Thoughts from the SF Gateway

SF Masterwork of the Week: The Centauri Device

29 July 2014

This week’s SF Masterwork of the Week is M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device – the book credited with kick-starting the New Space Opera movement.  To introduce you to this extraordinary work, we’re delighted that our good friends at SFX, the UK’s premier SF entertainment magazine, have kindly allowed us to republish this article from their excellent SFX Book Club feature. Our guide through the twists and turns of this masterpiece of modern SF is a writer who has made his own not-inconsiderable contribution to the New Space Opera, the multi-talented Ken MacLeod. . .

 

The Centauri Device reads like hate mail directed at space opera clichés

– Patrick Hudson

The back of the 1975 UK Panther edition of The Centauri Device placed the book in the grand tradition of AE Van Vogt and EE “Doc” Smith. It’s true, a bare summary could have given that impression.

The date is 2367. Humanity has swarmed across the galaxy, destroying or assimilating similar species – starting with the Centaurans, native to a planet of our sun’s nearest star. There are a hundred billion people out there. But Earth’s two superpowers, the Israeli World Government and the Union Of Arab Socialist Republics, keep the galaxy in the icy grip of their cold war between capitalism and communism. Space Captain John Truck, loser and user, has just become the unlikely object of their contention. His mother was the last surviving Centauran, and Truck’s half-Centauran genes make him the only person capable of using the eponymous Device, an apparent last-ditch super-weapon recently dug up from the radioactive ruins of the murdered planet.

Throw in a cabal of anarchist artists darting about in alien starships, a drug-cartel kingpin with a party habit, sinister votaries of the viscerally unpleasant religion Openerism – all of whom want a piece of John Truck. You can imagine what a tale the old masters of the genre would have spun. It’s already half-written in your head before you’ve taken the book to the till.

If that’s what you were expecting, hope you kept the receipt.

Readers who’d already encountered M John Harrison’s scathing and often hilarious SF criticism (collected in Parietal Games, and recommended), or his earlier novels The Pastel City and The Committed Men, had a better idea of what to expect. Harrison had argued that much SF and fantasy was devoted to giving the reader a safe, familiar thrill before returning them to the real world with their hair mussed but their brains unchallenged and their hearts unmoved. In his own fiction he refused to give an inch to this – as he saw it – ethical and political corruption. He systematically turned cosy expectations upside down, in one genre after another: fantasy, post-catastrophe, and now space opera.

So Truck, far from being a hero or even an antihero, is (it seems at first) infuriatingly passive. After being shanghaied by a glamorous spy and harangued by a female general, he flees to Earth – to Glasgow, in fact – and visits his wife. Her damage and need are only superficially more apparent than his. From then on Truck gets successively kidnapped or rescued by each of the contenders for access to the Device – it’s like the old sick joke about the fastest game in the world: pass-the-parcel in a Belfast pub, with Truck as the parcel.

Until he explodes.

The Centauri Device deploys every trick of space opera verisimilitude: the geo-political infodump in the tone of capsule history; the imaginary technical details (the Chambers reaction pistol, the dyne fields of hyperspace); the careful mix of genuine astronomical terms (Cor Caroli, Cannes Venatici) with evocative, obscure coinages like Gloam and Parrot; the hints at massive cultural shift: Glasgow is named only as Carter’s Snort, but the “old rocket-mail pits of Renfield Street” get a name-check; the 20th century is carefully misremembered, with Brezhnev and Nixon as feudal lords and Hermann Goering as an artist. But it uses these tricks to throw the reader’s mind constantly back to the real world, and force reflection on wounded relationships and walking-dead ideologies.

The book still divides readers – mainly, still between those who expect a trad space opera and are disappointed, and those who have an idea of what Harrison was up to. There must also be those – like me, in 1975 – who read it naively as a space opera adventure written in gritty prose, and go on to look for, or even try to write, more of the same. Most of New Space Opera, I sometimes suspect, arose out of that misunderstanding. It’s reassuring to know that Harrison approves of this unforeseen outcome of his own least favourite book.

 

The Centauri Device is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can read more about M. John Harrison in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Ken MacLeod 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.

Ken MacLeod’s latest novel is the acclaimed SF conspiracy thriller, Descent, which is available in hardback and as an eBook. Ken MacLeod blogs at The Early Days of a Better Nation, tweets as @amendlocke, and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

 

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On This Day: Cyrano de Bergerac

28 July 2014

On this day in 1655, French soldier and writer, Cyrano de Bergerac, died in Sannois, near Paris.  Although arguably best-known (if he is known at all) as ‘that swordsman with the big nose’ – and, among film aficionados, as the inspiration for the Steve Martin film Roxanne – Cyrano de Bergerac is a figure of some importance to SF fans. As a writer of interplanetary fantasy, his L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (A Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon), featured what is generally regarded as the first use of a rocket in European literature.

Cyrano de Bergerac: The form of his name under which French soldier and writer Hector Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) is best known. He fought with the Gascon Guard but retired after sustaining bad wounds. He is famous as the hero of a play by Edmond Rostand (1868-1918), Cyrano de Bergerac (performed 1897; 1898), which made legends of his swordsmanship and the size of his nose. Only parts of his major work of Proto SF – the manuscript of which was significantly titled L’autre monde ou les états et empires de la lune, emphasizing his sense that his protagonist was not travelling to a mere satellite – were published in posthumous versions, censored (to tone down their heretical elements) by Cyrano de Bergerac’s timid friend, the cleric Henri le Bret (1618-1710).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (follow the link to read the rest of the article)

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Frank Herbert (Redux)

25 July 2014

Once again, we’re revisiting some old favourites while we wait for new SF Gateway Omnibuses to release.  ‘New’ being a relative term when applied to SF Gateway, obviously! This week: Frank Herbert . . .

 

From groundbreaking digital initiative, The SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal sample introduction to one of the giants of 20th century science fiction: Frank Herbert.

trade paperback | eBook

 

Although best known for his award-winning Dune, Herbert’s other work is equally ambitious and accomplished. This omnibus contains three novels spanning some 20 years of Herbert’s career: The Dragon in the Sea, The Santaroga Barrier and The Dosadi Experiment.

You can find more of Frank Herbert’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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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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