Thoughts from the SF Gateway

SFX Book Club: A Canticle for Leibowitz

28 March 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. On this occasion, we revisit one of the seminal works of religious-themed SF, Walter M. Miller, Jr‘s remarkable A Canticle for Leibowitz. Taking us on this tour of a post-apocalyptic future rife with <ahem> revelations is the BSFA Award-winning author of the Ashraf Bey trilogy, Jon Courtenay Grimwood . . .
 

You could say that it takes luck to publish only one novel and for that novel to sell over two million copies and influence an entire generation of readers and writers. You could say it takes brilliance. But for Walter M. Miller, Jr it took guilt…

In 529AD the Italian Monastery of Monte Cassino was founded by St Benedict, who gave his name to the Benedictine monks (stay with us, this really matters). In 581 the Lombards destroyed it. In 883 it was the turn of the Arabs. The next time war reduced Monte Cassino to rubble was 1944, when it was bombed into the dirt by the Allied air force. The German forces survived by hiding in caves, but the Western world’s oldest monastery, most of its art treasures and a number of its priceless manuscripts were destroyed.

One of those involved in the bombing of Monte Cassino was a young tail gunner who’d turned 22 a couple of weeks before. His name was Walter M. Miller. In total, he flew 55 combat missions, and the bombing of Monte Cassino was to haunt him, quite possibly right up to the moment he shot himself through the head, just before his 73rd birthday (while working on a sequel).

In A Canticle for Leibowitz the monastery at Monte Cassino becomes an abbey in the southwestern United States (as was), and the bombing becomes a nuclear war that has reduced the world to rubble, although it is the rubble of a civilisation. After the flame deluge of nuclear war came the simplification: a violent backlash against all those who designed and made the weapons that destroyed society. Books were burnt and literacy vanished, intellectuals and scientists were killed. A new and voluntary dark age descended on the already ravaged Earth.

Against the back history, Miller traces the rise of a new civilisation over the course of 1,500 years, taking the world back to where we came in. It’s a lot funnier than it sounds. At least, the results are, by the time we meet them.

The novel opens with the finding of a list left by the Blessed Saint Leibowitz, founder of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, who, before he converted to Catholicism, was a Jewish engineer working for the United States Army. The list reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – bring home for Emma.”

The list is found by Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, who is punished rather than rewarded by his superiors. Apparently another miracle is not what the Church needs. And while the reader knows this is a shopping list, and another relic is a lottery ticket, that information is denied to the monks, who are all that protect knowledge in a world of robbers, mutants and wild animals. So the monks look for meaning in the strange lists, and robbers mistake beautifully painted copies for the original and tatty relics for poor copies. And all the time, Miller is really talking about us.

There’s a Zen dryness to A Canticle for Leibowitz; a sense of it being written by someone who needs to talk about what he’s seen by talking about something else. The book is really three linked novellas, with the first originally published in 1955, the second in 1956 and the third in 1957, all in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. After some reworking, the three novellas were combined in 1959 to produce the book which won miller the 1961 Hugo Award.

Written at the height of the Cold War, Canticle is now regarded as the definitive post-bomb SF novel, but even this is to underestimate Walter M. Miller’s achievement. Because this is also a book about religion, and as such, is a forerunner to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man (1969), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1997), among others.

A Canticle for Leibowitz also achieved status as a breakthrough book, receiving reviews from heavyweight papers across the world, and doing much to make science fiction novels acceptable. And it did all this with humour, intelligence, anger and conviction. Without it written SF would look very different.

 

A Canticle for Leibowitz is available as an SF Masterworks hardback. You can read more about Walter M. Miller in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

This piece was written by Jon Courtenay Grimwood 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.

 

 

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On This Day: M C Escher

27 March 2014

It was on this day in 1972 that the extraordinary Dutch artist M. C. Escher died. ‘Who?’ You might be saying (although we really hope you’re not!). Well, him:

The guy that did this:

And this:

Capish?

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On This Day: John Dee

26 March 2014

We find ourselves in conflicted times – Manichean days, where battle lines are routinely drawn and in all walks of life, it seems, we must choose: are you with us, or agin us? Are you Left or Right? Capitalist or communist? Pro-Europe or Anti-Europe? And nowhere is this seen more starkly than in the relationship between science and religion.

How strange to think that there was a time – not so very long ago, really – when the callings of science and alchemy were seen very much as two sides of the same coin. The corridors of power echoed to the feet of those who were both astronomer and astrologer, scientist and occultist, mathematician and thaumaturge. And the greatest of these was Dr John Dee: mathematician, astrologer, cartographer, Hermetic philosopher and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I.

 

As noted in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Along with figures like Roger Bacon, he is an underlying model for later generations of the magus: half-Scientist, half-sorcerer. Because Dee stands on the cusp of worlds, and because of the passion with which he attempted to arrive at the truth behind the sleep of matter, he has attracted some attention over the centuries, though his reputation was put into eclipse for a century after the publication of William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834), which vilified him.

A figure like that, of course, is going to prove irresistible to more than a few writers. John Dee appears in Michael Moorcock‘s Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen; John Crowley‘s Aegypt sequence, comprising Aegypt, Love and Sleep, Daemonomania and Endless Things; Lisa Goldstein‘s The Alchemist’s Door; and  Liz WilliamsThe Poison Master, to name but a few.

A contemporary of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Walsingham, Francis Bacon and Robert Dudley, who’s also an alchemist, a cartographer, navigator and astronomer? Sounds like an HBO television series just waiting to be made . . .

 

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New Book of the Week: 1610: A Sundial in a Grave

25 March 2014

From the BSFA Award-winning author of Ash: A Secret History . . .

 

Valentin Rochefort, professional duellist and down-at-heels aristocrat, arranges the assassination of Henri IV, King of France. Fleeing from the consequences, he makes for England, on the way picking up two companions: a young boy, Dariole, and a ship-wrecked ‘demon’.

Dariole is discovered first to be a girl, and then to be Rochefort’s sister; the ‘demon’ is Tanaka Saburo, a Japanese samurai on ambassadorial mission to England from the Shogun; and Rochefort is found by a pack of Hermetic mages and conspirators, who want him to arrange the same thing for King James I/VI of England as he did for Henri of France.

Rochefort is blackmailed into arranging the death of King James at the performance of a Hermetic magic play. Meanwhile, Dariole is busy making forays into Shakespeare’s theatre as England’s first (and worst) female actor . . .

1610 really isn’t Rochefort’s year. And as the play’s performance and the assassination approach, Rochefort’s dreams of the future that may spring from this crucial year grow increasingly stranger and more contradictory. He realises he must act – but, how? What is the right choice? And how much of the future will depend on what he does? 

 

1610: A Sundial in a Grave is available as an SF Gateway eBook and a Gollancz paperback. You can find more of Mary Gentle’s work via her Author page on the SF Gateway website and read more about her in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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SF Masterwork of the Week: The Godwhale

24 March 2014

Born in Iowa in 1932, Thomas Joespeh Bassler was a doctor and, under the pen name T. J. Bass, an  SF writer, principally known for his ‘Hive’ stories; the first of these, published in Galaxy Science Fiction and If, were combined into the novel Half Past Human which was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1972. The loose sequel and our SF Masterwork of the Week, The Godwhale, was nominated for the same award three years later.

Rorqual Maru was a cyborg – part organic whale, part mechanised ship – and part god.

She was a harvester – a vast plankton rake, now without a crop, abandoned by earth society when the seas died.So she selected an island for her grave, hoping to keep her carcass visible for salvage.

Although her long ear heard nothing, she believed that man still lived in his hive. If he should ever return to the sea, she wanted to serve.

She longed for the thrill of a human’s bare feet touching the skin of her deck. She missed the hearty hails, the sweat and the laughter.

She needed mankind.

But all humans were long gone … or were they?

 

 

The Godwhale is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of T. J. Bass’ 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: World of Tomorrow

21 March 2014

Once upon a time, the world thrilled to extraordinary tales told at breakneck pace. Tales of the unknowable. Tales of the unthinkable. Tales like this . . .

 

Everything was ordinary. Men worked in factories and fields. Women were shopping. Children were at school. Then came the four-minute warning. Wires hummed madly between heads of governments. Just before the massive retaliation went into the air the world realised that no-one had despatched the first rocket.

The retaliation was checked with seconds to spare. Experts examined the ruined city. There was something else besides radiation. Deadly bacteria from an unknown source spread across the planet. More alien bombs followed the first. But there was no real pattern in the attacks, if they were genuine attacks.

At last the detectors found the alien ships. They were fighting among themselves and earth was the battle-area. Could the remnants of humanity interfere? What would be the result if they did?

 

THIS!

IS!

WORLD OF TOMORROW!

BY KARL ZIEGFRIED

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!!!!!

 

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Connie Willis

20 March 2014

From the vaults of the SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal introduction to the fantastic work of SFWA Grand Master and multiple award-winner, Connie Willis, one of the field’s most influential and beloved authors.

 

Trade Paperback | eBook

 

Connie Willis is one of science fiction’s most decorated authors, with a staggering eleven Hugos and seven Nebula Awards to her name. She is best known for her sequence of time-travel stories including SF Masterworks Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog and the Hugo Award-winning diptych Blackout and All Clear. This omnibus collects her solo debut, Lincoln’s Dreams, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Passage, shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

 

You can find more of Connie Willis’ work via her author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about her in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

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From the Attic V: Seven For A Secret

19 March 2014

Seven personal favourite SF and Fantasy Novels by women that I think deserve a UK edition.

 

Elizabeth Bear – Dust

A couple of years ago I was able to pick up some of Elizabeth Bear‘s US editions in my local bookstore but not recently.  Given her popularity in award polls and her prolific and varied output (23 books published since 2005!) I’m surprised they’re not more readily available over here.

Her work includes Urban and Historical Fantasy, near and far future SF.  Dust is the first volume of the epic SF Jacob’s Ladder generation starship trilogy and is followed by Chill and Grail.  Packed with adventure, Arthurian imagery, and classic SF conceits given a contemporary twist or three they make fun, fascinating and thought-provoking reading.

Cara Murphy says more at Speculative Book Review.  

 

Rosel George Brown – Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue

Talking online I seem to be the only person I know who has read Rosel George Brown‘s two novels and handful of short stories.  Sadly she died aged just 41 in 1967.

The eponymous Sibyl Sue Blue is a thirty-something single mother and detective with a deep interest in Greek classics.  She’s interested in men, but on her own terms.  With a drug-fuelled plot out of early PKD and a classic 60s heroine Brown’s short novels are great fun with hidden depths. Right from page one Sibyl resourcefully defeats alien attackers, fends off male advances, handles her stroppy teenage daughter and plans her future literary thesis.

 

CJ Cherryh – Foreigner

It took me too long to get into C J Cherryh‘s SF.  Jo Walton recommended her frequently when she lived near me but I think I picked the ‘wrong’ one for me.  Twenty years later I tried again with more success.  (as an aside that’s been true of one or two authors I’ve initially struggled with.)

There are interesting series within the over all Alliance-Union setting of Cherryh’s many space operas, but Foreigner, and its sequels, is unusual in its conflicted portrayal of first contact and colonisation.  Acclaimed new author Ann Leckie recently discussed agency in the Foreigner series in terms of small scale actions which much SF ignores.

 

Patricia Geary – Strange Toys

An author who won the Philip K Dick Award for this, her second novel, then disappeared totally from commercial publication for many years.

Strange Toys is a darkly surreal account of growing up in fear.  Like Bradbury‘s Something Wicked This way Comes, Geary gets deep under the skin of small towns and family dynamics.  Part road novel, part carnival sideshow tour, Strange Toys recognises where our fears come from and where they are amplified.

Allie McCarn talks about it on her blog.

 

Lisa Goldstein – The Dream Years

I’ve said it before, Lisa Goldstein is as good a contemporary fantasy writer as any of her more acclaimed male peers.  She is one of those authors who I will always buy on publication day and she’s never let me down.

The Dream Years is a time-travel/alternative history set mostly in 1920s Paris.  The hero, a member of Andre Breton’s surrealist group, keeps seeing a mysterious woman who it transpires has come from the future.  He then follows her back (or forward) in time to 1968 and the Student Riots in Paris. Goldstein’s evocative descriptions and distinctive ideas support a bitter-sweet romance and thoughtful discourse.

Fans of Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers and their ilk really should look at Goldstein’s works.  Lori Ann White talked to her for Strange Horizons.

 

Andrea Hairston – Mindscape

In some ways this is one of the most confusing SF novels I have ever read, at least amongst those I would describe as good.  And yet I love it.

At some point in the future earth is divided into three zones by a mysterious and fatal alien energy barrier.  Only certain griots can manipulate passage through.  Following a peace treaty its architect is assassinated.  What follows jumps back and forth in time and between viewpoints and zones, never trying to explain the premise, but to describe how people deal with it.  Andrea Hairston throws in conceptual words drawn from Yoruba and German along with one memorable character’s use of contemporary black street slang.  It’s hard work at first, we aren’t familiar with this cross-cultural input in SF yet, but Hairston’s concepts and energetic writing eventually gripped me.  Her second novel, Redwood & Wildfire, may be the best I’ve read in five years.

M. Fenn seems to share my opinion.

 

Judith Moffett – The Ragged World

The idea that aliens might come to save us from ourselves is not new in SF but Judith Moffett looks unflinchingly at the consequences.  The aliens are subject to racism, and the very human characters face complex moral issues and personal tragedies. The trilogy this launches proselytises ecological concerns, homesteading and mindfulness, explores issues of faith and religion from inside and out of several denominations and scatters in a genuinely broad range of sexualities without overly preaching.  I’ve read these multiple times and keep learning from them.

A fascinating interview by Farah Mendlesohn gives insight into Moffett’s thinking.

 
 

There should be something to intrigue and inspire most of you there.

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SF Gateway: the BSFA Award-winners

18 March 2014

With the 65th Eastercon just round the corner and with it the presentation of the BSFA Awards, we thought it appropriate to take a look over the history of the award and see how many of our titles have won the award since it was relaunched in its current form in 1970. And we’re glad we did because it was a very pleasant surprise to find that the answer – if one counts Gollancz books as well as SF Gateway books – is ‘almost all of them’!

A staggering 33 of the 43 winners to date are published by Gollancz or SF Gateway. Some have always been Gollancz titles, while others were first published by other imprints but are Gollancz or SF Gateway now. Take a look . . .

SF Gateway:

1970 Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
1971 The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner
1974 Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
1975 Inverted World, Christopher Priest
1976 Orbitsville, Bob Shaw
1977 Brontomek!, Michael G. Coney
1978 The Jonah Kit, Ian Watson
1979 A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
1981 Timescape, Gregory Benford
1982 The Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe
1983 Helliconia Spring, Brian W. Aldiss
1984 Tik-Tok, John Sladek
1985 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock
1986 Helliconia Winter, Brian W. Aldiss
1987 The Ragged Astronauts, Bob Shaw
1988 Gráinne, Keith Roberts
1989 Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
1991 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland
1992 The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons
1994 Aztec Century, Christopher Evans
1999 The Extremes, Christopher Priest
2001 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
2003 The Separation, Christopher Priest

Gollancz:

1990 Pyramids, Terry Pratchett
2002 Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds
2004 Felaheen: The Third Arabesk, Jon Courtenay Grimwood
2005 River of Gods, Ian McDonald
2006 Air, Geoff Ryman
2007 End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood
2008 Brasyl, Ian McDonald
2011 The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
2012 The Islanders, Christopher Priest
2013 Jack Glass, Adam Roberts

Um . . . wow.

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SF Masterwork of the Week: The Sirens of Titan

17 March 2014

A science fiction masterpiece from the acclaimed author of Slaughterhouse 5.

A classic, ripe with wit and eloquence and a cascade of inventiveness

~ Brian Aldiss

 

When Winston Niles Rumfoord flies his spaceship into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum he is converted into pure energy and only materializes when his waveforms intercept Earth or some other planet. As a result, he only gets home to Newport, Rhode Island, once every fifty-nine days and then only for an hour. But at least, as a consolation, he now knows everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will be. He knows, for instance, that his wife is going to Mars to mate with Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world.

He also knows that on Titan – one of Saturn’s moons – is an alien from the planet Tralfamadore, who has been waiting 200,000 years for a spare part for his grounded spacecraft …

 

 

The Sirens of Titan is available as an SF Masterworks paperback. You can read more about Kurt Vonnegut and his work in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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