Steve speaks!

WRITING a science fiction blog can be a lonely old job – up til all hours, staring at a screen, waiting for inspiration to strike.

That’s why I am more than happy to throw open SciFi Love to anyone who loves science fiction and has a tale to tell. Just drop me a line.

Watch out though. My first guest blogger – Steve Harrison, a friend and colleague on the Liverpool Echo – has set a very high standard with his thoughts on sci-fi novels, good and bad.

The gauntlet has been thrown down! Care to pick it up?

WANDERING round the sci-fi section of my local Waterstones, as I was this weekend, can be a dispiriting experience for a died-in-the-wool adherent of old school s/f.

I blame, in equal measure, Tolkien and Peter Jackson.

Now don’t get me wrong – I yield to no one in my admiration for Lord of the Rings, both between covers and on the silver screen.

It is the army of pale imitators I object to: the battalion of lazy-brained, dragon-infested fantasy pulp writers with ambitions well beyond their meagre talents.

You shall know them by their dust-jackets – serried rows of black and gold embossed titles, decorated with runish script augmented by the occasional battle axe.

Of course, there are honourable exceptions to my blanket condemnation of all things fantasy – I’m a sucker for L E Modesitt’s “Recluce” saga, for instance.

But generally, these titles sell so well that they have all but taken over the shelf space marked “Science Fiction” – even where they have been corralled into a separate “Fantasy” section.

So it is something of a relief to see that staple of s/f – the space opera – making a comeback, thanks largely to the work of Peter F Hamilton (pictured).

I’ve always enjoyed a good old space opera, from the Lensman series of E E Doc Smith to classic Asimov and Frank Herbert (although the Dune cycle isn’t strictly space opera – incidentally, does anyone else think that Whipping Star and its sequel The Dosadi Experiment are two of the most dissimilar novels ever written?).

Peter Hamilton’s work, from the Nanoflower Conspiracy through the Night Dawn’s trilogy and up to the most recent work I’m familiar with (the Commonwealth saga) is characterised by gritty, warts-and-all futurescapes combined with detailed and convincing science.

But it is his characters which has driven his popularity – deftly drawn, distinctive and beautifully realised, characterisation is a skill which not every s/f writer has mastered (Asimov was notoriously bad at creating credible female characters, for instance).

It reminds me of a tale Samuel Delaney tells in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw about teaching a class on (I think) Bob Silverberg – when asked what they most enjoyed in Silverberg’s writing, one half of the class called out, “His humans!” while the other half simultaneously shouted, “His aliens”!

The point is that the emphasis in any good s/f writing should be on the “F” – the fiction – rather than the science.

This is borne out in spades by Peter Hamilton (although I’m pleased to see that he no longer makes all his evil characters turn out to be gay, as in Night’s Dawn).

Another essential factor in space opera is length, and here Hamilton doesn’t disappoint – his are thick, meaty volumes running to nearly 1,000 pages each, allowing you the luxury of total immersion in the wealth of detail surrounding his imaginary universes.

That’s a large measure of the appeal of Hamilton’s prose – the lingering, almost pornographic delight in the textures, scents and sounds of his worlds; the richness of the political and social networks which bind his characters together, and the backstory of his subjects’ lives.

One final point before I leave the subject of Waterstones and book stores generally … what ever happened to Harlan Ellison? One of the most respected and remarkable s/f writers of the ’70s and ’80s, I haven’t seen any of his stories (even in second hand shops) for years.

Before Waterstones ever appeared on the High Street, I was a subscriber to the SF Book Club (or some similar name).

The excitement each month when the next hardback landed through the letterbox was almost unbearable – Alfred Bester, Lester del Ray, Michael Coney … all delivered straight to my doormat (well, it was my parent’s doormat, technically speaking).

It took a year or so before I realised you could buy the same novel in paperback for half the price – but if not for the Book Club, I might never have discovered Christopher Priest or Ben Bova, for example.

Ben Bova’s anthology of Nebula awards winners was the free gift, if I remember correctly, containing classics such as “Call Me Joe”.

And that’s something else which seems to have disappeared – the SF anthology.
But that’s for another time.

2 thoughts on “Steve speaks!

  • Alison Gow

    on

    Steve you’re so right! There is, I suspect, a special circle of hell reserved for the pestilential authors of the never-ending blimmin’ Dragonlance series, for example.
    Read any Richard Morgan or Neil Asher? Both favourites of mine…
    Anyway, great post – really enjoyed it. More please 🙂

  • Simon Young

    on

    Oh stop it, you’re fuelling my latent sci-fi addiction. I watched Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva on the w/end uninterrupted.

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