Nova, by Samuel R. Delany

Delany has become one of my favourite science fiction authors and I’ve wanted to re-read Nova for quite some time. I didn’t fully enjoy it when I was younger, but I’ve recently been re-sampling his oeuvre and a few of his books that had left me cold when I younger are remarkable, intellectual gems; in particular, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (IMHO his SF masterpiece) and Dhalgren (a compelling book that defies categorization and requires a tolerant, tenacious reader).Nova

In Nova, Delany imagines intriguing forms of sensual stimulation: futuristic drugs, music and art, electronic-cyborg-sensations via jacking into computers, and the sensory syrynx. Early in the novel, the syrynx is referred to as an ax, inviting the notion of more than one use: certainly as an innovative, futuristic musical instrument, but also, potentially, as a weapon. The syrynx — an allusion to Pan’s pipe and possibly a syringe — can create music, scents and images.

In the opening scene of the novel a character explains how he became overdosed on sensory input while plugged-into to a spaceship’s computer, perceiving a nova at close-range. An input-overload left his senses permanently disabled:

“We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jewelled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the ship… … It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through. I wouldn’t go off sensory input. I wouldn’t look away. All the colours you could think of were there, blotting the night. And finally the shock waves; the walls sang. Magnetic inductance oscillated over our ship, nearly rattled us apart… … then it was too late.” [p. 2]  

Nova is a short novel, but it is filled with subtle depth. Delany does an admirable job of assembling his universe with judicious measures of information on the economy, the arts, fashion, politics, and the ever-changing mosaic of human society. Mythic stories and characters resound ambiguously throughout the novel, unifying the whole. The novel’s characters are ciphers of mythical personalities (Jason, the Fisher King, Prometheus, Pan …) and the plot sails on the seas of allegory (the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece and the prognostications of the Tarot, to name a few). Individuals are nodes in the galactic web of humanity: their myths and tales are like the warp and weave that connects undulating nodes of a net in the ocean.

The novel’s characters have varied upbringings, allowing a comprehensive view of Delany’s future society. Lorq Von Ray is a rich man from the Pleiades (economic and political rival to the Earth worlds), Katin is an educated, middle-class man (raised on Earth’s moon), and the Mouse (who plays the syrynx) is a poor gypsy from Earth. There are also minor characters, some of whom come from the outer worlds with differing economic and political agendas. And there is a villain, the Prince, from Draco (the Earth-based systems). It is a male-dominated novel: there are interesting female characters (Lorq’s aunt Celia, crewmember and Tarot card-reader Tyÿ, and Prince’s sister Ruby Red), but they are overshadowed by the main male characters, and perhaps this is an unfortunate sign of the times.

Within the book, one character, Katin, wants to write a novel — an archaic art-form — and the book the reader holds, Nova, is presented as his attempt. ‘Nova’ and ‘novel’ share the same root, the Greek word novum, something new. My nova-knowledge is woefully slim, but in the context of the book, a nova not only shatters the laws of physics, but is also capable of providing the material required to shatter the balance of political and economic power; further, it can shatter the psyche.

Nova is a revenge story, a quest story, a space-opera, a story that reverberates with myth, and an economic/political story. It is intelligent and has a heart larger than its parts. It is a good starting point if you are new to the author: perhaps the best, and most accessible, of his early novels (Triton would also be a good place to begin, although the main character is quite repugnant).

I truly appreciate Samuel R. Delany’s fiction; in particular, The Einstein Intersection (1967), Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and the Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987).

I wish he would write more science fiction; if nothing else, perhaps he could write The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the intended-but-unwritten sequel to Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. His justification for not completing the diptych is scrupulous and, even without the sequel, the first book stands sufficiently on its own. Nevertheless….

 

Retrospeculative View, 1984

Some of the notable short speculative fiction:asimovs_mag_june-1984

Gene Wolfe’s A Cabin on the Coast

Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

David Brin’s The Crystal Spheres, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1985). Within the story, Brin presents a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox

John Varley’s PRESS ENTER, which won the Hugo for best novella

George Alec Effinger’s The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything

Gardner Dozois’s Morning Child, which won the Nebula Award for best short story

Lucius Shepard’s Salvador, which won the Locus Poll award for Best Short Story and the SF Chronicle award for Short Story

Some of the movies and television of 1984:

The Transformers, the cartoon series that launched a franchise that is still spitting out movies.

Highway to Heaven, a fluffy, feel-good series about an angel that helps troubled people overcome difficulties.

2010, which wasbased on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, a sequel to the wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 2010 was not as powerful as the original.ghostbusters_logo

Dune, based on Frank Herbert’s novel. Read the book.

Ghostbusters, a ‘paranormal’ comedy that was loved by critics and the general audience.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I loved the original series when it was first broadcasted (yes, I’m that old!), but I was never a fan of the movies.

Some of the notable novels of 1984:

Vernor Vinge’s Peace War, which is about a group of scientist who invent an apparatus that is capable of producing an impenetrable force field. The scientist use the apparatus to end warfare: a force field is produced around any group that endangers peace, and the scientists prohibit technological progress in a bid to maintain control. A group of rebels discover that the force fields are actually stasis fields; within the spherical fields, time is frozen. Additionally, the fields collapse after a specific time has elapsed. As usual, Vernor Vinge has created an intriguing story. The novel has two sequels: The Ungoverned (a 1985 novella), and Marooned in Realtime (a 1986 novel). Across Realtime is an omnibus edition that contains all three stories.

Octavia E. Butler’s Clay’s Ark, a book in her Patternmaster series (each book can be enjoyed as a stand-alone): Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984): the series is available in an omnibus edition, Seed to Harvest. The series depicts a secret history, beginning in ancient Egypt and extending into the far future and involves eugenics, an extraterrestrial plague (the clay ark disease), and telepathic mind control. It is interesting to study the evolution in the writer’s craft as the series develops.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which won the BSFA Award and the world Fantasy Award (a tie). Mythago Wood began as a short story (1979), was expanded slightly to a novella (1981), and was eventually worked into a novel that spawned a series, the Mythago Wood cycle (aka the Ryhope Wood series). The novel is set in England, by a fictional forest (the Ryhope Wood), just after WW II. After recovering from injuries sustained in the war, Stephen Huxley returns to his childhood home where his older brother Christian now lives (both parents have passed away). The brothers had often seen mythagos in Ryhope Woods, but their father had told them they were only peripatetic gypsies. However, their father, George Huxley, had been secretly studying the woods, and he’d kept thorough records of his adventures. Christian followed in his father’s footsteps, and Stephen eventually realizes that the mythagos are real. It is a wonderfully rendered fantasy world; the prose paints enigmatic tones, and English, Celtic and Welsh mythology are woven into the tale. A classic.

neuromancer_coverWilliam Gibson’s Neuromancer, a cyberpunk novel that defined the genre: it was the first novel to win the Nebula, Hugo, and PK Dick Awards. The novel is the first book in the Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)), and is set in the dystopian, criminal districts of Japan’s Chiba City. The story follows Henry Dorsett Case: at one time, he was a gifted computer hacker (a cowboy, a rustler), but as the novel begins, he has been reduced to a life as a bottom-feeding hustler because he had the audacity to cheat powerful people. Case is approached by Molly Millions (first introduced in Gibson’s short story Johnny Mneumonic); Molly is a street samurai, and is working as a mercenary for Armitage, a shady ex-military man. Armitage promises Case a pathway out of his dismal existence, but Case must successfully complete a hacking job first. The plot is trite and jarringly convoluted, but the writing is dense and exciting; Neuomancer may not seem revolutionary today, but it was instrumental in the explosive acceptance of a new sub-genre, which was dismissed as yesterday’s news by many writers shortly after it was born, yet still survives as a sub-genre thirty years later.

Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, which won the world Fantasy Award (a tie). Subtitled A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was, it is the first tale of Number Ten Ox, a robust young man and the story’s narrator, and Master Li Kao, who has a ‘slight flaw in his character.’ Hughart adapted several myths and events from China’s history (in particular, the tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl) into an enjoyable, well-written story that transports the reader to an alternate realm. The characters are wonderfully flawed, but likeable, and the imagery and ambience created by Hughart’s prose draws the reader into the pages of the novel. In a different year, this could easlily have been chosen as my Retrospeculative pick as the best novel. Hughart wrote two more Number Ten Ox novels that were almost as charming as this one (The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen).

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1984 brought exceptional novels by Vernor Vinge and Octavia Butler, two fantasy classics, and a seminal cyberpunk novel that won three major awards and I still haven’t declared my Retrospeculative novel for the year. What gives? The novel I’ve picked was mostly ignored by the award categories; the author had won awards for previous works, but I think the novel he wrote this year is his masterpiece;

Without further ado, my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1984 is…

Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany. IMHO this is Delany’s crowning achievement in science fiction; it is a brilliant work.

Delany_SIMPLGOS_coverTogether with Dhalgren (1975) and the Return to Nevèrÿon series (1979 – 1987), Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand represents, to me, Samuel R. Delany at the height of his speculative literate powers. I enjoy just about anything Mr. Delany writes, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than others; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic). Stars has many themes: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass). And it has an enchanting chapter about a dragon ‘hunt.’

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the protagonist, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family. Marq is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s lengthy prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed (presumably by cultural fugue, which occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control).

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot doesn’t move along quickly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1is as a industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2for visiting dignitaries.”Apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in thisWikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation withered because of two separate events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epidemic began, impelling him to work on Nevèrÿon). Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it; nevertheless, as a brilliant work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is able to stand on its own.

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I recommend it to readers who enjoy a immersive, literary, science fiction experience.

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Samuel R. Delany’s book cover-art; juxtaposition…

Samuel R. Delany is one of my favourite science fiction authors; he writes with a literate quality that is unusual in genre authors.

Dhalgren is an oddly constructed masterpiece that can be quite difficult to struggle through. I managed to find my way through the tome last year and I’m of the opinion that it is a brilliant work, but I can truly understand those who think it is pretentious drivel. I’m quite fond of the vintage cover art below; it captures the mood of the novel, and the design is quite appealing:

Dhalgren_vintage

I’m also very fond of Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, but the edition depicted below (Neveryóna, the second book in the 4-book series) is not something I’d care to be seen carrying around in public. Fortunately, there are more conservative editions available…

Neveryona

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Retrospeculative View, 1979

Some of the significant short fiction of 1979:  

Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine, by, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award (1980) for best novella. The story was adapted for a movie that was released in 1985.

omni_cover_aug_1979George R. R. Martin’s Sandkings, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award (1980) for best novelette

George R. R. Martin’s The Way of Cross and Dragon, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1980)

Orson Scott Card’s Unaccompanied Sonata

Roger Zelazny’s The Last Defender of Camelot, which won the (ironically referred to as coveted) Balrog Award for short fiction (1980)

Edward Bryant’s giANTS, which won the Nebula Award for best short story.

Ted Reynolds’ Can These Bones Live?

Connie Willis’ Daisy, In the Sun

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Buck_Rogers_TV1979Some of the Movies/TV shows of 1979:

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. A short-lived, cheesy TV show (2 seasons: 1979-1981)

Salem’s Lot, a TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I have to disagree with the prevailing opinion; as science fiction, this is a much better film than The Wrath of Khan, which has some embarrassingly bad ham acting (in particular, from William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban).

Alien, the first of a movie franchise. Not my favourite sub-genre, but fairly well done for a movie with a science fiction premise.

Mad Max, a movie that spawned two additional apocalyptic ‘Mad Max’ features.

 

Some of the notable novels of 1979:

Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, which won the Hugo Award (1980) and the Nebula Award. This story describes the construction of an orbital tower (a space elevator) from ground level to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. I enjoyed the novel when I was younger, but couldn’t manage to re-read it recently. One of my biggest disappointments in life is re-reading some of the authors I loved when I was young and discovering that their writing no longer appeals to me…

Orson Scott Card’s A Planet Called Treason; I re-read this recently and was amazed at what a mishmash it is. There are some fascinating concepts (which is what I remember from reading it years ago), but I found it difficult to battle through the muddled story.

John Varley’s Titan, which won the Locus Award, and was the first book in his Gaea Trilogy (followed by Wizard and Demon, neither of which I’ve read). I enjoyed the beginning of Titan, but I thought it ended up as a mess. The story concerns a human expedition to Saturn, where sentient life is discovered: the Titanides, a centaur-like species, and the Angels, a humanoid-bird-like species. The Titanides and the Angels war against each other for no apparent reason (although this is explained later in the novel). Eventually, a higher intelligence, Gaea, is discovered and the plot becomes very strange. I give Varley marks for creativity, but I think the novel stretched beyond his ability to control the story (maybe the other two books in the trilogy helped define the story, but I’ll probably never read them. Perhaps it is my loss…).

John Crowley’s Engine Summer. There are some beautifully written passages in the novel, but it didn’t pull me in and, ultimately, left me empty. It is set in a post-apocalyptic future as narrated by a young man called Rush that Speaks. The novel is an intriguing coming-of-age story, but there is much that remains unclear. I enjoy challenging books, but this one lost me. riddlemaster

Patricia McKillip’s Harpist in the Wind, the final book in her Riddle-Master trilogy (which also includes The Riddle-Master of Hed and Heir of Sea and Fire. The series is currently available in a single volume: Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy). I read this trilogy several years ago and I thought it was a pretty darned good series, a few levels above the standard fantasy schlock.

Thomas M. Disch’s On Wing’s of Song, which won the Campbell Memorial Award (1980). It is a dystopian novel set in a fractured and economically unstable USA. The book is a bildungsroman, following the protagonist, Daniel Weinreb, from the age of five, until the end of his days. The book reveals an unusual, multifaceted society. An apparatus has been invented that people connect to and sing; if a person sings earnestly and perfectly, they experience an out-of-body experience that is referred to as flying. Flying is similar to the drugs of our day; prohibited (by the undergodders), but readily accessible. It is an unusual book and cannot be easily described without excessive explanations and plot spoilers. I didn’t fully appreciate the novel, but Disch’s stories are usually interesting, and this is no exception.

Watchtower, by Elizabeth Lynn, which won the World Fantasy Award. Watchtower is the first book in The Chronicles of Tornor. I haven’t read any of the books, but they are well-respected. The author is an openly lesbian writer and this novel was one of the first fantasy books to highlight gay relationships sympathetically and as commonplace cultural phenomena.Hitchhiker_cover

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which is now a classic. I was introduced to this series through the TV episodes, but enjoyed the books even more; in fact, I often chortled out-loud while reading them. My only wish is that he had stopped after the fourth book (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish); the fifth book (Mostly Harmless) was entertaining, but I think the fourth one ended ‘just right’ (and I have no intention of reading Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing). The first book in the series, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, introduced my favourtie character in the series, Slartibartfast.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is possibly her most notable novel, but I haven’t read it (shame on me) and cannot provide an interpretation; however, in an interview, Ms. Butler said, “I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.”

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And my choice for the Retrospeculative novel of 1979 is…

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Tales of Nevèrÿon, by Samuel R. Delany. This is the first book in a four book series, Return to Nevèrÿon, which is best considered as a single work. The entire series is getting my Retrospeculative nod…

The first book in the series, Tales of Nevèrÿon,consists of five parts, the first two of which are long stories, and the remaining three are short pieces.

The Tale of Gorgik introduces the reader to Gorgik; as a boy, he is taken into slavery, but eventually freed. The story has a circular resonance, as does the entire series. The Tale of Old Venn is mainly a discourse between an old woman, Venn, and a young girl, Norem. Venn explains the influence that money and language have on culture; as Norem listens, she is influenced by the language of Venn’s discourses. The Tale of Small Sarg relates the story of a prince who is taken as a slave and eventually bought by Gorgik. The Tale of Potters and Dragons relates the story of two young people who set out on a quest for wealth. In The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers, Sarg battles slave owners.

tales_of_neveryon_coverIf you enjoy Tales of Nevèrÿon, you will enjoy the series, as a whole, even more.

The Nevèrÿon books contain adventure and magic, but the series is not plot driven; it is about the power and influence of language, sex, social behavior and money. Delany wields words like a master as he regales us with postmodern sword and sorcery involving slavery, sex, and symbolism. The Nevèrÿon series is metafiction, requiring careful attention (in certain respects, I found it similar to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun). I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I point out that the last tale in the series is The Tale of Gorgik, the same story that begins the series, completing the cyclic nature of the tales. After finishing the series, The Tale of Gorgik reveals much more than it did upon the first reading.

Highly recommended for anybody who enjoys a challenging, intellectual reading experience (and the books are now available with adult-friendly covers from Wesleyan University Press).

I couldn’t possibly end this post without mentioning Delany’s Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus (hereafter referred to as IRTMC). If you’re interested, I suggest you research G. Spenser-Brown’s Laws of Form; I claim no degree of knowledge regarding G. Spenser-Brown’s works, but for anyone interested, I’ve provided some links at the bottom of this post.

In an essay (The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science fiction, p. 65) Delany writes: “…sword and sorcery represents what can still be imagined about the transition between a barter economy and a money economy,” and “…science fiction represents what can be most safely imagined about the transition from a money economy to a credit economy.” Delany also associates these representations with a note from G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form (part mathematics, part epistemology, which Delany calls “…a manifestation of the abstract calculus he is creating…”), which asserts (again, from Delany’s essay) “…that the value of content is reversed by its image; but to go on to an image of an image gives us a new image to deal with.” G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form surely form the foundation for Delany’s Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus (IRTMC)

Delany’s Trouble on Triton, a science fiction novel, apparently functions as a prologue for the Nevèrÿon series and contains the first two parts of the IRTMC: the novel is Part One and the novel’s second appendix is Part Two. Part Three of the IRTMC is Tales of Nevèrÿon’s first appendix (purportedly written by ‘S.L. Kermit’). Part Four of the IRTMC is the novel Neveryóna (the second book in the series). Part Five of IRTMC is the novella The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, the ninth tale in the Nevèrÿon series, in which a fatal STD breaks out in Nevèrÿon (very similar to AIDS, and there are echoes and crossovers with scenes in New York near the beginning of the AIDS epidemic).

For more on G. Spencer-Brown’s ideas:

Laws of Form

An Exploration in Mathematics and Foundations

For more from Samuel R. Delany:

I highly recommend Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand, and cautiously recommend Dhalgren; both are excellent, but Dhalgren is quite a different beast. I also recommend his book of essays, The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, an exceptional, literate book of criticism.

An interview with Samuel R. Delany

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Retrospeculative View, 1975

When I started planning this post, I was hoping that there was something of interest beyond Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War; well, there was more excellent prose than I could imagine: it was an exceptional year for speculative fiction. It was also the year I graduated from high school…

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TheBookOfSand (English trans. 1977) Before diving in with my usual Retrospeculative View post, I’d like to mention an excellent collection by Argentinean writer Jorges Luis Borges that was published in 1975: El libro de arena (The Book of Sand). I can’t read Spanish, so I was happy when the English translation became available because there are several standout stories; for example, the title story, Ulrica (Ulrikke), El Congreso (The Congress) and, in particular, El otro (The Other), my favourite story in the collection, first published in 1972 (the others were published in 1975).

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Some of the short fiction of 1975:

Croatoan, by Harlan Ellison, which won the Locus Award for short fiction.

The Borderland of Sol, by Larry Niven, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

And Seven Times Never Kill Man, by George R. R. Martin

The Companion, by Ramsey Campbell

Belsen Express, by Fritz Leiber, which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1976)

Catch That Zeppelin!, by Fritz Leiber, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best short story

San Diego Lightfoot Sue, by Tom Reamy, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

The Custodians, by Richard Cowper

The Private Life of Genghis Khan, by Douglas Adams and Graham Chapman

Home Is the Hangman, by Roger Zelazny, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best novella

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Some of the movies from 1975:

A Boy and His Dog, a post-apocalyptic society in which a boy survives with the aid of his telepathic dog. Based on Harlan Ellison’s novella.

rollerballRollerball, a dystopian movie based on a short story (Roller Ball Murder) by William Harrison

The Stepford Wives, set in a suburb in which the women are unusually submissive: something strange and disturbing is happening. Based on Ira Levin’s novel (1972). There was a remake in 2004.

Death Race 2000, the brutally homicidal, transcontinental road race in a dystopian America. The movie was based on a short story; the Racer, by Ib Melchior

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Some of the memorable novels of 1975:

Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson, which won the World Fantasy Award. The novel’s protagonist, Richard Collier, lives in the 1970s, but is obsessed when he sees a photograph of Elise McKenna, a stage actress from the 1890s. He researches the woman and discovers that she had an affair with a mysterious, unknown man. Richard becomes convinced that he was that man and, using a mind concentration technique, he travels into the past to meet the woman. The bittersweet story was made into a movie, Somewhere in Time (1980), and the movie’s title was used in subsequent editions of the novel.

 The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner, an early example of cyberpunk (before the term was coined), set in a dystopian future. The novel depicts computer hacking skills, and the concept of a viral worm is used (for the first time, I believe) to describe a program that proliferates within a computer network. The book’s title was inspired by Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. The protagonist, Nick Haflinger, is a programmer who is on the run from a government organization, Tarnover, a genetic engineering project that is secretly run by organized crime.

The Female Man, by Joanna Russ. The four main characters in the novel are the embodiment of each other in parallel worlds. They cross over to the other worlds, and any preconceived conception of gender and womanhood is inextricably altered.  Janet Evason Belin is from a futuristic world in which all men died in a plague; Jeannie Dadier is from a world in which the Great Depression never ended;  Joanna is from our Earth (or one just like it), circa 1970s; and Alice Jael Reasoner (Jael) is an assassin from a world in which men and women are at war. While reading, it is sometimes difficult to know which woman is the focus, adding to the intense milieu of feminism that drives the plot.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award (1976), and the Locus Award (1976).The novel is a lightly disguised depiction of Joe Haldeman’s experience of service during the Vietnam War and his return to an America he no longer understood (in the novel, the time dilation effect that leads to an unrecognizable society on Earth upon the soldier’s return is akin to the culture shock the soldiers encountered when they returned to America from service in Vietnam). This is one of the few military science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed, probably because it includes sections that detail the brutal bureaucracy of Warfare. The protagonist, William Mandella, suffers psychologically; he is a pacifist at heart, but he is an excellent soldier because he has the necessary skills and aptitude.

Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities), by Italo Calvino, a brilliant writer. In this book, Calvino sets up an intriguing dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marko Polo; the two create stories as they discuss the cities that Marko Polo has visited. But the two men speak different languages, which makes communication difficult, so Polo decides to use artifacts from each city to express his thoughts, and the reader must use imagination to build a mental image. Between each story of a city, there are interludes in which merchants provide Khan with information regarding his empire. Polo’s descriptions are lyrical, and the interludes are fascinating; apparently, the book is used by architects to aid their visualization of unique urban centers, and by artists as a source of inspiration.

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And my pick as Retrospecualtive Novel of 1975 is…

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. I was afraid of this book for many years because it is renowned for being difficult to read. It is quite a monster, but I’ve read some challenging books in the past decade, and I finally bit-the-bullet last year and immersed myself in Dhalgren’s Dhalgren_vintagepages. The book is very polarizing; some call it a masterpiece, while others shun it and would rather use the pages to light a fire than read the tome. I doubt that I’ll ever reread it (I will certainly re-sample many of my favourite sections), but it was a rewarding experience to follow the tortuosities of thought that Delany strung together. As I stated in my review, as a novel, Dhalgren doesn’t fit the mold: there isn’t a linear plot, events re-occur as echoes and distortions, it is unclear what the story is about, and the mind cannot easily detect a natural reading rhythm: it is classified as a novel, I suppose, because there is no other word to describe it (there is even hearty debate as to whether or not it is science fiction, but it is surely speculative fiction). Dhalgren makes the mind work (unless the reader gives up, throws the book into the fireplace, and picks up something else). As I read it, I became — in no particular order — confused, bored, angry, light-headed, disgusted, and enlightened (these states — in various permutations — were repeated throughout the reading experience). It is a brilliant piece of work, but it is not for everyone.

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Stars in my Pocket, Like Grains of Sand

If I’d attempted to read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Stars) when it was first published (1984), I would have undoubtedly thrown it across the room in frustration (I probably would have made it through the lengthy prologue, but the meat of the novel would have strained my patience to the breaking point). Stars inMy Pocket coverThankfully, I’m a much different reader now than I was then: it is a brilliant novel, but it’s certainly not for everyone (one review I read declared that the title was the only enjoyable part of the book). Stars was Samuel R. Delany’s final major work of science fiction, possibly due to disagreements with his publisher, Bantam, after they declined to publish the final volume of his Return to Nevèrÿon saga (Mr. Delany still writes fiction, and is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University). Stars is literate science fiction written by an author who understands the conventions of science fiction, as opposed to a science fiction novel written by a literate author. Chapter 10, A Dragon Hunt, is a wonder.

I’ve read several books by Delany (Empire Star, Babel-17, Triton, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and Tales of Nevèrÿon, as well as his short stories in Aye, and Gomorrah) and enjoyed them, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than most; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic. Dhalgren is quite another beast, best accepted as a separate entity). Stars is filled with themes, including: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass).

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the narrator, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family, and is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed, presumably by cultural fugue, which purportedly occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control.

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot moves slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1 is as an industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2 for visiting dignitaries” (p. ; apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in this Wikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation died due to two events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epic began, which impelled him to work on the Nevèrÿon cycle. Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it); nevertheless, as a work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, is able to stand on its own, and is probably my favourite work of his (although Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon books are also very inspired).

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I highly recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy challenging, literary science fiction.

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Retrospeculative View, 1968

Some of the excellent Short fiction of 1968:

Harlan Ellison’s The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1969.

Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings, which won the Hugo Award for best novella in 1969.

Robert Silverberg’s Passengers, which won the Nebula Award for best short story in 1969

Poul Anderson’s The Sharing of Flesh, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1969

Samuel R. Delany’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette in 1969, and the Hugo Award for best short story in 1970

Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

Richard Wilson’s Mother to the World, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette.

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A few of the speculative movies released in 1968:

The Planet of the Apes, based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (the story was, in part, inspired by Clarke’s short story The Sentinel). Clarke wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey in parallel with the movie version and the novel was published after the film’s released.

Night of the Living Dead, a classic, independent horror (zombie) movie.

Rosemary’s Baby, a classic, psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski. The story was adapted by Polanski from Ira Levin’s 1967 novel.

Barbarella, a cult-classic starring a very young Jane Fonda (I assume she isn’t too proud of the movie at this stage of her life). It was a French-Italian film based on Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella comics.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, loosely based on Ian Fleming’s novel Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car. The film’s script was written by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes, directed by Hughes and produced by Albert R. Broccoli, who also produced many James Bond films, also based on works by Ian Fleming (though these novels were intended for a different readership).

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And some of the best speculative novels of the year:

2001, A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke. This book has odd beginnings; it was written at the same time the movie was produced. It was a good novel, but I prefer some of his other books.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. This novel is perhaps PKD’s most famous, presumably because of the film adaption, Blade Runner. If you’ve been following my posts you probably know that I’m not a big PKD fan, although I did thoroughly enjoy two of his novels, The Man in the High Castle, and A Scanner Darkly. I actually enjoyed the movie blade Runner, more than the novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). I think Dick’s ideas in the novel are superb (many of which never made it into the movie adaption), but I find his writing to be pulpy and uneven. I do, however, like the title of the novel better than the film.

The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I never read this when I was young, and it didn’t capture me when I was older (my loss); this is the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic YA fantasy series.

Pavane by Keith Roberts: an alternate history novel that I haven’t read, but it is usually compared favorably to PKD’s The Man in the High Castle. Robert’s novel spins out a tale that assumes the Spanish Armada was not defeated by England, and the Protestant religion did not weaken Catholicism’s power. Pavane is a classic of the genre.

Report on Probability A, by Brian Aldiss: written in 1962, but rejected by multiple publishers. It was first published in 1967, but an expanded/revised edition was published in 1968. The novel is an extrapolation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the premise that observation transforms what is observed, thereby resulting in the impossibility of a definitive point of reference (the novel also included other theoretical, quantum physics theories). Report on Probability A has been described as an anti-novel, but was influential in the experimental, ‘New Wave’ of British fiction. There is a schism around the novel; some believe it is a masterpiece, while others would toss it out with the morning’s trash. I must admit, I didn’t care for it when I attempted to read it years ago: perhaps I’ll give it another try…

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. A book that should be read while young, or young at heart.

Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg, which is an expanded version of his short story. I don’t recall reading the book (or short story): Hawksbill Station is a penal colony that uses time travel to send political prisoners into the past as a ‘humane’ substitute for capital punishment. It is an effective method for a repressive government to control its dissidents.

Picnic on Paradise, by Joanna Russ. Another novel I haven’t read, but Ms. Russ’s novel The Female Man is excellent, and I would have guessed that Picnic on Paradise examines gender issues; I’ve read that it also examines issues of technology, maturity, and bravery.

His Master’s Voice (Głos Pana), by Stanisław Lem. This novel explores many of Lem’s usual themes; it is an excellent philosophical science fiction novel, and is unsympathetic in regards to human intellect and ethics, and some may find it too cynical. An extraterrestrial message is received and a team of brilliant scientists is assembled to translate it. The novel shares some premises with Solaris (which I think is an even better Lem novel): in particular, if/when we meet up with a truly alien intelligence will we be able to comprehend it; indeed, will we be capable of deciding whether or not it is intelligent? His Master’s Voice is an exceptional, dense novel, and is readily available in English translation.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, which won the Nebula Award. It is a coming-of-age-story propelled by a moral dilemma. The Earth was being destroyed by war, and spaceships were built to transport people to new worlds. The spaceships contained the accumulated knowledge of Earth, but the crews decide to maintain their own colonies on the ships and parcel out tidbits of knowledge to the different worlds in exchange for goods. The colonies are technologically backward compared to the lives of the spaceship occupants, an inequality inherent in the system. It is a novel about morals, politics, and the maturation process a child experiences after absorbing viewpoints from outside the confines of the parental umbrella.

Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. Most descriptions of Nova probably indicate a standard space opera, but it is more than that. The protagonist fights the good fight against intergalactic evil: Captain Lorq van Ray is attempting to discover an economical energy-source so he can overthrow the Red family; unfortunately, to collect the energy, the only known process would involve a journey into the core of an exploding sun. Nova is a redemption tale, set against a backdrop of unfortunate choices. Delany was (and still is) an interesting author; within the plot of the novel he includes the Tarot, the physics of interstellar masses, cyborgs, the attempts of an outsider to integrate, investigations into the structure of narrative, drugs, and intriguing parallels to the search for the Holy Grail (the original, serious one, not the Monty Python version). In my mind, Nova was the Delany book that turned a literate corner, and a couple of novels he wrote after Nova (Dhalgren in 1975 and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in 1984) blew my mind. I enjoyed his earlier works, but this was — to me — the beginning of his maturity as a writer, and I really wanted to give this novel the nod as Retrospeculative Novel of the year, but I (reluctantly) chose another …

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Stand on Zanzibar coverJohn Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is, as he himself admits, a ‘non-novel,’ yet I’m choosing it as The Retrospeculative novel of 1968. The book is constructed with four distinctive chapter-types: Continuity, containing the plot (these sections form a ‘normal’ narrative as found in most novels); Tracking with Close-Ups, fleeting glimpses of Brunner’s future vision; Context, presenting Brunner’s world via media quotations (several by Chad C. Mulligan, a character in the book), and The Happening World, featuring snippets of information and news stories about characters. The book is written in a way that demands immersion and the style is apparently similar to John Dos Passos in his USA Trilogy.

Brunner has also sprinkled an urban slang throughout the book, some of which require some thought to sort out, but most are quite obvious. For example, Los Angeles has become Ellay (for L.A.), children are prodigies, men are codders, women are shiggies, a.m. is anti matter, and p.m. is poppa-momma.

The book was written in 1968, and the events take place in 2010. In reviews, many people obsess about what Brunner got right, and what he got wrong about the future in 2010; although this can be interesting, prediction isn’t the point. The book is an examination of society and its faults. Brunner is preaching as he explains what ails human society, and he is very critical, although he includes hope for humanity, attached to the criticisms via a thin tendril. The book fits the mood of a manifesto rather than a novel; it is an inspired work, but a little less proselytizing/pontificating, and more investment in fascinating main characters and plot would have made for a better ‘novel’. The world Brunner has imagined is interesting, vibrant, and quite frightening, but the two main characters he has the reader follow — Norman House and Donald Hogan —are rather dull in comparison: the story gets somewhat lost in the message. Some of the secondary characters are actually more interesting than the protagonists.

I have misgivings about the classification of this novel as a novel (although what else can one call it?), but it is a landmark in the development of science fiction as literature, and the depth of Brunner’s world-vision is awe-inspiring.  Every fan of science fiction should, at the least, peruse the book to acquire the mood of the story, the important messages within the chapters, and the richness of John Brunner’s imagination.

Stand on Zanzibar won the Hugo Award, The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and the Prix Tour-Apollo Award.

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