gone wrong, though. This is a thriller, a horror, a political parable and a moral lesson – all shot through with a whiff of science fiction.


“I agreed to take my chances” –Tony Wilson

 

It died on its feet at the box office, which we’ve always found strange. Sure, it’s not typical Hollywood material. This wasn’t the kind of Rock Hudson Rock Hudson fans wanted to see. But you could say the same about Frankenheimer’s earlier film, the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate. That wasn’t the Frank Sinatra your average filmgoer had in mind, but it did well.

Maybe it was just too bleak. And let’s be clear, this film is bleak. We don’t want to give too much away, but a new life hardly does wonders for Arthur. This is a film about alienation, paranoia, a lack of freedom and a spiritual void, and there isn’t a happy ending. Oh boy is there not a happy ending.

Which isn’t to say it’s a depressing watch. Far from it. It’s dark but it’s clever, and it never shows off. This isn’t directionless arthouse. It’s tight. Seconds is an expertly crafted thriller, and visually, it’s on another level. James Wong Howe’s cinematography here is just something else. Way ahead of its time.


The SFT original Seconds poster, designed by Rebecca Rose Carey


The Manchurian Candidate was Frankenheimer’s masterpiece. Seconds pushes it a close . . . well . . . second. It’s not a ‘cult’ film. It’s simply a really, really good film you haven’t seen yet.


Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic sf in all its guises. Seconds will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL on Thursday 16th October at 8pm. Tickets are available here.


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