August 4, 2013
We’re used to book tie-ins for films, TV shows and grasping celebrities but fiction inspired by an exhibition is a more engaging combination. Alongside Hari Kunzru’s dystopian Memory Palace, written as part of a new V&A exhibition, there’s The Lowest Heaven, a science fiction anthology to coincide with Visions of the Universe at the National Maritime Museum (until 15 September).
If you’re enraptured by photographs of nebulae and Martian landscapes, it’s well worth a trip to Greenwich. And the collection of stories, each themed around a body in the Solar System with an accompanying image from the Royal Observatory collection, is a rich assortment of contemporary SF set in our little corner of the universe. The Lowest Heaven ranges in style and subject from space colonising and voyaging to more psychological and fantastical treatments, taking in obvious planetary neighbours as well as dwarf planet Ceres (Saga’s Children by E.J. Swift), the Voyager 1 explorer (James Smythe’s The Grand Tour) and Jupiter’s moon Europa (imagined as the plaything of an oligarch obsessed with Roman antiquity in the epic escapism of Magnus Lucretius, by Mark Charan Newton).
Golden Apple by Sophia McDougall contains the majesty of the Sun within a devastating, domestic drama; Jon Courtenay Grimwood riffs on the paranoia of Philip K. Dick in The Jupiter Files; and Adam Roberts essays a proto-Wellsian lunar adventure of derring-do in the 18th century that demonstrates a facility for amusing, gentlemanly dialogue. Even the more ‘traditional’ SF spacefaring has a dizzying quality, from Alastair Reynolds’s cyborg artist colony on Mercury to WWBD by Simon Morden, a murky mission to Mars that’s haunted by the ghost of Ray Bradbury. It’s a story that makes you want to seek out more of Morden’s work; in fact, that’s an imperative that might apply to several authors in The Lowest Heaven (edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin). Only a few irritating typos intrude on the wonderment experienced on this absorbing literary journey through our Solar System.
July 19, 2013
Admirers of Adam Roberts have suggested his clever, playful prose might earn him a Booker Prize nomination if it wasn’t for the fact he writes science fiction. His latest book is a mash-up of SF and Golden Age detective fiction with the exuberance of Anthony Burgess and the self-aware intricacy of academic crime author Michael Innes. Teasingly, the novel is introduced with the revelation that Jack Glass is the murderer in each of its three ensuing mysteries, though his methods and ultimate culpability may be less clear-cut.
After that Dr Watson-style teeing up of our tale, the reader is propelled into a disturbing and ingenious narrative set on an asteroid that’s both prison drama and locked room mystery. As well as being a remarkable display of Roberts’s imaginative power and ironical tone, it also introduces some running themes: the burden or absence of gravity (try cleaning up blood in zero g), the meaning of murder when life is cheap, and a Marxian perspective on intergalactic economics that perhaps places Roberts somewhere to the left of Iain M. Banks. “We’re always the cheapest option, we’re losing absolute value with every generation,” is how humanity’s economic fate is summed up under the authoritarian, trade-obsessed Ulanov regime.
However, Jack Glass is ultimately a dazzling futuristic romp that adroitly negotiates theoretical concepts such as Faster Than Light travel alongside explosive action sequences and cunning crimes. Glass is a gnomic anti-hero with the steel-trap mind of Sherlock Holmes and sagacity of Obi-Wan Kenobi. In part two he comes to the aid of a teenage dignitary, who finds herself tasked with solving what is effectively a country house whodunit (with gravity a key part of the investigation). It’s another virtuoso novel by Roberts and a deserving winner of the John W Campbell Award in the US and the BSFA award in the UK.
November 26, 2012
In recent years, a few of the more hidebound members of the science fiction community have sniped at Margaret Atwood’s unwillingness to fully embrace the SF label. It turns out that she’s a lifelong reader – and writer – of genre fiction who’s frustrated that such classification feels like books ‘being sent to their room… for the misdemeanour of being enjoyable’.
The essays in this collection are both fannish – Atwood discloses her childhood stories of flying rabbits and ponders the origin of superhero outfits – and erudite as she discusses the power of science fiction to explore the outer reaches of the imagination, the consequences of technology and the nature of being human. As the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s typically strong on dystopian and utopian societies in literature and she explores SF themes from pioneers such as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell – authors whose ‘other worlds’ she’s been visiting for 60 years. It’s not an exhaustive survey – for that you’ll need Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, or Adam Roberts’s masterly The History of Science Fiction – but it’s a persuasive, superior primer from an author who’s employed SF as a powerful literary warning about the loss of freedom.