The Story So Far… (3)

A bit of a break, but we have now resumed with:

May 2010: The City and The City by China Mieville (Dave’s choice)

June 2010: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (James’ choice)

Aug 2010: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Matt’s choice)

Oct 2010: William Gibson event at Watershed (see http://dshed.net/william-gibson for more details).

Nov 2010: I am Legend by Richard Matheson (Dave’s choice)

Dec 2010:

Feb 2011: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Matt’s choice)

Apr 2011: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (James’ choice)

Jun 2011: Makers by Cory Doctorow (Dave’s choice)


The story so far… (2)

Some more of the books we’ve read, with the months in which they were chosen:

April 2009: Matter by Ian M Banks (Dave’s choice)

June 2009: Necropath by Eric Brown (James’ choice)

July 2009: Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K Dick (Matt’s choice)

Sept 2009: Tiger! Tiger! by Alfred Bester (Dave’s choice)

Oct 2009: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delaney (James’ choice)

Nov 2009: Vurt by Jeff Noon (Matt’s choice)

Dec 2009: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (Dave’s choice)

Jan 2010: Ringworld by Larry Niven (James’ choice)

Mar 2010: Who? by Algis Budrys (Matt’s choice)


Matter by Iain Banks (Apr 2009)

matter_iain_banksThe book chosen by Dave at our April meeting was the latest in Iain Banks’ long-standing series set in the Culture universe, namely Matter. At the time I had mixed feelings about this series. I had read the first of the Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, some years ago and enjoyed it for its scale, the mix of ideas and the general fun. I had then tried The Player of Games but soon ran out of enthusiasm with little sympathy for the characters. Banks seemed to be playing with them without any real conviction. However I had an open mind when it came to Matter.

Initially I was enthusiastic. It is undoubtedly a big universe that Banks has created, and I particularly liked the idea of different levels of alien civilisation, ranging from the almost medieval planet-bound to the most advanced galaxy-ranging, all living together in a complex political structure. I found the characters engaging too. However this is a very wordy book at 656 pages, and after reading the first 300-odd I realised that, in fact, very little had actually happened. The principle character, Prince Ferbin, had left his home world in search of his long-lost sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, and they had still not met up.

Nevertheless I continued to the end, but found the climax decidedly small scale considering the immensity of the Culture universe – and indeed the book. Without giving too much away, it ends with a showdown in a landscape that involves a railway – very similar in fact (but not as gripping) as that found at the climax of Consider Phlebas.

I’m glad I read it, and Matter has much to commend it. However it is far too long and I couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably with other epic SF works, such as the excellent Dune.


Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Feb 2009)

inverted-worldInverted World opens with the protagonist, Helward Mann, coming of age and commencing his apprenticeship as a guildsman – an apprenticeship that will eventually lead to the full realisation of just how bizarre everything he takes for granted really is.

Helward lives in the City, an enormous structure of wood and concrete that is slowly dragged across the countryside on a set of tracks that have to be continually uprooted from behind the City and placed in front. The City is being moved so that it can keep up with ‘the optimum’, a point that continuously moves across the ground, and which the City must never be too far from. Exactly why becomes clear as Helward is initiated into the various guilds that perform the tasks necessary to achieve this goal. As a member of the track-laying guild he gets his first look at the sun, which contrary to all he has been taught is not a sphere but rather the sort of solid you might get if you rotated a parabola about its axis. Eventually he is allowed to venture away from the City, where he finds that both space and time distort as he moves further from ‘the optimum’.

Meanwhile, back in the City, life is hard and many – his new wife included – wonder why they have to devote so much time to such apparently pointless activities. They are also disturbed by the way in which people from the villages they pass are used almost as slaves so that the City can survive.

One of the strengths of the book is the way that this strange world is revealed to us as it is revealed to Helward, as a necessary part of his apprenticeship. The huge engines that haul the city forward, the rivallry between the different guilds, is all portrayed vividly and convincingly. Priest’s writing really brings home Helward’s (and our) increasing bewilderment, and it’s to his credit that it remains plausible. The explanation when it comes is a bit of a let-down, although thankfully also (just) plausible. But for me that doesn’t matter – partly because I had read the book in the 1970s, when it was first published. The beauty of the book, and of Priest’s writing, is that you continue to see the world through Helward’s eyes, no matter how bizarre it becomes.

In the end Inverted World serves as a demonstration of the process by which a group of people can be persuaded to create and maintain a society that is based on an irrational world view – a view that the rest of us find totally crazy. To take a topical example, this is how bankers were able to persuade their armies of salesmen that it was OK to sell mortgages to people who had no income and no fixed abode – and then to package them up and sell them on as AAA-rated securities. Crazy, but at the time they were working in an environment that made it make sense. Or on a more sombre note, this is how the Third Reich was able to persuade ordinary Germans that it was OK to exterminate the Jews. In that sense it is an angry and an important book.



Roadside Picnic became the template for both a film – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – and the computer game. Here’s a link to a recent piece from The Guardian about Tarkovsky and the issues surrounding the making of the film.



What is Science Fiction?

One question that we often find ourselves grappling with is that of defining exactly what qualifies a book as ‘science fiction’ – and as anyone reading this surely knows, we are not alone. There is fairly general agreement on an instinctive level as to which books qualify, but there is much debate as to the definition itself.

That said, for me the answer is fairly straightforward. To my mind, a work of science fiction has to live in a world that is imaginary, but which could exist – at least within the limits of the laws of nature as we understand them (or as the author understood them to be at the time of writing). Furthermore there should be some attempt to link the world of the story to our world – to explain how things got that way. This need not be explicit as many of the concepts and technologies employed by science fiction writers have become accepted elements of modern culture, even though they have yet to be realised. Most modern filmgoers intuitively understand what is meant by ‘clone’ or ‘wormholes in space’, for example, without having the details explained

However the borders between science fiction and neighbouring genres are not sharply drawn, but merge slowly from one to the other. Tad Williams is best known as a fantasy writer, and although I would argue that the Otherland series does qualify as science fiction, it shares much in terms of style with his other works, such as the excellent The War of the Flowers, which are most definitely fantasy.

A genre which shares a border with both science fiction and fantasy is of course horror. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is essentially a zombie thriller, as is the Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later (screenplay by Alex Garland). Both explain the zombie condition as a particularly nasty viral infection. Vampires have also been explained in terms of viral infection, or as a genetic throwback in the case of Blindsight by Peter Wall. The distinction between horror and science fiction is subtle and more to do with style and intent than anything else. It would do Anne Rice a disservice to describe her Vampire Chronicles series as anything other classic gothic horror, for example.

The thriller often borrows ideas from science fiction, and indeed I would describe some, such as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, as bordering on mainstream science fiction. The Lincoln Childs and Douglas Preston collaboration frequently borrow from the genre to good effect, as in Relic, for example. These are sometimes described as ‘techno-thrillers’ and differ only from science fiction in emphasis, using science and technology to thrill rather than to throw light on the human condition.

Then of course there is the broad border with mainstream fiction. Many writers move freely between the two genres. Christopher Priest, for example, has written novels such as Inverted World, that are most definitely science fiction. The Glamour, on the other hand, is harder to define. Although the short stories of J. G. Ballard put him firmly in the science fiction camp, novels such as Crash, Cocaine Nights and Kingdom Come have more to do with society as it is now and are arguably ‘straight’ fiction.

So perhaps it’s not as straightforward as it seems!


The Story So Far…


Here’s a list of the books we’ve read so far:

M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing (Sept 2007)


Ken MacLeod’s The Star Faction (Oct 2007)

Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers (Nov 2007)

Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Dec 2007)


Richard Morgan’s Black Man (Jan 2008)


Daniel Galouye’s The Lost Perception (Mar 2008)

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (Apr 2008)

Charles Stross’ Accelerando (Jun 2008)

Russell Hohan’s Riddley Walker (Jul 2008)

Geoff Ryman’s Air (Sept 2008)


Gregory Benford’s Timescape (Oct 2008)


Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Nov 2008)

Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (Jan 2009)

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (Feb 2009)


The best of a very good bunch was for me Timescape, which was able to combine great story telling with some thought provoking ideas about the possibility of time travel.  The low point for me was Air.  I just couldn’t get into it, although I’m sure my compadres probably don’t agree with me.

January 2019
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