October 10, 2013
£7.99 – available now
Congratulations to Sarah Hall, who was named this week as the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2013. Her story, Mrs Fox, is an earthy fable about a complacent husband whose wife undergoes a shocking transformation.
Hall emerged as the winner of the £15,000 prize from an all-female shortlist (stories were submitted anonymously) that also included tales of quiet grief and vivid imagination from new and established authors Lisa Blower, Lavinia Greenlaw, Lionel Shriver and Lucy Wood. Settings for these stories range from the haunted corners of an old Cornish house to the panic-stricken streets of New York in Shriver’s Prepositions, which takes the form of a resentful letter looking back exactly 10 years earlier at the distinction made between the people who died on 9/11 but not in 9/11. All the shortlisted stories have been published in the annual anthology that is now available for those readers who, like Edgar Allan Poe, appreciate the power of a literary work that can be read in one sitting.
Sarah Hall is the author of the Booker Prize shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo, the eco-feminist science fiction novel The Carhullan Army and a short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference.
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.
June 6, 2013
Paperback now available – sequel out June 20
For all his staggering success, Terry Pratchett’s a writer who benefits from a partner in prose, if only to rein in his relentless mirth making. The Long Earth, a novel with ‘hard’ SF author Stephen Baxter about a chain of parallel Earths, is not as knockabout as Discworld and yet it has one of Pratchett’s most hilarious characters. Douglas Adams would have been proud to have created Lobsang, the artificial intelligence who claims to have been reincarnated from a Tibetan motorcyle repairman.
The multiverse premise is built around a pleasingly humdrum piece of technology, a potato-powered device called a Stepper, which enables anyone to take the leap into another uninhabited, skewed version of Earth and then keep going. It makes for a powerful, expansive science fiction novel, full of possibility, wonder and a certain amount of peril, which would suit young and adult readers alike. The co-writing between Pratchett and Baxter feels smooth as the authors adroitly handle quantum theory while focusing on individual families as they seek out new frontiers. The impact is also being felt on the original Earth – now known as Datum Earth – as people leave or step back into places they shouldn’t. No doubt certain newspapers would bemoan the effect on house prices.
While the authors enjoy creating these parallel worlds and exploring the consequences, they don’t forget to create an engaging hero. Joshua Valiente, a seasoned Stepper who was born on a parallel Earth, joins Lobsang on an exploratory mission in a high-tech airship as part of a colonising operation. If the ending to this inventive, witty novel feels a little rushed, the good news is that the sequel, The Long War, is out on June 20.
May 25, 2013
Lauren Beukes has sprung herself from the South African science fiction ghetto into more lucrative high-concept thriller territory, following her sardonic cyberpunk debut Moxyland and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Zoo City. The Shining Girls is a serial killer story set not in Cape Town but Chicago, and it’s based firmly in the 20th century. True, Harper Curtis – a limping drifter who guts his victims, usually moments after a burst of folksy charm – can track his targets (his ‘shining girls’) at various points in time via a portal in a creepy, abandoned house. But, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the constrained time travel is a fantastical conceit that you accept within a few pages.
Beukes’s restless narrative certainly jumps across the decades: Harper will be shuffling around Depression-era Chicago then committing a grisly murder in 1943 a few pages later, while in 1993 his pattern of killings is confounding the novel’s protagonist, journalism intern Kirby Mazrachi, the shining girl who got away four years earlier. The writing is economical and affecting and the use of research is almost as formidable as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels: Beukes weaves in toxic period detail – racial inequality during World War II, underground abortion clinics in the Sixties – while her authorial voice has an all-American register even if it was honed 8,500 miles away in Cape Town.
The violence is shocking and graphic and Harper is not a murderer we ever really understand. The real strength of the novel is the voice Beukes gives to Harper’s victims, whose lives are documented with humanity and a keen historical perspective. If Studs Terkel had written Silence of the Lambs it might have turned out something like The Shining Girls.
April 6, 2013
Now in paperback – £8.99
Ned Beauman published a precociously confident debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, in 2010. He’s followed that with an audacious comic romp that made the Man Booker Prize longlist. The globe-trotting story begins in Berlin in 1931 where sex-starved set designer Egon Loeser is working on a production about his 17th century stagecraft hero, the mysterious Adriano Lavicini, and his Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transportation of Persons from Place to Place. As a result of Loeser’s self-obsession and his desire for a former pupil called Adele Hitler, he fails to take much notice of the rise of her namesake. Loeser’s wilful political ignorance sets up some bad taste but very funny jokes that tease the reader’s familiarity with 1930s Nazi notoriety.
Beauman flirts outrageously with genre fiction: H.P. Lovecraft is an influence and his story The Shadow Over Innsmouth plays a part in the plot’s science fiction elements. Then there’s Loeser’s pursuit of a serial killer and his inability to read anything other than the brutish crime stories of (fictional) author Stent Mutton – perhaps the Lee Child of his day. The Teleportation Accident is a highly readable, amiably bizarre novel that’s unafraid to play with structure and has a serious point to make about history being a nightmare from which you really need to wake up.
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.
August 29, 2011
Part sci-fi thriller, part mystery, part coming-of-age story, part musing on maths and physics, imaginative tour-de-force and a novel of ideas (a great many of them) if ever there was one. Too good to summarise with something trite like un-put-down-able, but it is, so there you go.
June 25, 2011
A book that spawned an industry of tie-ins and spin-offs and gave Charlton Heston a legitimate excuse to run dementedly about a beach in a loin cloth and emote for all he was worth. But despite its many (mostly) lame connotations, the original novel (this book you’re about to buy) is really rather remarkably good. Really.
May 15, 2011
You know what? This isn’t important literature; it has nothing [much] to say about the world we live in and isn’t interested in holding a mirror up to anything for the sake of critical commentary. What it is, however, is what a good novel should be, which is bloody entertaining and genuinely thrilling. The print equivalent of solid, big-screen excitement; I’d say mindless entertainment but it’s too well structured and written for that, so mindful entertainment I guess [?]. A damn fine read. Especially if it’s not the sort of thing you would ordinarily go for.
October 10, 2010
Renowned and revered (and rightly so) for The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, the two Dirk Gently novels are just as awesome, if not more so. With impossible sofas, murderous electric monks, Samuel Coleridge and the Asgardian deities, these are packed tight with Adam’s typical irreverence, black humour and imaginative flair but with a slightly darker outlook and lashings of mind-bending oddness.