Tag Archives: science fiction/fantasy

Grand Master C L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry

C L Moore, Jirel of Joiry (©1934, 1935, 1936, 1939; Ace Fantasy Books 1982)

jojThis book reminded me of something the late poet Martin Johnston said about H P Lovecraft: ‘The writing is terrible but it gives you great nightmares.’ In this tremendously inventive fantasy the main character, the fierce but beautiful warrior lady Jirel, takes five separate journeys into four different demonic worlds. Think Dante’s Hell without the theology, the politics or the poetic vision, but plenty of gusto, gore and unspeakable horrors.

Jirel of Joiry has been on my list of recommended science fiction/fantasy books for a long time, probably because its protagonist was among the first women to star in heroic fantasy genre fiction. I began reading it now for reactive reasons: I was irritated by a recent egregious bit of click-bait that dumped on adults who find some YA and children’s literature and by extension fantasy seriously interesting (no argued rebuttal needed beyond invoking Sturgeon’s Law); and a ham-fisted, over-analysed fantasy episode in a mainstream novel made me yearn for some unabashed genre writing.

Weird_Tales_October_1934The book’s five related short stories were first published in the 1930s. The first, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’, inspired the cover illustration of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared (see left). You don’t get much more unabashed than that.

The Weird Tales cover actually owes more to its assumed readers’ tastes than to the story itself: in the scene it purports to illustrate, Jirel is clad in armour and holding an unsheathed sword, and the black god, encountered in a black building on a dark, dark night, is described as follows (on page 29):

The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away.

This goes easier on the emotive adjectives and adverbs than most of the writing, but it’s fairly representative  I particularly like the way, having used nameless a little too often in recent pages, the writer reaches for an alternative and finds innominate, for this is a book in which there are many things that the narrator tells us are beyond the power of words to name or describe. Do I need to tell you that within an overwrought page Jirel is compelled by mysterious global forces to kiss those pursed lips, with chilling consequences?

The stories are all fast moving, violent and dazzlingly inventive, easy to mock when paraphrased, but told with a gleeful lack of irony. The sexual politics are fascinating: Jirel is a formidable warrior who is violently ambivalent about the idea of being dominated by a male, whether human or demonic, and who has deeply antagonistic relationships with the only other significant female characters. But even more fascinating is the play of black and white. Jirel herself is identified as red, because of her hair; the attractive/deadly male figures are all at the darker end of the swarthy-to-black spectrum; and an emphatic white is reserved for lost, spectral figures such as the blind, galloping horses in the cover illustration of my edition of the book, or the fabulously evil characters such as the witch in the fourth story, ‘The Dark Land’:

It was a woman – or could it be? White as leprosy against the blackness of the trees, with a whiteness that no shadows touched, so that she seemed like some creature out of another world reflecting in dazzling pallor upon the background of the dark, she paced slowly forward. She was thin – deathly thin, and wrapped in a white robe like a winding sheet …

But it was her face that caught Jirel’s eyes and sent a chill of terror down her back. It was the face of Death itself, a skull across which the white, white flesh was tightly drawn. And yet it was not without a certain stark beauty of its own, the beauty of bone so finely formed that even in its death’s-head nakedness it was lovely.

And it goes on – the word ‘white’ occurs four more times in the next paragraph, which also mentions the absence of colour and shadows, twice each.

It was impossible not to think of Toni Morrison’s 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison describes a mythologised blackness ‘pulled from fields of desire and need’, and ‘the silence of an impenetrable inarticulate whiteness’ that occurs again and again in fiction by white US authors. I don’t know if she has a taste for genre or may even have read Jirel of Joiry, but I hope she would enjoy the way it allows images and motifs from white US’s Africanist imagination to thrum with innominate energy.

Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia (Ballantine Books, 1975, 1978)

1norstriliaNorstrilia is on a number of impressive lists, including Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time, David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, The Classics of Science Fiction. It has been on my ever-growing and much-neglected SFF TBR pile for years.

Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym of US author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, who under his own name was Sun Yat Sen’s godson, an expert in psychological warfare and an adviser to the US military in a number of  combats up to but not including Vietnam. He wrote quite a lot of science fiction (can you tell I’ve looked up Wikipedia?) of which this is his only novel, but many if not all of his short stories and novellas are set in the same universe as Norstrilia – and they leave tantalising traces in the narrative here, such as a number of references to the much feared but never explained Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, or the likewise never explained ‘underhuman’ saint D’joan.

‘Norstrilia’ is of course a corruption of ‘North Australia’: the story begins and ends on the planet of Old North Australia 15 thousand or more years from now. The Norstrilians are fabulously rich but deliberately simple people, presumably based on the impressions Australians made on Linebarger when he spent six months in Canberra in the 1950s. The Norstrilians’ wealth comes from giant sheep, not from wool but from the by-product of a sickness that has infected all the flocks … But I’m not giving a story outline. Suffice it to say that the book is very funny, and full of bizarre inventions – such as a lethal sparrow the size of a football, or beings known as underhumans who are basically animals genetically engineered to have human intelligence and other qualities, or the more or less self-explanatory Department Store of Heart’s Desires, or a future Earth where illness and enmity have had to be artificially reinvented to stop humans from going extinct from boredom. Some of the inventions are of the ooh-he-thought-of-that-in-1964 variety (the novel was first published as two separate stories in the 1960s) , such as in this exchange:

‘What’s postage?’ said the Lord Redlady, really puzzled.
‘Payments on messages.’
‘But you do that with thumbprints or eyeprints!’
‘No,’ said Rod, ‘I mean paper ones.’
‘Paper messages?’ said the Lord Redlady, looking as though someone had mentioned grass battleships, hairless sheep, solid cast-iron women, or something else equally improbable. ‘Paper messages?’ he repeated, and then he laughed, quite charmingly. ‘Oh!’ he said, with a tone of secret discovery, ‘You mean antiquities …?’

There are computer networks, videophones and CCTV. There’s cheerful female-to-male transition (anatomical details passed over in discreet silence). The plot hinges on spectacular manipulation of the global financial markets, though as this is fantasy there is no crash. There’s a totally gorgeous cat underhuman, named (according to the internets) after Linebarger’s own cat. At one point the hero has to restrain himself from running to kiss his computer – a moment imagined 40 years before the iPhone was invented. And there’s a revolutionary movement motivated, almost certainly without deliberate reference to Che, by love both for the oppressed and the oppressor.

It’s a rollicking read, rarely a dull moment, that reminds me of why I love genre fiction.

Doctor Who and Lindalee

Decades ago someone did a study of three different audience’s responses to an episode of Doctor Who. From memory, the focus groups were made up respectively of four-year olds, 13 year olds and PhD students respectively. All three groups loved the show. The first saw it as very funny because the Doctor was tricky. The second enjoyed the action–suspense. The third just loved the references to Buddhist cosmology.

Here’s a very young person recapping the first episode of the new season – be warned it’s full of spoilers, but be prepared to be delighted by a completely coherent reading. (Thanks to Stubby the Rocket at tor.com)

Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies

Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies (1976, Carrol & Graf 1989)

A while back the Art Student and I went to the Gleebooks launch of a book called something like The Brain, at which the author spoke entertainingly about hypergraphia, or perhaps graphomania, which he said was a biologically-based disorder suffered by, among others, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Cervantes. We came away knowing little about the book, but the fantasy that a deformed hypothalamus or whatever was responsible for the creation of Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Sancho Panza has a certain lasting, sick appeal. If such a condition existed, Barry N. Malzberg would be one of the few recorded sufferers to have recovered. He wrote a phenomenal number of books in his 20s and 30s and then, apparently, pretty much stopped.

Galaxies is a multifaceted, challenging, joyous, anguished outpouring (or perhaps, though I doubt it, carefully crafted facsimile of an outpouring). It begins, ‘To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one.’ The writer, referred to throughout in the third person, is a hack writer of science fiction and other genre, as Malzberg was, and there’s plenty of complaining about the pay levels and other drawbacks of the life. In the novel, a spacecraft carrying a cargo of 515 cryogenically preserved dead people, falls into a ‘black galaxy’ and its sole crew member lives seven thousand lives, converses with a trio of mechanical Job’s comforters, and finally makes a decision. But there are also the notes, which shoot off in all directions – lampooning the conventions of science fiction, canvassing the relationship between it and literary fiction, between it and science, discussing the craft of writing, all with tremendous energy and reflexive irony.

What he has to say about science fiction may be dated. I don’t know enough to say. I imagine a knowledgeable reader would enjoy this even more than I did – certainly I got a kick out of the references I did spot. For example, talking about the kinds of fate that science fiction hacks can expect, he gives examples whom he calls A, B and C. It was fairly clear to me that the first two of those innocent sounding letters actually stood for Asimov and Ballard. Later in the same paragraph he refers to himself as M, confirming the suspicion and capping the joke.

The book is funny and serious and pained and exuberant. On almost every page there are paragraphs that cry out to be quoted. I finally weakened towards the end of the book and folded down a page on this:

Success teaches nothing; failure presents limits, gives us the tragic sense without which understanding is impossible. Successes are composed of a thousand failures like the way the photographs in newspapers reduce on inspection to myriad scattered dots, each expressionless, all comprising vision.

Terry Pratchet’s Snuff

Terry Pratchett, Snuff (Harper, 2011)

Apart from the Tiffany Aching books (which are for children, and also for adults, and brilliant), I have been out of touch with Discworld, though each Christmas I’ve given the current novel to my younger son, who has been a fan for half his life. Last year he reversed the flow and gave me Snuff. I decided to read it just now for light relief from a string of books about grim subjects – only to find that it’s pretty much about a genocidal slave trade. I don’t know if Terry Pratchett had the European-American slave trade in mind, or Queensland blackbirding, or the Nazi Holocaust, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had read Sea of Poppies – both books feature a drug trade conducted by establishment people and a vessel (the Ibis/the Wonderful Fanny) carrying a viciously oppressed human cargo (not exactly human in Snuff, but certainly sentient) that makes its way down a personified river (Mother Ganga/Old Treachery) and encounters many kinds of turbulence.

There are three overlapping strands in the Discworld series: the witches, the wizards and the City Watch. This is a City Watch story, starring Commander Sam Vines, who when I last saw him was a mere Captain, but has now been elevated like his creator to the peerage. Sam is dragged from his putrid native habitat, the streets of Ankh Morpork, for a holiday on his wife’s ancestral country estate. It takes a while, but of course the country turns out to contain just as much nastiness, danger and corruption as the city, and just as much stumbling heroism, awkward romance and unexpected beauty. A Discworld Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance, and a scatological children’s writer plays a significant role.

Sam is a wonderful character, an uncompromising servant of the law and believer in the rule of law who is all too aware of his own dark side, his own demons (and this being fantasy, both the darkness and the demons are literal). He discriminates among kinds of evildoing. For example, when the main atrocity has been exposed one of the villagers who had failed to intervene approaches Sam, who is having a snack at the village pub:

‘Well sir, yes, of course we knew about the goblins and no one liked it much. I mean they’re a bloody nuisance if you forget to lock your chicken coop and suchlike, but we didn’t like what was done, because it wasn’t … I mean, wasn’t right, not done like that, and some of us said we would suffer for it, come the finish, because if they could do that to goblins then what might they think they could do to real people, and some said real or not, it wasn’t right! We’re just ordinary people, sir, tenants and similar, not big, not strong, not important, so who would listen to the likes of us? I mean, what could we have done?’

Heads leaned a little forward, breaths were held, and Vimes chewed the very last vinegary piece of crisp. Then he said, directing his gaze to the ceiling, ‘You’ve all got weapons. Every man jack of you. Huge, dangerous, deadly weapons. You could have done something. You could have done anything. You could have done everything. But you didn’t, and I’m not sure but that in your shoes I might not have done anything, either. Yes?’

Hasty had held up a hand. ‘I’m sure we’re sorry. sir, but we don’t have weapons.’

‘Oh, dear me. Look around. One of the things that you could  have done was think. It’s been a long day, gentlemen, it’s been a long week … [Addressing the barman] Jiminy, these gentlemen are drinking at my expense for the rest of the evening.’

This is the third book Sir Terry has written since he revealed to the world that he has Alzheimer’s. He can no longer type, but – with the help of voice recognition software – he can certainly still write. For those who have kept up this book may be showing signs of flagging mental ability, but it’s full of wit and passion and sheer inventiveness, and also wisdom. If you haven’t read any of his books I wouldn’t start here. Try Guards! Guards! or Witches Abroad or Mort or The Wee Free Men.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

Neal Stephenson, Reamde (William Morrow / Atlantic Books 2011)

At 1044 pages, this is to a normal novel what The Wire or The Sopranos is to a feature film. Characters who loom large in the first couple of hundred pages are killed as summarily as any TV character whose actor has had a better offer. New characters turn up who come from whole other continents. Plot strands that appeared to be central are apparently resolved after a mere 350 pages, and, to mash my metaphors a bit, other strands arise from the ashes and shards that remain of them. As the action moves to a new location, that location is described in loving detail, usually over a couple of pages. Yet, with all those shifts of direction and detailed evocations of place, the narrative stays gripping.

Neal Stephenson is the man who raised the info-dump to the level of an art form. In the climactic battle scene, for instance, when two sets of jihadists are shooting it out with a heterogeneous collection of good guys, he pauses to notice that when machine-gun bullets hit the walls of a log cabin, the freshly exposed wood shows up starkly blond against the weathered outside wood. And elsewhere in the same battle, a character has time to reflect that one’s mental functions are less sharp when one is burning fat than when burning carbs. But there are none of the spectacular digressions of earlier books – no lectures on Babylonian mythology, nanotechnology, computer cryptography, advanced mathematics, or the fashions of the court of Charles the Second of England.

If you haven’t read any Neal Stephenson, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this. Snow Crash is a fabulous cyberspace thriller; Cryptonomicon goes deep into Second World War cryptography and modern electronic security; The Diamond Age is set in a world where nanotechnology is achieving wonders, yet has at its heart a book for small children (and a small child who reads it); The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) is a rollicking picaresque novel and also a fictionalised account of the dawn of capitalism, the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Compared to any of them, Reamde is just a thriller.

But it’s wonderful, improbable fun. You can get an idea of the plot from this little ‘story so far’ passage from page 827 (you need to know that T’Rain is a massively popular and profitable multi-user internet game, and it may help to know that Seamus is a semi-disgraced but still potent US secret operative and ‘these three’ are all in their early 20s and not generally inclined to risky living):

Seamus had no idea what level of precautions was appropriate here. Apparently these three had left half of the surviving population of China seriously pissed off at them, as well as making mortal enemies with a rogue, defrocked Russian organised crime figure. In their spare time they had stolen money from millions of T’Rain players, created huge problems for a large multinational corporation that owned the game, and, finally – warming to the task – mounted a frontal attack on al-Qaeda.

I confess that my enthusiasm was beginning to flag in the prolonged climactic battle, where not a lot was happening besides stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other, but generally this was an excellent summer, even all-of-summer, read. And what if my teetering To Be Read pile is calling me to  a world history of genocide, a revisionist account of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the next Book Group title? Neal Stephenson is a major Guilty Pleasure, and I am unrepentant.

Joanna Russ And Chaos Died

Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died (1970,Berkley Books 2009 )

Joanna Russ died on 29 April. This book has been beside my bed for a while now and I decided to read it as my small personal obsequies. It might have been better to reread The Female Man or read How to Suppress Women’s Writing for the first time, these being the books usually seen as marking her place in the history of Science Fiction, but I don’t have copies of either of them. The New York Times obituary doesn’t mention And Chaos Died, which was first published five and 13 years respectively before those books.

A lot of the time it’s hard to tell what’s going on in this book, though it does become slightly less bewildering after the first 20-page section. The main reason for the bewilderment is that the main character, Jai Vedh, having crash-landed on an alien planet, encounters people there who communicate mentally, reading each other’s feelings and thoughts but also perceiving the world at a molecular level and communing with plants (a wise daisy plays a crucial role) and even inanimate objects. When they communicate with ‘visuals’, their words are oddly elliptical, responding to things the others aren’t quite aware they’ve even thought or felt, let alone expressed, and drawing on the others’ vocabularies (‘I’m not used to talking this at all,’ is one of the first sentences he hears spoken). Nothing is explained; the reader, if anything, understands even less than Jai Vedh.

Jai Vedh identifies as homosexual in the early pages, but he becomes sexually and psychically involved with a woman of the planet and soon is telepathing and teleporting with the best of them. He’s captured and taken back to ‘Old Earth’, a late 60s nightmare of overpopulation, pollution, corrupt authoritarian government, and psychedelic licentiousness, where he escapes death many times, befriends a boy who tries to kill him, and so on. Through all this he uses his mental skills without ever gaining complete control of them, so that he often isn’t at all sure whose thoughts and feelings he’s experiencing and has trouble seeing what’s physically in front of his eyes because other aspects of reality, whether microscopic or purely psychic, are claiming his attention – and the prose takes us along with him. It’s hard to pick a representative passage, because the writing keeps changing with Jai Vedh’s level of competence and the mind/mood-altering agents he encounters. But this might give some idea – he’s collapsed into an exhausted sleep on a California beach, and this is his waking up:

He thought he had been taken inside by someone. They were going to fight over his body. He was on the floor or on the sand, sprawled asleep part of a ritual like a piece of wood, the thought: hold him, hold him, hold him, and somebody holding his head and saying (over and over) ‘Sleep, torn man, sleep. Yang only. Sleep, torn man, sleep. Yin only.’ The lights passed over his closed eyes with exaggerated slowness, vanishing off his chin: purple, green, blue, red, yellow, white, with pictures, too, a very old-fashioned and silly piece of stuff. Last year’s. He was lying in a woman’s lap, in some sort of barn with a lot of smoke around and people shuffling. Jingle-bonk. And could not open his eyes. Jingle-jingle-bonk. Foolishness. It occurred to him that he must have been drugged, for the naked woman whose lap he was in had as much mind or as much sex as a puppet, though he could smell her strongly. That is, she had been drugged. (I’ve been drugged!) Although he did not think that he usually thought that way. … There was a small, irritated, hopping-mad part of her mind, too, somewhere; he noted that with interest. He guessed it was the smoke and began to fend it away from him – big, bumbling molecules, as complicated as antique steamships – to let through the little, keen, live ones.

According to Samuel Delaney, The Female Man was written partly as a critique of this novel. You can download the whole book as a PDF.

Where Blade Runner came from

Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, Gollancz 1999)

Those who know about such things say the best introduction to Philip K Dick’s fiction is his short stories, especially ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’. The advice came too late for me: my introduction was the movie based on this book, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which I saw a shocking 28 years ago. Something – perhaps nothing more than the awkward title –  led me to expect the book to be a poor, pallid thing in comparison to the movie, but I’ve been meaning to read it anyhow since 1982.

Apart from the broad outlines of the plot (Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a bounty hunter who tracks down and kills advanced robots who have rebelled against servitude and are trying to pass as human), what I remember of the film is the dark turbulence of the design, the crazed, ruthless, romantic robot played by Rutger Hauer, the tear that runs down the cheek of a female character when she discovers she’s not human, and not much else. The world of the book is a quietly decaying desolation rather than an overpopulated millrace; Roy Baty (not Batty as in the movie), the leader of the rogue androids, is unambiguously unsympathetic; and Rachael Rosen finds out she’s not human fairly early in the piece, though later plot points suggest she has always known it – and either way there’s no great emotion involved. It’s the same story, but very different.

I enjoyed the book. I would have enjoyed it if Blade Runner had never been made, but as a study (in my case a mighty superficial one) of book-to-film adaptation it’s fascinating. The book has a religious movement, Mercerism, that isn’t in the film, that emphasises and reinforces the human quality of empathy. It’s mainly an Orwellian method of population control, and but it also enables the characters to have genuine mystical experiences. Though there’s plenty of killing, none of it is graphic: the most horrifying moment – and it is truly horrifying – involves a few scissor snips that draw no blood. The movie goes for much bigger effects, though it’s probably tame by today’s bang and splatter standards, and uses noir conventions to establish a moral and metaphysical murk that has (for my money, and in my memory) a much more powerful effect than the book. The book raises the same basic questions – something like: what makes us human? what does it mean to care, and what are its limits? – and has its own ambivalence and ambiguities, but in a much cooler, more cerebral, register.

The movie, in other words (and I intend to see it again soon), departed from the book in major ways, leaving out not just the religious element but also a central strand about companion animals (which survives vestigially in images of artificial owls, and ostriches in the streets), and even the major back story of a nuclear war. It was a futurist noir piece (perhaps the first of its kind?), where the book is something much quieter, more measured, more individual. The movie became its own thing, broke free of the constraining obligation to be true to the book (which has such a dampening effect on, say the movie adaptations like the Harry Potter series or the Millennium Trilogy). Interestingly enough, this leaves the book relatively uncontaminated. The book’s hero is definitely not Harrison Ford. I’m free to imagine him freshly for myself as I read.

The Book Group and The City and the City

China Miéville, The City and the City (Macmillan 2009)

Before the Book Group meets:
We decided to read some science fiction. Rather than opting for someone’s idea of a classic (Asimov, Heinlein, early Gibson or Stephenson) we decided to pick something current. I’d loved China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and heard interesting things about The City and the City – among other things it had been nominated for a Hugo [and now has tied with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for Best Novel]. I suggested we take it on, and the suggestion carried the day.

So I was suffering a mild case suggester’s anxiety when I started reading. What response would the book get from Groupers who’ve read even less science fiction than I have? Would the meticulous world-building strike them as so much tedious scenery-painting? Would they see the elegant police procedural plot as something from a by-the-numbers TV show, the characters as two-dimensional, the tantalising central conceit the equivalent of a one-joke comedy? I’m pleased to report that after a while I stopped caring and was absorbed in the book’s world and its story.

The City and the City is hard to write about because it really is an extended exploration of a single conceit. I would infinitely prefer to have had it revealed  to me by the narrative itself, and don’t want to have a hand in spoiling it for anyone else. In a Book Show interview, Miéville went as far as saying that the story is set in two cities that share an unusual relationship to each other, which is true but doesn’t give anything away. Not until the end of the first chapter is there any hint that the world, or at least the cities, of the book are in some sense science fictional/fantastic. I would love to know how a reader who wasn’t forewarned would understand that first jarring moment, and how long it would take to grasp the full situation. Of course, in one sense, the full situation isn’t clear until the very last pages: as in Kafka and Raymond Chandler, to whom Miéville acknowledges indebtedness, the narrative at one level concerns itself with solving a single crime, but it also unfolds the deeper political realities of the world of the novel.

Pushing the spoiler envelope just a little, I had an insight into the book when out walking recently with the Art-Student. As we approached a small group boys riding their scooters in the street, one of the boys momentarily lost control and wheeled directly into our path. He pulled up short and called over his shoulder to his friends, ‘I’ll try that again.’ He had carefully avoided hitting us, but otherwise acted as if we dog-walking old people weren’t even there. He had ‘unseen’ us. Then I remembered noticing on my last visit to Cairns that though there were plenty of Aboriginal people in the streets, the non-Aboriginal people generally behaved as if they weren’t there, and vice versa – another case of mutual unseeing. The City and the City takes this common phenomenon to impossible extremes, and much of the joy of the book lies in how consistently and thoroughly he has imagined it. Miéville succeeds to the extent that every now and then a reference to the world as we know it – to Coke, or Madonna, or a Google search – brings one up short: oh, this is all happening in the world as I know it! The climactic point of the story consists of four people walking briskly down a street in close physical proximity – and it’s totally thrilling, not just because one of them is carrying a gun. That’s all I’m saying.

After the meeting:
It was a small meeting, but all of us had enjoyed the book. The group meeting had been postponed for six weeks or so, so quite a bit of time had passed since most of us had read the book. And even though in the intervening weeks one had reread it and another had read Perdido Street Station, our memories weren’t generally fresh enough to generate much detailed discussion. I needn’t have worried about the appeal of the world building: everyone enjoyed it. And my curiosity about how the setup was revealed to the unspoiled reader was gratified: the consensus seemed to be that the odd word (‘crosshatched’) created a sense of unease, enough to alert rather than alarm, and there was pleasure as more of the workings of the cities was revealed, until one felt (several times over), ‘Ah, now I get it!’

Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse

Brian Aldiss, Hothouse (1962, Baen Books 1984)

What a luxury to read a book where a child dies  horribly in the first couple of pages, where the earth’s temperature has risen to the point where almost all mammals are extinct and small groups of humans cling to a precarious existence, where women lead those human groups and the men are protected and pampered because reproduction depends on their survival, and where none of these things is weighed down by real-life concerns about child protection, anthropogenic global warming or hegemonic patriarchy. Hothouse was first published in 1962 (and a year earlier as a five-part serial in a science fiction magazine), when gender politics and ecological anxieties were dots on the horizon for most people, and it was possible to approach in a spirit of joyful play subjects that are now matters for earnest, urgent and often acrimonious discussion.

You can’t argue with a book that rewrites the laws of physics to allow vast spider-like plants to tether the moon to the earth with silken cables. You can’t get too gloomy over a dying Earth scenario that involves incredibly [sic] vicious vegetable species with names like killwillow, trappersnapper, wiltmilt or oystermaw.  You can only sit back and enjoy the ride when human intelligence is explained as the product of symbiosis between ape-like mammals and a ratiocinative fungus.

This book won a Hugo when it was first published. It’s listed as one of David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels since the Second World War. It’s a wildly inventive odyssey in which the hero Gren meets more evolutionary monsters than any one story has a right to. There’s plenty of terror, romance and comedy, much physical and moral heroism, enough philosophy to keep the mind engaged, and a pinch of charming bawdry.

I was at boarding school in 1962,  thirsting for genre fiction and making do with what slim pickings the school library had to offer. Hothouse and the 14-year-old me were meant for each other. We’ve met up nearly 50 years too late, but that’s much much better than never. I’ve just read on the Official Brian Aldiss Web Site that Penguin republished it in 2008 – may it bring joy to myriad  readers, of whatever age.