Every so often someone on this site or elsewhere asks for recommendations for good science fiction to read. I’ve read several wonderful SF books recently, so as a public service I’d like to recommend them here. I’ve based this post on reviews I’ve written in Goodreads, which is a social networking site for bibliomanes.
First up is Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett. John Redlantern is one of 532 living descendants of two explorers cast away on Eden, a planet marooned beyond the edge of the Galaxy, so lonely it doesn’t even have a Sun. Six generations after the landing, the community remains confined to one, single valley, its weird ecology maintained by geothermal energy and lit by bioluminescent plants and animals. The people have long since regressed to the stone age. They are overcrowded, and, having depleted the ecology of the one small valley in which they live, starving. Inbreeding depression and the Founder Effect have also had their way (look, this is meant to be a science blog – so sue me.)
John, though, is not satisfied with his lot, and wonders what lies beyond Snowy Dark, the range of mountains that surrounds the deceptive security of the valley he and his many relations have known all their lives. Is Circle Valley the only habitable part of Eden? His discoveries will jolt Eden out of its complacency – for good or ill.
Perhaps inescapably reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, this marvellous book has some of the haunting, elegiac air of those post-apocalyptic classics Earth Abides or A Canticle for Leibowitz – of tiny communities trying to come to terms with their much greater pasts.
John Redlantern and his companions, especially feisty Tina Spiketree; the clubfooted philosopher Jeff; the tortured village elder Bella Redlantern, and all the rest, are utterly, heartbreakingly believable. It’s hard to come away from a brand-new novel and have the feeling that you’ve just put down something that’ll be a classic one day – one doesn’t have the necessary perspective – but Dark Eden has the feel of a classic in the making. The locale, the characters, their predicament, and the story as a whole, all point in that direction. If I have one quibble, it is the way the tale is told, in alternating sections from the points of view of different characters, which can be confusing at times. That aside, I’d recommend this unreservedly to anyone, whether they usually read SF or not, who likes a good page-turning read with strong, believable characters.
Alastair Reynolds will be familiar to many from space operas such as Revelation Space and Chasm City. Terminal World is very different. Although not space opera, it is otherwise very hard to define (and there’s nothing wrong with that.) At a first approximation I’d call it Far-Future steampunk. It’s set in and around Spearpoint, a gigantic atmosphere-piercing skyscraper and the very last human city, whose various districts are defined by Zones in which various kinds of technology can and can’t function. The protagonist, Quillon, is a pathologist in the Third District Morgue of Neon Heights, whose technology is mid-twentieth-century. Quillon is, however, not all he seems – even to himself. He’s the last vestige of a program by the Angels – posthumans living high up on Spearpoint – to infiltrate the lower levels. To escape likely assassination he has to leave Spearpoint and journey out into a large, scary and almost unknown world.
The premise of the book puts one in mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City And The Stars, likewise set in the last remaining human city, somewhen in the far future. Otherwise it could hardly be more different. The trappings are very, very steampunk. No steampunk is complete without airships, and Terminal World doesn’t disappoint. There are lots and lots of airships. There is also much good old-fashioned shoot-em-up high adventure as Quillon and his assorted companions battle a series of variously terrifying and disgusting foes.
At the risk of spoiling things, it’s not just Quillon who is more than he seems at first – it’s the entire locale. Seasoned SF readers will soon pick up the clues, whose solution sheds a wan light, if only fleetingly, on an ancient mystery within which the protagonists are constrained to work. I’m a sucker for stories like this, in which the characters toil unknowingly within the greater tides of history and landscape (Dark Eden is another if very different riff on this theme), a trope that goes back to Thomas Hardy and Tess Of The D’Urbevilles. An enjoyable departure.
And now, from two novels, to two anthologies of short stories. Like the three-minute single was to punk, short stories really are the most vital medium in SF. Stories allow an author to present a single, intriguing idea and leave you wanting more, rather than trusting you to bear with all the ramifications at novel length. I love anthologies – they are, if you will, amuse-bouches </pompous arse> that can introduce you painlessly and quickly to new authors.
After reading his stories Longing For Langalana and especially The Scent Of Their Arrival in the magazine Interzone I just had to have Mercurio D. Rivera write for the Futures series in Nature (which I then edited) and the result was Answers From The Event Horizon, the story that finishes the very nearly eponymous Across The Event Horizon, a terrific collection of fourteen tales. This anthology includes the Interzone stories just mentioned, and an array of others from various magazines, and there isn’t a clunker among them.
The standout in a strong field has to be the dark fantasy Tu Sufriemento Shall Protect Us, which takes the concept in Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and sets it in a near-future Hispanic New York, with gory lashings of S&M. Especially S. Light relief comes with Sleeping With The Anemone, about the lucrative xeno-porn industry, and indeed Rivera’s humour is never far from the surface in any of these stories.
Collections allow one to spot any underlying themes in an author’s work. The difficulty of communication – between people, between different species – seems to be Rivera’s central preoccupation. But no matter how dark these yarns get, there always seems to be space in Rivera’s fiction for lightness, hope, and plain old-fashioned fun (remember that?) even if it’s around the corner, or a few streets away. It’s this, I think, that elevates Rivera’s fiction from the ordinary and elevates it to the level of classic SF. Which this undoubtedly is. Kudos to Ian Whates of NewCon Press for pulling together this sparkling collection from one of SF’s rising stars. If you’re a fan of classic SF, and know what’s good for you, you’ll swizzle this one into your bargonns straight away.
Mr Whates, as it happens, is a considerable writer as well as publisher. He first piqued my subether relay when he submitted a story called The Key to Futures, a tale I picked for my own anthology Futures from Nature. His latest collection, Growing Pains, illustrates his style well. Each story is brief, crisp and plainly told, without affectation. They are also very old-school – Shop Talk, for example, is pure Asimov. There are absolutely no nods to contemporary or recent bandwagons. You won’t find anything punk here, whether steam or cyber. If there is one theme, perhaps unintentional, it is the rituals of death. Judging from these tales, Whates has been to a lot of funerals.
Some of the stories are darkly funny, like Coffee Break, where a Men-In-Black-style secret agent won’t let anything, not even an alien invasion, get in the way of his morning coffee; and The Assistant, about the unusual things office cleaners have to deal with at night, when the office workers are at home in bed. Some, such as Morphs, are horrific and gory; The Outsider nods to the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name (though when I mentioned this to Whates, he denied ever having knowingly read any Lovecraft.) But where Whates scores, I think, is less with pure SF than with fantasy. The final story, The Piano Song is just that, and very affecting.