September 2004 The September meeting of th…

8 09 2004

September 2004

The September meeting of the SF Book Group took place on Tuesday 28th of September, from 6-7pm. September marked our first full year and also our first graphic novel selection. Fittingly we selected one of the finest writers of the comic world: Neil Gaiman’s multi-award-winning Sandman. We have decided to focus on The Doll’s House volume for this meeting, which is arguably where the astonishing Sandman series really began to shine, showing some of the remarkable attributes that would make it such a stand-out series, highly regarded by readers, other writers, critics and academics alike.

Also in October we will be hosting the home-town author event for Iain M Banks and his first SF novel in four years, the rather excellent The Algebraist. Should be taking place in the Traverse Theatre on Tuesday October 12th – more details as I get them sorted – tickets soon from the store or the Traverse.

brief history

8 09 2004

A Brief History of (SF) Time

We held our inaugural meeting back in the dim and murky days of September 2003. For the first few meetings my colleague and good mate Alex and I picked out the titles, trying to ensure a mixture of genres and eras. Our ultimate aim was that the group would pick the books they most wanted to read and discuss so that everyone would have a chance to see their favourites aired and hopefully expose us all to writers and areas we may not have encountered before and this is how the group now works. This means the group really belongs to the people who come along and participate, so why not be a part of it?

Previous Meetings

Aug-July 2004

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August 2004

We took an interesting new turn this month when we picked on a fantasy novel for young adults by Diana Wynne Jones, discussing Fire and Hemlock. Polly, a young woman, realises that her memories of the last ten years are not right. She has a set of straightforward memories, but isn’t there something else in there? The novel progresses in this flashback manner as Polly attempts to reconstruct her real memories – if indeed they are real and she’s not losing it. Broken families, the fragility of memory and realities which interact with our own, look like our own but are not – the book eschews the frequently used ‘omniscient narrator’ model of story-telling, so we are as confused as Polly is, we know as little as she does. I have never read one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels for younger readers and was pleasantly surprised to see that her storytelling is pretty much the same as in her adult novels – she treats both with respect and intelligence. One of our members (hand up, Beth!) told us all this was one of her favourite novels and one that she has re-read many times since she was a teenager – if that’s not a recommendation, then what is?

Beth says: This is a book that can be read on many levels. On one hand, it is the story of a child becoming a young adult. It deals with Polly’s experience of family break-up, friendships, hopes and ambitions, and eventually love. This side of the book is realistic enough to allow anyone, young reader or not, to empathise with Polly, and I suspect for many writers would be enough to create an entire book. However, Fire and Hemlock is also a rewriting of the myth of Faerie into late 20th century Britain; in particular the novel draws on the ballad of Tam Lin with Polly as a modern-day Janet. Many of the supernatural events in the book depend on an understanding of ritual and rules, just as in folk tales and legends. On yet a third level, the novel explores what it means to be a hero in both the traditional sense and in modern society. And so on.

Writing itself is a central theme of the novel. Tom tries to explain his situation through the books he buys her. As Polly and Tom write the stories of Tan Coul, the boundaries between reality and imagination begin to dissolve. Ultimately the novel asks ‘what is reality?’ and this question can also be looked at on many levels (e.g. the events Polly makes up are reality for others, Polly’s dual memories and not forgetting that Polly’s ‘real’ life is in itself a fiction created by DWJ!). Another, and related, key concept is Nowhere and Now Here, two versions of the same word which symbolise the relationship between Laurel’s world (Faerie, Nowhere, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or any of hundreds of names) and Polly’s (non-magical 20th century Gloucestershire, Now Here). This is not a dualism but an intertwining rather like Polly herself makes when creating her map of Nowhere from a map of the Cotswolds. The two vases at Hudson

Some people asked me to try and explain the ending…. Laurel demands a life every nine years (the ‘tithe to Hell’ as mentioned in Tam Lin). This, it is revealed, is not to give Laurel life (she is undying) but to prolong the life of Morton Leroy, her consort. Tom has had a reprieve for nine years as the last sacrifice had to be a woman (not explained if this was an actual sacrifice or just, as Polly thinks, Laurel pretending to be her own mother in order to inherit). Polly, like Janet, refuses to let go and Laurel is forced to let Tom and Morton Leroy fight.

Both men must obey the rules like everything in Faerie, but Laurel’s power allows her to twist them – although she cannot allow Morton to break the rules if Tom cannot. Both men can use anything integral to themselves to win, so Tom can use his cello (important for both Tan Coul and Tom), the horse that represents Tom and Polly’s first heroic adventure and his love for Polly. But Laurel’s twisting means that Tom’s strength helps Morton. The only way for him to win is for Polly to lose – to give up her love for Tom. When she does this, Morton is defeated and Tom is free. Laurel, however, does not suffer. She simply chooses Morton Leroy’s son Sebastian to be her new consort.
Am not TOO sure about the ‘coda’ section, but this is my interpretation. Tom and Polly have to give up their love in order for Tom to be free from Laurel, so they can be together Nowhere – literally nowhere, or possibly in Faerie, where they cannot go. However, because Nowhere and Now Here are interlinked for Polly and Tom, it is not ‘true Nowhere’ and therefore must be somewhere! There is no division into Nowhere and Now Here for them and this outmanoeuvres Laurel’s conditions. Tom and Polly can be together after all. Phew!

Joe says: Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children would probably appeal top anyone, young or old, male or female, who enjoyed Fire and Hemlock. A motherless family, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and a new home on the forbidding moors; it is a lovely piece of English fantasy.

July 2004

One of the great writers of the genre furnished the book for July’s meeting – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. A peaceful federation of worlds sends an envoy to a world in an ice-age, a world they dub ‘Winter’. One of the many human societies spread across the worlds then isolated, they want to re-integrate them back into the stellar human culture. Naturally there are difficulties. This is all largely secondary however since the book is really about the way we all interpret other people, genders and cultures, as well as the ways and reasons by which Le Guin creates and incredibly rich, believable and well-crafted society – sometimes you almost feel the chill of the cold winds of Winter as you read it. The humans of Winter are a little different from the other variations of humans on other worlds – there is a single ‘gender’. Actually gender is an inaccurate term as they are neither male nor female, but take on characteristics of both at certain times in their reproductive cycle. This may sound like a simple idea, but actually it allows for a very complex set of meditations on gender roles and personal identifications – perfect subject matter for a good discussion!

April-May 2004

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June 2004

The inventive Spares by Michael Marshall Smith was our subject matter this month. A war veteran and former detective returns to New Richmond, Virginia while attempting to free the Spares in his charge. Rich people keep clones as spare parts banks (one way of avoiding a risk of tissue rejection). The Spares are kept in dim, isolated places with almost no interaction with others in order to keep them healthy physically but mentally undeveloped – just a living spare parts library for their real counterparts. Until our anti-hero helps them to develop… Actually the Spares rapidly become something of a McGuffin, a mere plot device to get things rolling (causing some of us to think the book was rather mis-named). New Richmond is a now-grounded former flying mega-mall (Smith once said at an event he chose Richmond to be replaced by this grounded mega-mall because he found it to be one of the worst places he ever had to go) and Smith paints a bleak near-future, lightened by some inventive humour and a fabulous line in dialogue, especially the insults and descriptions (‘he looked like three kinds of shit in a one shit bag’). Opinion was divided over the ending.

May 2004

Top-selling British horror writer James Herbert was the choice for May, with his slim but very nasty novel, The Rats. Mostly a straightforward tale of super-rodents invading modern London with the horrific results (people being chewed up, eaten alive or dying from infections from the rat bites) Herbert also manages to work in observations on urban alienation and the British class system (the government minister views our teacher hero as about acceptable, since his middle-class teaching job balances out his lower-class origins). It is quite surprising how much character detail Herbert shoehorns into less than 200 pages (we’re often pleasantly surprised at how much detail there is in the older novels which are typically far shorter than today’s bloated texts).

April 2004

One of the finest of the current crop of Brit SF writers (so good we forgive him for writing the Soddit pastiche) Adam Roberts provided the subject matter in the shape of his novel Salt. Seemingly a simple narrative about a conflict between two groups of settlers on a distant world, Salt is actually a clever novel dealing in religious and political ideology and the justifications some individuals use to justify their actions and their effects on others. Told in flashback the novel alternates between the recollections of both of the opposing group’s leaders, giving their versions of events. The result is a tale in which neither group comes out terribly well.

March-Jan 2004

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March 2004

Classic time once more (the SF Masterwork’s series has provided with some choice titles) as we explored Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (originally published as Tyger, Tyger!). Despite being decades old it was a remarkably fresh and powerful novel with a central character, Gulley Foyle, who is neither hero nor really even an anti-hero. Foyle is physically ugly, mentally dim and utterly unlikeable – and unlike many novels he doesn’t become better or change as the story progresses – the novel is unremitting in this, quite a brave move for a writer. Although sinned against, Foyle’s continual quest for revenge is relentless and wearing – in a way you want him to have revenge, but in another it is hard to sustain sympathy for him. It’s amazing just how much Bester packs into this short but powerful tale and it is easy to see why it has become a classic of SF (Bester himself was honoured by J Michael Strackzynski by naming Walter Koenig’s Psi-Cop character after Bester in the award-winning and ground-breaking Babylon 5). Brilliant stuff.

February 2004

With his new novel, Newton’s Wake, just weeks away from publication we decided we should focus on one of our local authors, our favourite left-leaning SF writer Ken MacLeod and his novel The Sky Road. A part of his thematically-linked Fall Revolution series, the novel uses a split chronology narrative (a device Ken has used a couple of times). One strand, in the distant future has a group of engineers working in Scotland on the first spaceship in centuries (Ken paints a wonderfully evocative future which is ahead of us in a few places but behind us in many, building a spaceship almost the way the shipbuilders of the great Clydeside yards built liners), accessing forbidden knowledge from black devices in Glasgow University (information technology has become not only unused but regarded as evil over the centuries). In the other strand we are much closer to our own time and see some of the events of the fragmented near-future as nations and politics clash, leading to the events which will shape the far future we see in the ship-building era. Its an inventive and intriguing bit of future – and far-future – world-building by Ken, with a fair dose of politics thrown in, as is common in his work. Fictional future history SF for grown-ups.

Joe says: if you enjoyed this then perhaps you may want to try Singularity Sky by Charlie Stross, or Marrow by Robert Reed.

January 2004

Hold on! Haven’t you missed one? Well, no – it’s too busy in the bookstore in December and even we SF fiends need time to buy our Xmas pressies, so no meetings in December. We welcomed everyone back with a modern classic, the erotic horror that made Anne Rice’s name in the mid-70s (was it really that long ago???), Interview With the Vampire. Later entries may not measure up to the book which began the Vampire Chronicles, but Interview was to the late 20th century Gothic novel what Stoker’s Dracula was to the 1890s – a shot in the arm and an inviting bite on the neck, re-inventing and re-invigorating the Vampire genre for a new age. It’s as lushly decadent as its New Orleans and Paris settings. Human mortality is highlighted by the focus on unchanging, immortal creatures, notably the tragic figure of the child vampire, Claudia, while the prose is rich and erotically charged.

Joe says: if you like this novel have you tried Tom Holland’s excellent The Vampyre? Lord Byron has been held up as the classic model for the aristocratic vampire – here Holland takes it literally, with Byron being vampirised during his European travels. It is a deliciously rich novel, traversing English literature as well as mythology. Seriously literate Gothic horror.

Nov- Sept 2003

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November 2003

Ah, another one of the Bright New Things of Brit SF this month – the excellent China Mieville and his remarkably unusual fantasy, Perdido Street Station. The novel begins in a seemingly normal fantasy setting, following predictable lines. A melting-pot city of different races and professions, from scientists and artists to criminals and politicians (if there is a difference between those two professions of course), with a medieval-meets-weird-science feel to it, almost like a very adult version of Pratchett’s great Discworld settings. However, the novel starts to take unusual, unpredictable turns after a while and you can’t take it for granted. In fact, don’t let the size of this novel put you off, because it travels off very unusual and remarkable directions, genuinely surprising even those of us who read an awful lot of SF&F books. The prose is sharp and the descriptive power of China’s writing is awesome – there are times when you not only picture his city scenes but can almost smell those streets (which is not always advisable in some areas of the city!). This was China’s breakout novel, although he had previously published King Rat and has since published The Scar, which is set on the same world as Perdido but in a different city.

October 2003

As the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain beckoned (that’s Halloween to you Sassenachs!) we naturally settled on a scary novel to read. Combining SF and Horror genres we discussed Richard Mattheson’s classic novel I Am Legend. The last man in the world is besieged in his fortified home by night by gangs of vampires. Except these are scientifically-created vampires, not the legendary variety, caused by a mutation among the survivors of world war. This compact novel is horrific on large-scales (world war, end of civilisation) and on the personal level (a man alone and under nightly attack) but it is also a novel which explores what defines a society (do the vampires, now being in the majority, constitute a society? Would that make our hero the villain since he kills them?), notions of alienation and mythology, old and new. A classic slice of Cold War paranoia from a writer who also worked in film, scripting, among many others, some of the famous Corman’s Edgar Alan Poe series of films with the great Vincent Price. Several decades on this book remains one of the most inventive and clever re-workings of the old vampire genre.

September 2003

Our first meeting discussed one of my personal favourites and one of the fast-rising lights in the new wave of Brit SF firmament, Richard Morgan and his hard-boiled debut, Altered Carbon. It is a very gritty and inventive tale with a former special forces agent now hired as a private eye to solve the murder of his rich employer. When downloaded into his new clone body (called ‘re-sleeving’) this man hires Kovacs to find out who killed him. The police say it was suicide, but why kill yourself when you know you will be brought back via cloning and backup memory? This is as much a classic detective Noir as it is an SF novel. Mark Millar, one of Marvel Comics’ top writers recently referred to it as one of the best contemporary novels he had read.

Since this debut he has published Falling Angels (a second Kovacs novel, although quite different from AC, drawing on the likes of 2000 AD’s Bad Company for inspiration) and Market Forces in the spring of 2004 (not a Kovacs novel but a meditation on violence, ethics – or the lack of – and rampant capitalism in an almost J G Ballardesque kind of way). Richard is currently working on his fourth book which will mark a return to Kovacs and is also working on a Black Widow comic series for Marvel – not bad for a man who didn’t read a lot of comics until his college days!