Thoughts from the SF Gateway

Author of the Month: Mary Gentle

30 June 2014

July’s Author of the Month, Mary Gentle, occupies that most interesting of places – the area where Fantasy and Science Fiction meet and mingle.  Did we say ‘area’? Perhaps that should be ‘areas’. Or perhaps we shouldn’t use the word at all, singular or plural; perhaps we should say ‘attitude’ or ‘approach’ or . . . look, we’ll start again.

Mary Gentle writes wonderful books and uses whichever tropes of SF, Fantasy or Historical fiction seem best-suited to getting the job done. Yes, that’s the ticket!

Gentle began her career with the YA fantasy A Hawk in Silver, moving on to planetary romance with the acclaimed Orthe sequence – Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light – before creating a Moorcockian multiverse with her White Crow series, comprising novels Rats and Gargoyles (1990) and The Architecture of Desire (1991) and collection of linked stories, Left to his Own Devices. The major work of Mary Gentle’s career (thus far) is Ash: A Secret History, a massive historical fantasy . . . or perhaps SF. Or maybe alternate history.

Classification is . . . difficult.

And, almost as if to taunt us even further in out attempts to apply rigorous sun-generic taxonomy, there’s the fantasy parody Grunts! to consider – an account of a certain war of Good vs Evil (you know the one) told from the point of view of the poor, downtrodden footsoldier of the armies of darkness: the Orcs.

Regardless of how Mary Gentle’s books are classified, it’s clear that her abundant talent is appreciated by both readers and critics alike. Mary has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice, the BSFA Award five times (winning once), the James Tiptree,Jr Memorial Award twice, the Sidewise Award twice (winning once) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award once (tying for second place).

Perhaps, in the final analysis, Mary Gentle’s work exemplifies the truth that the only category that really matters is ‘good books’.

 

You can find 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. For the month of July, all of her SF Gateway eBooks will be available at reduced prices.

 

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SF Gateway Omnibus of the Week: Theodore Sturgeon

27 June 2014

 From the SF Gateway, the most comprehensive digital library of classic SFF titles ever assembled, comes an ideal sample introduction to the fantastic imagination of Theodore Sturgeon, one of the great names in science fiction.

trade paperback | eBook

Highly acclaimed for his short fiction, Sturgeon is nevertheless best known for his 1953 novel, More Than Human, and for scripting the Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’, which introduced the Vulcan mating ritual, the pon farr. This omnibus contains three of his finest works: The Dreaming Jewels, To Marry Medusa and Venus Plus X.

You can find more of Theodore Sturgeon’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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Have You Heard? I Am Legend . .

26 June 2014

At the end of last month, we were pleased to note that BBC Radio 4 would be airing a new two-part adaptation of Philip K. Dick‘s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as part of their Dangerous Visions season.

Now, BBC Radio 4 Extra will present a two-part audio reading of Richard Matheson‘s timeless post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend, starting this Sunday at 6:30 pm. We have no details to share apart from the fact it was first broadcast in December 2007 and is narrated by Angus McInnes, but if you’re looking for a way to kill half an hour between the World Cup Last Sixteen matches (and we know you are),  you could do worse than tune in and find out . . .

And we’d be very remiss if we didn’t point out that I Am Legend is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook.

Enjoy!

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On This Day: Hermann Oberth & George Orwell

25 June 2014

Born on this day, nine years apart, were two men whose work makes them of immense importance to the world of science fiction, even if we can’t quite claim them as ‘one of us’.

Born 25th June, 1894, Hermann Julius Oberth, was one of the four founders of modern rocketry (with Wernher von Braun, Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky) rocketry. Inspired by the scientific romances of Jules Verne – especially the space-based stories – Oberth served as scientific consultant on Fritz Lang‘s Frau im Mond (‘The Woman in the Moon), the first motion picture to have scenes set in space.

In 1929, he published Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (‘Ways to Spaceflight’), for which he won an award from the French Astronomical Society for the encouragement of astronautics. It was later that year, though, that he would make his greatest mark on the world, when he conducted a successful firing of his first liquid-fuelled rocket.  Assisting him in this experiment was a young student by the name of Wernher von Braun, who would go on to head the Nazi rocket programme and, after the War, become a central figure in the development of the Saturn V rocket, which would deliver the first human beings to the Moon.

June 25th, 1903 saw the arrival in the world of Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the world as George Orwell, author of perhaps the greatest dystopian novel ever written. Nineteen Eighty-Four should really be enough for us to claim Orwell as, if not an SF writer, then certainly a writer of SF. The self-appointed literati of the world, of course, will stamp their feet and refuse to admit that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a work of SF (because a book can’t be both ‘good’ and ‘science fiction’ – as any fule kno) but we try not to pay too much attention to the chronically irrelevant, so there’s no reason to give credence to such nonsense.

In fact, upon mature reflection, we’ve decided that not only can we claim Oberth and Orwell as ‘one of us’, but we should. And we do.

Happy Birthday, Hermann Oberth and George Orwell: key figures in the history of science fiction.

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SFX Book Club: The Stars My Destination

24 June 2014

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling space,
The stars my destination.

Current SF Master work of the Week is one of the all-time great works of SF. Among many other claims to fame, it is one of the major precursors of Cyberpunk, a brilliant riff on Dumas‘s The Count of Monte Cristo and the novel that gave The Tomorrow People the term for their teleporting ability. It is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – winner of the first ever Hugo Award for best novel, and here to introduce it, thanks to our good friends at SFX and their excellent Book Club, is the man with more Hugo nominations than anyone in the award’s history: David Langford.

 

“He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting… ”

Gully Foyle starts at the bottom and claws his way up to become one of science fiction’s strongest anti-heroes. At first a non-entity, a dull space-hand with no future, he’s marooned in deep space amid the wreckage of his ship, Nomad. Foyle’s transformation begins when the sister craft Vorga appears, ignores a barrage of distress flares, and passes him by. “Vorga, I kill you filthy.” Read more…

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SF Masterwork of the Week: The Stars My Destination

23 June 2014

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.

There are very few poems that resonate in science fiction literature, but the quatrain above is certainly one of them. Alfred Bester‘s debut novel, The Demolished Man, won the first Hugo Award for best novel. As brilliant as The Demolished Man is, his third novel (and second SF novel) The Stars My Destination, published three years later, is even better. Modelled after Alexandre DumasThe Count of Monte Cristo, it is a tour de force of a proto-cyberpunk, space opera revenge saga. To read it is to see what science fiction at its best is capable of . . .

 

Gully Foyle, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class.

EDUCATION: none

SKILLS: none

MERITS: none

RECOMMENDATIONS: none

That’s the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman.

But right now he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel, the Vorga, ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge. He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions . . .

 

The Stars My Destination is available as an SF Masterworks paperback. You can read more about Alfred Bester in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

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New Book of the Week: Double Vision

20 June 2014

Our New Book of the Week comes from one of science fiction’s most extraordinary and original voices – winner of the 1999 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan.

In 2004, Tricia rewrote the rulebook with Maul – a dual-narrative mesh of near-future timelines we can only describe as genderpunk and consumerterrorism – which went on to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA and James Tiptree, Jr Awards. Then, having bent our minds as far as they could go, with Maul, she snapped them with Double Vision . . .

 

When shy, psychic bookworm ‘Cookie’ Orbach watches television, she sees things. But not the things that you or I would see. Cookie sees The Grid – a strange, shifting landscape where human forces battle against an enemy they dare not kill.

Her employer, the mysterious Dataplex Corporation, pays her well to watch this war, and asks only that she report her observations but take no direct action, which suits her passive demeanour just fine.

But Cookie’s quiet life is about to be shattered. Her two very different worlds are threatening to merge in a way that shouldn’t really be possible. Everything is about to change. And we do mean everything . . .

You can find more of Tricia Sullivan’s work via her Author page on the SF Gateway website and read about her in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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R.I.P. Daniel Keyes

19 June 2014

All of us at Gollancz and SF Gateway were saddened to learn of the death of Daniel Keyes. Although never a prolific author, he made an indelible mark on science fiction – and the literary world at large – with the incredibly moving masterpiece Flowers for Algernon. A Nebula Award-winning novel expanded from a Hugo Award-winning story, it tells the tale of Charlie Gordon, whose low IQ (68) is artificially enhanced to genius level and then . . . well, and then go and read the novel. You won’t regret it.

 

Daniel Keyes (1927 – 2014)

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On This Day: Red Simonsen

18 June 2014

Back when the stars were young and dinosaurs walked the Earth, your humble correspondent used to play wargames every weekend. Sometimes they were historical boardgames, sometimes fantasy boardgames, other times they were RPGs. The group of friends I played with had a good range of games and we varied in our tastes – one was fond of Avalon Hill products (Third Reich being the favourite, followed closely by Kingmaker and War and Peace); another was busy building various armies of historical miniatures (remember: this was pre-internet, so these things were hard to track down); but me? My heart belonged to SPI.

My shelves were filled with SPI games: the more-sophisticated-than-D&D roleplaying system DragonQuest; John Carter, Warlord of Mars, with its brilliant hand-to-hand duelling system; Sorcerer, and its innovative colour-based combat system; Time Tripper, featuring chronally-displaced US infantrymen pitched against foes ancient and yet-to-be; and, of course, the wonderful Middle Earth wargame War of the Ring.

I gave SPI my unquestioning loyalty in the same way I did DC Comics; there’s no reason there had to be a Manichean choice but that’s the way I remember it. Although Avalon Hill was the dominant force in wargames at the time, fantasy gaming – at least, so it seemed to me – was more or less divided between its own Big Two of Simulations Publication, Inc. (SPI) and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), and you were either DC or Marvel. SPI or TSR. As publishers of the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons, TSR had a major presence, with seemingly endless series of D&D expansion rules as well as genre-variants like Boot Hill (westerns), Gangbusters (prohibition-era gangsters) and Top Secret (spies).

SPI, though, had something that TSR couldn’t match: Ares Magazine. Launched in 1980, Ares was a kind of SF&F variant of SPI’s successful Strategy & Tactics military history and gaming magazine. Each issue of Ares contained games reviews, articles and short fiction – and a complete SF or fantasy wargame. I remember Albion (the game of Britain in a time of elves and trolls), Barbarian Kings (fantasy empires in conflict), Delta Vee (a space combat game that formed the tactical element of their SF RPG Universe) – even a game based on Harry Harrison‘s Stainless Steel Rat stories. Great fun!

But apart from allowing me to wallow in nostalgia, what exactly does any of the above have to do with the topic at hand? Simply this: that almost every one of the SPI games I mentioned above credited Redmond Simonsen as either artist or designer. He was the first name designer of wargames I had come across (apart from Gary Gygax, naturally) and I came to rely upon his name – or that of fellow SPI designer Greg Costikyan – as a guarantee of excellence.

Red Simonsen died in 2005 but, had he been spared, today would have been his 72nd birthday. That seems like a good day to say, on behalf of a much younger proto-me, ‘Happy Birthday, Red – and thanks for the adventures’.

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From the Attic VII: Vonda N. McIntyre

17 June 2014

In the Nebula-winning novella “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” a healer, Snake, uses three specially bred snakes to inject medicines to the sick.  Whilst saving the life of a young boy one of her snakes is killed by his suspicious family.  Unfortunately these dreamsnakes are almost irreplaceable and a healer without one is seriously limited.  Snake must set off back to her people and beg for another chance.

Vonda N. McIntyre depicts an isolated community, unaware of the world beyond theirs, and crippled by fear of it.  Snake fails to engage with them and they refuse without recognition.

“Are you afraid?”

            “I will do as you tell me.”

Snake is an outsider, and they fear her.  She has medicine, her snakes, that they need yet do not understand and so fear, and through their fear, destroy them.  McIntyre makes all of this explicit whilst drawing the reader through the imaginative, original details of her concept: The Dreamsnake.    It is a story full of emotion, the saving of a child, the tentative bonding of Snake and one of the family, the tension when Grass is killed.  It is also a story that recognises some reasons why people fear the other that are less often articulated.  Ignorance is obvious, but guilt leading not to reconciliation but deeper discomfort and fear is as interesting here.

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” later became the opening of the Hugo-winning novel Dreamsnake, a book that is curiously hard to find these days.  Dreamsnake follows Snake as she tries to find her way back to her people in the faint hope of forgiveness for losing Grass.  It is in many ways a classic, episodic, SF fantastic journey across what we gradually learn is a post-apocalyptic world.   Along the way she meets a trio in a polyamorous relationship which is shown to have an equally balanced power dynamic.  The community in “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” also appears to have some kind of polygamous partnership system implied, but it is clear there that they have a leader.  She is a woman.

When Snake reaches a town she finds a society where physical perfection is not only the ultimate desire, but those who fall short are excluded, hidden and abused.  Snake befriends and rescues a young girl scarred from a fire who has been abused and mistreated since.

There is a link to McIntyre’s first novel The Exile Waiting, as the world of Dreamsnake is the outside world of that novel’s city-locked setting. There is no need to read these in order however.  Though the City is mentioned it is only seen as Snake attempts to gain entrance and refuge but is turned away.

It may seem that Dreamsnake is a polemical novel, and it is true that McIntyre was an outspoken feminist commentator on 70s SF alongside better remembered writers such as Joanna Russ.  She certainly doesn’t pull punches, and several set pieces nicely subvert expectations.  Dreamsnake is a clever novel though, McIntyre works on multiple levels simultaneously.  There is drama and action, social comment, and romance, and there is a neat trick when the gender of one character is never revealed.  I must confess I didn’t spot that until I read an interview elsewhere, and I realised I had made an unfounded assumption like many other readers, as I’m guessing was McIntyre’s own expectation.

As noted McIntyre’s work can be hard to find now, though she does sell her work from her own website.  For many years it seemed her only available work was her Star Trek spin-off novels.  Her collection Fireflood & Other Stories covering her 1970s shorter work was published in the UK and is worth looking for.  Aside from “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” the collection also includes ‘Aztecs’ which became part of the novel Superluminal‘Aztecs’ opens in hospital, Laenea is recovering from surgery to replace her human heart with an artificial one so that she can undergo the rigours of a space Pilot’s existence.  This need to become transhuman to develop space flight was common in 1970s SF, see also McCaffrey, Spinrad, Delany and others, but McIntyre examines more closely the process rather than the aftermath as Laenea fights through her ordeals to maintain her humanity.  McIntyre frequently returns in her work to ideas of biocontrol, conscious manipulation of body functions.  In Dreamsnake the idea of birth control via biocontrol allows for a tender, intimate scene which gently challenges egotistical views of sexual prowess.  ‘Aztecs’ takes this further as Laenea strengthens her abilities to manipulate the artificial heart rather than be governed by the natural stresses of her human heart.  Again the author is not afraid to make individual points within the bigger picture.

A man moved up behind her while she was in the dim region between two streetlamps.  “Hey,” he said, “how about–”  His tone was beligerent with inexperience or insecurity or fear.

Elsewhere in stories such as “Fireflood” and especially “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” McIntyre achieves an elegiacal poignancy whilst raging against the dying of the light that is not death but institutionalisation.  Her protagonist in the latter story particularly spans generations and refuses to accept the constraints of the new at the cost of her freedom.

The work for which Vonda N McIntyre is about to become famous however is at least superficially nothing like those works discussed so far.  Her 1998 Nebula Award-winning historical fantasy novel The Moon & The Sun is currently being filmed in Australia with Pierce Brosnan, William Hurt and Fan Bingbing in starring roles.  In Versailles at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV a young woman comes into contact with a sea monster.  Her natural philosopher-priest brother has captured it for the king.  Marie-Josephe is a lady in waiting to Louis’ niece, and much of this novel entertainingly depicts events at court.  She is also a talented artist though obviously not allowed to pursue this, but her brother allows her to sketch the sea monster for his studies.  She is also openly mocked by the Pope for her daring to think she can compose music.  It becomes clear that Marie-Josephe has a truer understanding of the monster than Yves, and her empathy reveals it is not a sea monster but a sea woman, a mermaid.  Both women along with Marie-Josephe’s maid Odelette are trapped in their roles, literally and metaphorically, but each comes together to break out.  Odelette, initially a slave from Martinique, is revealed to be Turkish, Marie-Josephe it is implied is possibly mixed race also from Martinique and McIntyre deftly uses assumptions of identity around these and other characters including gay members of the court to subvert standard genre tropes.  It is in the fears and superstitions of the court that The Moon & The Sun comes to resemble Dreamsnake, in the breaking of institutions that it echoes other earlier works by McIntyre.  Her ability to tell a moving story from the point of view of an ‘alien’ is also evident in many of her short stories.

On that 1998 Nebula ballot McIntyre beat luminaries such as Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold and something called A Game Of Thrones by George RR Martin.  (Whatever happened to him?)  Despite this, she has almost been forgotten.  On the strength of Dreamsnake, Fireflood and The Moon & The Sun she ought to be read more widely and discussed.

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