Monday, 31 March 2014

The Book That Made Me - Mark West

In the fifth part of an ongoing series, NSFWG member Mark West
discusses "the book that made me"

* * * * *

A confession!  I stole the idea of this thread from Jim Mcleod at the Ginger Nuts Of Horror site, where he kindly asked me to write about the book that drew me into the genre.  This is that book, Stephen King's non-fiction exploration of the horror genre up to 1980.

Since it was Jim's idea, I won't repost the article here but if you click this link, it will take you to my entry on his site.

I loved the book.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Book That Made Me - Steve Longworth

In the fourth part of an ongoing series, NSFWG member Steve Longworth discusses "the book that made me"

* * * * *

I feel embarrassed to admit this, but I now find 'The Book That Made Me' to be almost unreadable.

I must have been about twelve or thirteen. My reading habits were undergoing a rapid evolution. I was moving on from being an avid devourer of DC and Marvel comics. I consumed Agatha Christie 'whodunnits' with gusto, reading as many as I could get my hands on, and sometimes even correctly guessing the murderer (by the way, if you have never read her 1926 masterpiece 'The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd' then treat yourself - a survey of 600 members of The Crime Writers Association concluded it was the finest example of the genre ever written).

In my enthusiasm I pressed Christie's work on my good friend Mike (who is now a Texas oilman, an interesting story in itself about a miner's son from Salford).  He returned the favour by giving me a book to read, and changed my reading habits forever.

The book was 'Triplanetary' by EE 'Doc' Smith. It blew me away.

The story was first serialised in 'Amazing Stories' from 1934 and then reworked into the 'prequel' of Smith's 'Lensman' series of novels and published in book form in 1948.

The novel opens before our planet is even formed as an ancient race, the benign Arisians, observe the collision of two galaxies (one of them being our Milky Way) a process that gives rise to multitudinous planets in both galaxies. The story ends (and the entire Lensman series ends) hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years into our future.

During the galactic interpassage the malevolent Eddorians burst from a parallel universe into our reality. Thus begins an eons long struggle for control of both galaxies, with every major event in human history being part of a proxy struggle between both ancient civilisations.

The epic sweep of the story totally boggled my mind. I didn't know you could do that. This was 1971. I had previously thought that the misty abandoned quarry where they seemed to film most 'Dr Who' exteriors was the limit of the imagination. Then, in 1969,  along came 'Star Trek' and we had our horizons expanded. But this was nothing compared to the limits (or absence of limits) to Smith's imagination. Faster than light travel, immortality, telepathy, mind-melding, avatars ('working projections') and space superweapons are just for starters. We also have the ultimate 'goodies' versus 'baddies' adventure story, romance, thrills and non-stop high tempo action.

I picked up the book a few years ago and... well, I had to put it down again. The style is very stilted. 'Pulp' seems the best word to describe it. The earlier part of the book, describing events in World Wars One and Two, are long, stodgy and mostly irrelevant and should have been vigorously edited. The characters are two dimensional. There are plot holes aplenty (the Arisians and Eddorians have to keep their existence secret from the human and other races whose destinies they are shaping, and I don't buy the reason why), and the morality in the story is simplistically 'White Hat' and 'Black Hat'.

And (whisper it softly) I am 45 years older than when I first picked up the book and (I hope) my critical faculties and tastes have evolved (though I'm not sure they have matured).

Having said all that, I was interested to hear Peter Hamilton at Eastercon a few years ago say that  Smith's novels had been his introduction to SF . 'Doc' has been acknowledged as an influence by figures such as Robert Heinlein and George Lucas. Many of the tropes in the 'Golden Age' of pulp SF were invented or developed by Smith, and I think his legacy is secure.

'Triplanetary' is the book that hooked me. I then went on to devour Smith's other novels (including the equally epic 'Skylark series with its planet-sized spaceships and matter transmitters capable of moving worlds across the galaxy) and the works of Issac Asimov, Harry Harrison, James Blish and of course Arthur C. Clarke.

The book that reeled me in and made me a lifelong SF reader was published in 1975 and I read it when I was 17. If 'Triplanetary' blew me away then 'The Jonah Kit' by Ian Watson blew my mind; which is exactly what I think Ian set out to do.

(You can read more of Steve's thoughts on NSFWG Chairman Ian Watson's novel "The Jonah Kit" at his interview post which is on this link).

'QX' Lensmen!

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Book That Made Me - Nigel Edwards

In the third part of an ongoing series, NSFWG member Nigel Edwards discusses "the book that made me"

* * * * *
"The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

What’s in a book?

Words, that’s what. And it’s (English) words that I love, even if I sometimes get muddled and don’t always understand how they are best used.

Like most writers great and small, one of my first (and surely most abiding) loves was reading. From my earliest memories I can recall no happier moments than when I was trying to match colourful pictures to the mysterious glyphs that accompanied them. The sense of delight I had when ‘See Dick run. Run, Dick, run’ actually made sense is hard to describe. It was a feeling of achievement never since matched (which, I suppose, could be something of an indictment of me!)

I cannot honestly say I remember exactly what that first book was titled, nor who wrote it – but whoever they were, they had a stroke of genius in putting together those simple sentences. They hooked me, and I’ve been reading ever since.

As a point of fact, I don’t remember the names of those books from my furthest past. But what I do remember is the characters: Noddy, Big Ears, and Rupert the Bear being the most dominant. I wonder if Enid Blyton and Alfred Bestall realised how culturally significant their work would become? Probably not (but I bet they secretly hoped!)

I progressed to reading (amongst many, many other) The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, not to mention the Kemlo and Pocomoto series by Reginald Alec Martin (under the pseudonyms of E.C. Eliott and Rex Dixon). I loved the classical works, too, end eagerly devoured Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kidnapped, etc., etc.. Actually, I developed a very eclectic taste which, I believe, helped my reading to progress quickly. By the time I was 10 years old I’d read all the available James Bond books, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and Miss Marple in our local lending library (you remember those, I’m sure – big brick buildings with dusty atmospheres. I think there are still one or two around).

I also loved reading through The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge, all 6 volumes, over and over – I think I still have them in my attic. Equally, though, I avidly collected and immersed myself in the Beano, Dandy, Hotspur, Eagle, Look & Learn, not to mention a host of ‘trashy’ American comics from both DC and Marvel (I wish my mum hadn’t thrown them out when I finally left home for good – I had #1 editions of Silver Surfer, X-Men, and others, and they would have been worth a fortune today!) Then there were a host of ‘war’ picture magazines that my pocket money bought from the local newsagent (the only title I recall was The Big Palooka, about an American GI and nothing to do with the Joe Palooka comics – ring any bells, anybody? Oh, and my mum threw out my collection of these, too.)

But it wasn’t until I was 12 that I came across the book that was to most emphatically capture my imagination – The Hobbit, by you-know-who. What magic! What skill! What artistry! What depth! It wasn’t long before I picked up on The Lord of the Rings, of course, and that was it – I was totally lost in the world of fantasy, elves and goblins and all manner of wicked beasties! I went on to read The Silmarillion, as well as the short tales such as Farmer Giles Of Ham, and (my favourite) Leaf By Niggle. I guess if I had to name the literary hero who really inspired me to write it would have to be J.R.R. Tolkien.

There can be no writer of fantasy today who, if they have read the Great Man’s works (and I can’t imagine any who have not) was not influenced by the battle for Middle Earth. And therein lies a problem. I’ve since read no end of books by other fantasy authors and not one (except, potentially, Frank Herbert’s Dune – although that’s really SF rather than Fantasy) who, with all deserved and due respect, measures up to Tolkien’s skilful crafting. I dare say that if I had read the first Thomas Covenant book (just the first: I wasn’t especially impressed by the rest) before I’d read The Lord of the Rings I would then feel the same way about Stephen R. Donaldson as I do about Tolkien. We can only be children of our time after all, and must inevitably be influenced by that which is contemporary.

But I would love to be possessed of the talent of just one of J.R.R.’s fingers. I would love to be able to craft with the imagination and proficiency at his disposal. But the reality is that I have only the ability I was born with, just like everyone else (which is kind of comforting, I think). There are true giants out there and we do stand on their broad shoulders – it’s the only way we can escape from their shadows. And in so doing I like to think we are not trying to vie with their greatness; rather, we are attempting to extend their efforts, their immensity, their brilliance, their clarity of vision. It is their pioneering work that has set out the path we tread in our efforts to emulate their example. And it’s important to remember that, giants as they were, all those Tolkien’s and Verne’s and Defoe’s and the rest, they too were standing on the backs of the giants who had gone before them.

And so, laptop hot on the top of my lap, I once more settle down to string words of my own together, hopefully in ways that not too many predecessors have done. And I known that out there, in small living rooms or converted attics, there are countless others like me who are doing exactly the same. We may not be giants, but maybe those who come after us will be, and if our limited but honest efforts encourage them to release their imaginations then, maybe, we haven’t done too bad a job ourselves.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Book That Made Me - Ian Watson

In the second part of an ongoing series, NSFWG Chairman Ian Watson discusses "the book that made me"

* * * * *
David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

On a Sunday afternoon in 1956, aged 13, I was riveted for about 3 hours by a dramatisation of David Lindsay's 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus on the BBC Third Programme (the intellectual station) accompanied by very suitable eerie musique concrète.  Probably I tuned in because the name of a *star* in the title suggested that this might be science fiction, although I also remember listening to a dramatisation of Vladimir Dudintsev's Not By Bread Alone, interrupted when my father walked in just as some interrogator was uttering the words "sexual intercourse"—"Turn that off; I won't have you listen to that kind of thing!"—the only even vaguely erotic moment in this tale of heavy engineering and Soviet bureaucrats.

Initially I assumed that Arcturus must be a play, but fairly soon I found a Gollancz edition of the novel, printed on wartime economy paper, in North Shields public library.   After an Edwardian-mode séance, rudely interrupted, the symbolically named trio of Maskull, Krag, and Nightspore travel to an abandoned Scottish observatory, from which they depart in a crystal ship for the planet Tormance (torment + romance, or maybe tor + manse, or maybe...) circling Arcturus, propelled by bottled back-rays, namely the light from Arcturus which yearns to return to its star, much faster than it came to the Earth; not a bad notion, really.

Arcturus is a Pilgrim's Progress written in the harsh and lurid language of Prophecy rather than mere Fantasy.  Awaking alone on Tormance, Maskull travels through zones representing different philosophies of life—such as Nietzschean will to power, or duty, or lust, or sweet loving passivity—
generally wreaking murder and mayhem unintentionally or intentionally, for in each zone he sprouts new sense organs which make each philosophy seem to be absolutely true and binding, even though this is illusory.

Welcome to the Wombflash Forest, and to Matterplay where evolution runs riot, and to other startling locations, and to such characters as Earthrid who plays deadly music upon the surface of a lake called Irontick.

Arcturus had a big influence on C.S. Lewis's space trilogy.  Tolkien also much admired Lindsay's novel.  Colin Wilson went even further in enthusiasm, declaring Arcturus to be the greatest novel of the 20th century.  Arcturus is the book which I have read the most times.  I even started writing a fully worked-out sequel to it, but Gollancz (owners of the copyright at the time) rejected my proposal and my two sample chapters on the grounds that Arcturus is primarily an exotic technicolour adventure like something by Jack Vance (whom I also admire).  This is indeed true superficially, but ignores Lindsay's metaphysical intentions fully and mesmerisingly carried out; which is why he wrote this masterpiece.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Uncollected Ian Watson, a new collection from PS Publishing

To be launched at EasterCon in April, PS Publishing are launching "The Uncollected Ian Watson", which will be edited by Nick Gevers and published as a 408 page jacketed hardcover.

Here are powerful stories which have never been collected before, such as ‘Jingling Geordie's Hole’, voted both the best and the worst story of the year by readers of Interzone magazine (sometimes by the same readers!), the kernel of Watson's novel The Fire Worm. Likewise, the short story which birthed his novel Deathhunter. And there's a stand-alone story related to the masterful Mockymen, never published before now. The mischievous 'Divine Diseases', which appeared in the science journal Nature, brought protests to that august publication; a similar satirical brio informs ‘The Real Winston’, a clever alternative take on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Besides stories, gathered here are many entertaining and often profound pieces of non-fiction, yielding deep insights into the author's creative works. In 'The Author as Torturer' he asks a question even more urgent today than when first voiced 20 years ago. Here are Watson's inspired impersonations of H.G. Wells (even if the period clothing doesn't show in print). Aptly, the Times Literary Supplement commented àpropos Watson's fiction: 'A phenomenon, a national resource to be conserved, Ian Watson resembles H.G. Wells in both invention and impatience.' Well, The Uncollected Ian Watson is devoted to conserving these and other pieces previously scattered across anthologies and magazines—as well as Watson's views on films ranging from The Wicker Man to The Matrix, plus his perspectives on artificial intelligence as published in Intelligent Systems journal. His relationship with comics is explored, and much much more. Here’s the full line-up.

Three Kinds of Close Encounters with Comics
How I was Shot by Adolf Hitler
Jingling Geordie’s Hole
Beware the Pedicating Tribads!
King Weasel
Shell Shock
How the Elephant Escaped Extinction
The Drained World
Vile Dry Claws of the Toucan
The Tragedy of Solveig
Science Fiction, Surrealism, and Shamanism
The Shortest Night
The Author as Torturer
A Cage for Death
The Jew of Linz
The Big Buy
Eyes as Big as Saucers
The Aims of Artificial Intelligence
The Matrix as Simulation
The Real Winston
H.G. Wells in Timişoara
Of Warfare and The War of the Worlds
The Wicker Man
Dark City
Stephen King’s Thinner: An Attack Upon America
A Daffodil Jacket, or The Misadventures of Sebastian in Kyiv
Divine Diseases
Intelligent Design 2.0
Story Notes

More information can be found at the PS Publishing site or at Ian's site.