Thoughts from the SF Gateway

Arthur C. Clarke’s THE CITY AND THE STARS

30 April 2013

Every so often, when I know I’ve got a bit of time to kill and don’t want to do any ‘work’ reading, I grab an SF Masterwork off the shelf in the office and give it a go. (A shelf full of SF Masterworks is one of the best things about working at Gollancz). Normally I pick something almost at random, but I do try and make sure it’s something I haven’t read before. This week, though, I was struck by a sudden urge to reread The City and the Stars by (Sir) Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve read it more than a couple of times before – it was one of the first SF books I picked up as a kid from the second-hand bookshop – and it’s always cast a spell on me. I even went to the trouble of hunting down ‘Against the Fall of Night’ (the novella on which CITY was based) and ‘beyond the Fall of Night’ (the later novella by Gregory Benford that was a sequel to AGAINST but unrelated to CITY. Confused yet?). But here I’m going to talk about CITY. No spoilers, as such, but if you’ve never read it I might mention a few minor points which, as a reader, you wouldn’t learn for the first few chapters.

I think it’s been at least ten years since the last time I picked it up, so I thought I might as well see if it still worked for me, as of course I’m now all mature and better read and stuff. I took it away with me on a stag do (it was very quiet, walking and board games rather than strippers and costumes – see, mature now etc etc) and, within about ten pages, was at that point where I wanted to press it on my co-stagees and say ‘I know you don’t like SF but you should really read this, it’s great! It’s about this guy, right, who can live almost forever and so can everyone else in the city except he’s brand new he hasn’t been born again like everyone else and he wants to leave and see what is outside the city but they don’t because they’ve sort of been programmed not to and the city is remarkable and some of the writing is really good and apart from the fact that the computers are the sort of futuristic computers people ages ago thought computers would become, I mean they take up whole rooms with processors, but he couldn’t have known about microprocessors, it reads like it was written recently and the main character is a bit of a bastard but he actually learns over the novel and and and…’

I said it was a mature stag do. I didn’t say I hadn’t been drinking.

But you know what, the book is great. Oh, there are flaws, but Diaspar – last jewel in Man’s great history, last city in the universe, never changing and never decaying – is one of the great creations of science fiction. The sense of exploration and wonder – one of the things that Clarke was brilliant at (see Rendezvous with Rama and The Ghost form the grand Banks) – is infectious as Alvin, our hero, begins to question the seemingly-perfect world around him and search for what he knows must exist – a way out of the domed city. None of the characters are hugely sympathetic (they’re not evil, but they feel alien) and you’re never quite sure that Alvin is doing the right thing, but, just as he pulls those around him into the future, so he pulls the reader. In the latter half of the book the scope expands, and (to my mind) loses some of the mystique and enjoyment of the first half, but the scenes within Diaspar are, for me, some of the best SF ever written.

As I write this I still have 50 pages or so to go, and although I can sort-of remember what happens, I’m enjoying filling in the hazy details of the plot that my drink-addled mind has forgotten. But there’s a reason why Clarke was considered one of the best of us, and a reason why both versions of this tale remained in print for so long. CITY seems to have finally supplanted ‘Against the Fall of Night’, and I do think it’s the better book, but I’m very tempted to go and dig out my old paperback of the earlier version and read that as well. There aren’t many books I want to read two versions of back-to-back. If you haven’t read this yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

 

The City and the Stars is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook, and is this week’s Readers’ Choice selection from the obviously-blessed-with-extraordinarily-good-taste @theLightDreams.

 

As ever, you can read more about Sir Arthur C. Clarke (and, indeed, Gregory Benford) at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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SF Masterwork of the Week: A Canticle for Leibowitz

29 April 2013

Our current SF Masterwork of the Week makes a welcome return to the list in hardback, with a stunning new cover by the wonderful Dominic Harman. Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for best novel, we are delighted to be publishing the extraordinary A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Described by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as ‘one of the relatively few attempts in US sf to deal with formal religion, and one of the very few to do so successfully’ it is an acknowledged masterpiece of modern SF.

In the depths of the Utah desert, long after the Flame Deluge has scoured the earth clean, the rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of knowledge.

By studying the Holy Relics of the past, the Order of St Leibowitz hopes to raise humanity from its fallen state to one of grace.

But is such knowledge the key to salvation? Or the certain sign that we are doomed to repeat our most grievous mistakes…?

We commend you to SF Gateway‘s social media curator Andrew Spong, who has run an SF Masterworks review site since 2005. He praises the book a ‘a superb addition to the SF Masterworks list . . .haunting, lyric, obsessive’; his review (written before Gateway launched, we hasten to add!) can be found here.

 

A Canticle for Leibowitz  is available as an SF Masterworks hardback (sorry, no eBook rightsEDIT: eBook now available! and SF Gateway eBook and you can read more about Walter M. Miller, Jr in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

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New Book of the Week: Profiles of the Future

26 April 2013

If you consult The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – and, of course, you DO, don’t you? On a regular basis – you will find the following in the Titles check-list at the bottom of the entry on Arthur C. Clarke:

Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) [nonfiction: hb/]

So. A 51-year-old non-fiction book about the future. Even at the time I read it (circa 1980 – in the Pan paperback edition shown to the left, if I recall correctly) it was old enough to vote. What – given that we’re living in its future – could a half-century-old book possibly have to teach us? Well, if the author of that book is one Arthur Charles Clarke, the answer is: plenty. Take a look at some of the essays contained in the book:

Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Nerve
Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination
Beyond Gravity
Rocket to the Renaissance
Space, the Unconquerable
About Time
The Road to Lilliput
Brain and Body
The Obsolescence of Man

The first two are explorations of Clarke’s take on the two great mistakes open to the would-be prophet or futurist and he expounds at length about both (this is the man who foresaw the telecommunications satellite, remember – he knows whereof he speaks). In others, you have his thoughts on space travel – both the pursuit itself and the mechanics of how to get there – and the approaching singularity (although that term is not used to the best of my memory). While we have certainly added to the sum of human knowledge in all of these areas, we are distinctly short of writers able to convey the ideas in an accessible and interesting manner – something at which Clarke excelled.

Personally, I think it’s a book worth re-reading just for Clarke’s take on the future that awaited the world of 1962 and to see how his short-term predictions panned out – but there’s also the vision of the medium-to-far future, which seems to me to be more Clarke’s natural territory. What he thought might happen is less interesting than why he thought it. There’s still wisdom to be gained from examining the cognitive processes of such an intelligent thinker, even 50 years after the fact.

And then, of course, this is the book that gave us Clarke’s Laws. The third is the most often quoted (and misquoted!) but all three are worth revisiting:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Distilled wisdom in three bites. So what other gems lurk in this time capsule from half a century ago? You’ll have to read Profiles of the Future and decide for yourself . . .

 

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Readers’ Choice: The Fall of Chronopolis

25 April 2013

This week’s Readers’ Choice selection comes from Friend of the Gateway and (clearly!) aficionado of great classic SF, Starman Dave. His choice is The Fall of Chronopolis by the criminally-under-appreciated Barrington J. Bayley**.


The mighty ships of the Third Time Fleet relentlessly patrolled the Chronotic Empire’s thousand-year frontier, blotting out an error of history here or there before swooping back to challenge other time-travelling civilisations far into the future.

Captain Mond Aton had been proud to serve in such a fleet. But now, falsely convicted of cowardice and dereliction of duty, he had been given the cruellest of sentences: to be sent unprotected into time as a lone messenger between the cruising timeships. After such an inconceivable experience in the endless voids there was only one option left to him.

To be allowed to die.

You can find more of Barrington J. Bayley’s work at his author page on the SF Gateway and, as ever, read more about him in his entry at the indispensible Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Many thanks for sharing your enthusiasm, Starman Dave!

 

 

 

** Yes, yes, I know we’re biased – but, seriously, when no less a judge than Michael Moorcock calls him ‘the most original writer of his generation’, I think we can claim we’ve got a point!

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Why Should I Read ORPHANS by Sean Williams and Shane Dix?

24 April 2013

You need to read Orphans because you’re a fan of new space opera and you’re looking for something a bit out of the ordinary.

How many space operas start with a guy taking a bath? How many create an entirely new set of standard units of measurement? How many feature no less than ten versions of one of the lead characters? How many contain aliens that don’t only come from another universe, but have a backward arrow of time as well?

‘Spoilers!’ you say. Yes, but only mild ones, honest, compared to some of the big ones we could mention. As Locus says:

[T]he book can’t be discussed or even described without spoiling some of the surprises, which are mutually reinforcing as well as juicy in themselves. I will, however, give in to the temptation to drop a few more of the names that came to mind as I was reading: the Three Gregs (Bear, Benford, Egan), Linda Nagata, and Frederik Pohl.

That’s another terrific check-list of greats (and not even late ones, this time). You want more? Says VOYA:

This book is true hard science fiction . . . [which] places the novel within the long tradition of Anderson, Asimov, Brin, and Clarke

When Paul di Filippo declares the authors the ‘Niven & Pournelle for the 21st century’, you’re know they’re really onto something.

Read more…

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Happy Birthday, Paul McAuley!

23 April 2013

Today, it gives all of us at SF Gateway and Gollancz great pleasure to wish a happy birthday to one of modern SF’s great writers.

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, John W. Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon and British Fantasy Awards, Paul McAuley has been a mainstay of British SF for the last 25 years. Beginning his career as one of the ‘Interzone generation’, he has been at the forefront of New Space Opera, explored post-Cyberpunk themes of genetic engineering and nanotechnology, given us some of the genre’s best near-future thrillers, enthralled us with tales of parallel realities, and continues to produce some of the very best work modern SF has seen.

From Paul’s first novel, 400 Billion Stars, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award to his latest, In the Mouth of the Whale, he has continued to set the standard for modern hard SF. We wish him many happy returns and commend you to seek out his work at your earliest convenience. You won’t be disappointed.

You can find Paul McAuley’s books here and here, and read more about him in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Paul blogs at unlikelyworlds.blogspot.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter here.

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SF Masterwork of the Week: Pat Cadigan’s SYNNERS

22 April 2013

Most SF writers will tell you that they’re not trying to predict the future. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction – good science fiction, at least – is not about the future at all, it is about the world the author saw while she was writing the book. But every now and again a book comes along that seems to have an uncanny insight into what is to come. With Synners, Pat Cadigan has written such a book.


In Synners, the line between technology and humanity is hopelessly slim. To be a Synner is to join the online hardcore, an outlaw band of hackers, simulation pirates, and reality synthesizers hooked on artificial reality and virtual space. Now you can change yourself to suit the machines – all it costs you is your freedom, and your humanity.

Synners shows us a world perilously close to our own. A constant stream of new technology spawns new crime before it hits the streets, and the human mind and the external landscape have fused to the point where any encounter with “reality” is incidental. Equal parts thrill-ride and cautionary tale, this classic novel by the Queen of Cyberpunk offers us a terrifying glimpse into the future of our race.

What was cutting-edge cyberpunk when it was first published now looks suspiciously like a blueprint for the future we find rushing towards us.  This Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel looks more and more prescient with every day, and reminds us that no genre can match SF’s ability to explore and try to understand the frenetic, ever-changing times in which we live. Or, as Lisa Tuttle says in her introduction: ‘Read Synners now, before it happens.’

Synners is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook.

You can read an extract from Synners here, and find more of Pat Cadigan’s cutting edge fiction at her author page on the SF Gateway.

For more information about Pat Cadigan see her entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

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GOOD NEWS! SCHEDULED MAINTENANCE POSTPONED!

19 April 2013

We’ve just had news that the planned server maintenance that was due to take the site offline tomorrow has been . . . er . . . unplanned. So, SF Gateway and our companion site, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, will be available as normal tomorrow. As soon as we learn the new date for the server maintenance, we’ll be sure to let you know.

Owing to essential server maintenance, the SF Gateway website will be offline for most of Saturday 20th April. Maintenance will begin at 8:00am British Summer Time and the site is not expected to return until approximately 6:00pm.

 

 

 

We apologise for the inconvenience.

 

 

 

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SF Masterwork of the Week: The Invisible Man

18 April 2013

The story of ‘the Ring of Gyges’ is very ancient, almost certainly older than its first recorded appearance in Plato’s Republic (380 BC)  There was once, the story goes, a humble shepherd in the ancient kingdom of Lydia (modern-day Turkey). This shepherd, Gyges by name, chanced upon a cave newly revealed by an earthquake, inside of which was a splendid tomb containing the body of a man.  This corpse was wearing a golden ring, which Gyges discovered had the magical power of rendering him invisible. The sequel of these events sees Gyges using his new-found power of invisibility to infiltrate the Court of Candaules, the Lydian king; seducing Candaules’ queen; killing Candaules and seizes the throne for himself.

Plato quotes this story in order to make a point about ethics.  We act in morally virtuous ways, Plato argues, only because we do not wish to face the disapproval and punishment of our fellow men: virtue is a purely social construction. If we were sure we would never be found out we would act in a morally disinhibited manner – theft, murder, betrayal.  Virtue, in other words, consists in being seen.

This extract from Adam Roberts‘ introduction to H.G. Wells‘ classic SF novel, The Invisible Man, shows two things:

1) That Adam Roberts is cleverer and more well-read than most of us can ever hope to be, and . . .
2) That as well as having a towering imagination for plot and invention, H.G. Wells had an acute understanding of human nature

Published in 1897, The Invisible Man is a classic study of the dangers of science misused. The theme is clearly a powerful one,and the novel has been adapted many times for film and television, as well as providing a key character in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s brilliant comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (And also in the film adaptation thereof. But that wasn’t brilliant)

We are delighted to be republishing this seminal SF novel in the SF Masterworks series – although, sadly, not as an SF Gateway eBook – complete with an incisive and insightful introduction by award-winning SF writer Adam Roberts.

You can read more about H.G. Wells in his author entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

Adam Roberts is the acclaimed author of over a dozen SF novels. He was been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times and the Philip K. Dick Award once. His latest novel is Jack Glass, which recently won the BSFA Award for best novel, and is available from Gollancz in hardback and as an eBook.

 

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Why Should I Read EVERGENCE by Sean Williams and Shane Dix?

17 April 2013

You need to read Evergence because you’re either a space opera fan or a Star Wars fan, or both (you can be both, it’s okay).

Here’s a review in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction that explains why:

George Lucas missed a sure bet when he chose to film his own Big-Dumb-Object-filled script for The Phantom Menace (1999) rather than open up his precious project to outside sources. He could have turned, for instance, to Sean Williams and Shane Dix, adapting their new space opera Evergence: The Prodigal Sun . . . into his beloved Star Wars mythos. He would have started with a book that is genre-savvy and capably written, full of adventure and Asimovian imperial vistas.

‘Asimovian’ speaks volumes, doesn’t it? It gets better: Read more…

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