Considering: Some science fiction and fantasy books that made my brain

Two years ago I came across the request “Which Science fiction or Fantasy book will make anyone smarter“, and as I considered what people had added to the list so far I found myself nodding – and sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but hey, we’re all different – starting to think how some of these books had affected me.

As the list went on I also started to mentally add to it. And as I am rather bad at censoring myself the few ideas soon became a list of its own, and that list then became the backbone of this post.

Then it went into hibernation, courtesy of fatal illness and more in my immediate family. Then today, as Bob Dylan was announced as recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016, I again – and not for the first time – thought about important books and authors.

So, finally, here it is – my list of SF/F books that made me the person I am. It is impossible to grade them – some would probably not even make it to a “best books read”-list – so instead I chose “order in which I first read them” –

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien
If memory serves me right my father started to read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud for me when I was eight years old. Getting to the end took a mighty long time but it all ended with me reading LoTR, again and again, until I was about eleven or twelve.
However, that was not the only book that I read. And as I raided the local library of anything remotely readable I soon ran out of options, remembering a box of books in the cellar. It turned out to be my dad’s 50’s imported pulp paperback SF, and I realised that I had to start to read in English.
So, at 13 I borrowed the library’s original language edition (I can still remember the librarian warning me off – she thought it would be too difficult for me), thinking that if I read a book that I knew intimately I could focus on language instead of on story: my personal learning strategy (I was quite bad at English in school).
Definitely a monumental decision, at that time, as I had probably not proceeded to read the rest of the books mentioned here if not for this.

Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein
I first met with Heinlein’s YA fiction with the help of the municipality’s head librarian. I remember being highly suspicious of the book but I was running out of options at the library, plus he was class mate’s dad, which was a bit intimidating, so when he suggested it to me I grudgingly brought it home rather than saying no. I was already a kind of space freak, I had loved watching Space 1999 when it aired on Swedish television, and spent a lot of time watching the moon and the winter skies through my dad’s binoculars. All the SF that I had read that far had adult protagonists so while the kids in this one were older than me suddenly space was within my reach. And so the story became more engaging, on a personal level.
I went on to read almost all of Heinlein’s books, some of which I will admit went straight over my head back then. And later on I realised I have many objections to his way of depicting society (and maybe more importantly – gender). But – Space Cadet made space achievable for me, even if in my head only.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
Of all Clarke’s book this is the one that stands out. As a kid I loved the quirkiness of The Sands of Mars (which I found among my dad’s boxed up books), or the seriousness of Fountains of Paradise (hunted down by inter-library loan), or his short story collections, but Childhood’s End is, in my personal opinion, his masterpiece. At a time when most SF that I had encountered could be considered space opera and optimistic about the what lay ahead of humankind this novel challenged not only my preconceptions of the future but of the place of humanity in the universe as a whole. Mind-bending.
After having read Childhood’s End I found the Rama books… insipid. Even as a young’un.

The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K Le Guin
As I remember it I first encountered Sparrowhawk in an anthology used at school – I think I might have been 14 or so – and I immediately got hold of the whole trilogy at the library. What I love about the trilogy has changed with the years, however.
Originally it was the goat herd turned Archmage story that got to me, and then the idea that a way with words might make you powerful. But as I grew older still what stayed with me was the message that we can’t win by running from what we fear; the only way to conquer what hunts you is to turn around, to face it, or you’ll have to run, afraid, for the rest of our life.
As I struggled with the experienced mismatch between who I was and what society thought a girl or young woman should be or not be I found great strength in Ged’s story – to be brave and face the fear and to grow into myself.
Later yet I returned to the idea of words and language as a key to power. So – seemingly an innocuous story of youthful adventure but in reality a tale of great impact.

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
Used as I was to stories that challenged society as we know it I never caught on to how provocative the concept of gender Le Guin presented in this tightly written tale about friendship, alienation, and power. Only when I lent my copy to a co-worker, and he returned it, slightly disgusted (this was in the early 90’s, and a truly techie-engineering white-male environment), did I realise that the fluid gender identities depicted could be perceived as threatening. But, while this book didn’t have a big impact on my own analytical models or on my world-view it certainly reinforced my personal values and I still think it is one of the most important SF books written. Ever.
Also, she’s one if the most important authors, ever, if I get a word in. Starting with LHoD it is possible to read almost all her works, long or short (even though I personally recommend the three short story collections Worlds of Exile and Illusion, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and The Birthday of the World).

Neuromancer, William Gibson
The moment I stumbled over Neuromancer, finding the cyberpunk movement, was defining. Here was someone who didn’t depict a swash-buckling future ensconced in present-time ideals or ideas but the believable real life apocalypse of the present system. It is hard to remember this, it was such a long time ago, but this book, and its sequels, added a new dimension to the way SF was told, challenging what the collective do with the power that we have. Or not.
For me personally it started a long run of leaving all the traditional SF that I had read behind, breaking roads into new ways to understand and interpret society and the humans (or not?) that it’s made of.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
At the eve of the internet revolution, of the modern networked world, Snow Crash entered my life. The virtual, the power of meme’s – no one had seen Facebook yet, far in the future, or the power of the ever-changing plethora of social media. This was the first book that I was able to discuss with co-workers – a sign perhaps of where the world was headed, even if we were all in the incipient IT/web-business, just ahead of the boom. Those discussions led the way to more books, mainly factual ones retelling the history of computing, of the internet, and of gaming.
It was truly educational as well as inspirational, and all of it because a book of fiction.
Oh behold the power of words!

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
It is possible to have many objections against Stephenson and his writing. Among other things he is in dire need of an editor. Another valid objection is against his apparent interest in ideas and likewise disinterest in individuals. Those two combined leads to several of his books to have badly conceived endings, and long-winded discourses on matters only tangential to the story. The latter I first encountered in this book, which was the first book in recorded history which I actually just skipped a (large) number of pages. I still enjoyed it, very much so – the way it weaved an intertwined story, mixing timelines, revealing interconnection at the end. The impact was not so much the book in itself, though, as the interest it sparked: first, some reading up on the science of cryptography and crypt-analysis, and then, after having gifted my dad with a copy and getting pointers from him on were Stephenson had actually used real life events in his story, reading up on WWII history, on Enigma, and more. Again, educational – and I live to learn :-)

Cyteen, C.J Cherryh
I have no real memory of which of C.J’s books that I read first but I do think that it might have been Cyteen – it was either this, or Foreigner books 1-8, and then I got onto Cyteen while waiting for more Foreigner books (as they are written in 3-book arcs I wanted to have #9 in paperback, just as the previous – from #10 and on they’re first edition hardbacks). Either way it is a grand epic in societal design bleeding into engineering human(oid)s, viewed from the perspective of the individual/s, all the while questioning ethics, loyalties, and responsibility, not to mention cause and effect. The book wasn’t just good in and of itself, though. It opened up to the rest of her Alliance-Union Universe, with all its insightful stories depicting the impact of big politics on us small humans and our behaviour and the conditions under which we are forced to live our lives, many of them very different from each other and each offering a different perspective, from a different viewpoint, sometimes on the same events, and thus questioning “truth” as a definite concept.
The book – or books, I got on to read rather the lot of them – also signifies my move into the realm of internet friendship, in some ways. It was, together with a lot of books that came after, and both books next on this list, suggested to me by friends that I had never met but with whom I forged a connection none-the-less. In a real life were many looked with disdain and a raised eyebrow on my choice in reading material, thinking it childish and anti-intellectual (oh! those are probably the ones falling over themselves in sudden praise of Svenska Akademin’s choice of Bob Dylan: behold the hypocrisy!) that was worth the world. Many thanks to the Green Dragon crowd on LibraryThing, and the Shejidani, of the Cherryh fan-site Shejidan for that.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy G Kay
There aren’t many works in the fantasy genre on any list I’ll ever conceive but thanks to a Green Dragon group read many years ago Kay’s Al-Rassan epic story about power, belief, and humaneness will always be up there. Kay’s language is exact and his prose stylistically self-conscious, almost verging on being purple – it is his skill that makes any of his books fly. Or not. Because he is also father to several books that I find barely endurable (such as Last Light of the Sun). This specific story, though, set in a fictional twin to the Iberian peninsula during the end of Moorish power, managed to capture my interest, and then some.
Even before reading this tale I had an interest in the Moors, in the impact the Moors has had on the formation of modern Europe, and thus having visited many of the key sites in Al-Andalus/modern Andalucía. Reading Lions got me searching for even more, looking deeper into historical detail than in the sweeping picture, deepening my understanding of the long-term effects of the Reconquista, and making me think. Which is a good thing.

Use of Weapons, Ian M Banks
It is not the Culture book that I love the most – that badge goes to Surface Detail; nor it is the best – that honour goes to Player of Games. And many of his books are gorier than this one, or weirder. But Use of Weapons is an utterly disturbing tale that, in retrospect, has made me think and rethink on how I judge and perceive the good or the bad, and how the perceived bad can, or not, redeem themselves – in their own eyes and in the eyes of the beholder.
At the heart of many of Banks’ Culture novels (I have not read his crime stories) resides the eternal question of what is human, of what features define humanity and what defines in/un/non humanity. Can a machine be more human than a two-legged carbon-based civilization-building entity from Tellus? Or not? Why? Is it even important?
Given the present-day seemingly world-wide chasm between people who want to feel more worthy and valuable than the rest and to achieve that build constructs of identity and race the question has actuality still. And probably up until and beyond humankind manages to implode on itself. Or not.

Until then, tales and stories that challenges set concepts and views, that inspires the seeking of knowledge, that interprets the world, is worth pursuing.

In hope of many more such tales, and in knowledge that many worthy works could had been included in this list.

White space – the absence of br… sorry, books?

For a while the family has been looking at other places to live. We’re reasonably comfortable in the flat we’re in but feel the neighbourhood – the county – is not our preferred social context. Rather the opposite, in fact – we have nothing in common with people who think that being moneyed equals a free card on behaviour and that laws are for the poor.

Anyway, in the course of this search for some other place to live I have looked at a gazillion of photos depicting the homes of other people. And you know what? Most of these homes are totally devoid of books!

I am not so deluded as to thinking everyone has thousands of books in their homes. But perhaps fifty wouldn’t be too bold?

Apparently it is. Because a huge lot of people doesn’t seem to own any books. And I mean ANY books. At all. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Walls full of empty white space!!!

Here’s some ideas why this is so –

People who read and discard
Yes,  they exist. I know people who is like that. People who read and read and read but once a book is read it is given to charity or sent to the dustbin or passed on to someone else. So they don’t accumulate any books.
They do have books laying around, though, so aren’t truly bookless.

People who have moved to ebooks
ebooks are convenient. They doesn’t use up space, and they are extremely portable. So this could be why the visual absence of books. But as ebooks haven’t had much impact on the Swedish market – yet – I find it unbelievable that so many people should had discarded all their paper books in favour of ebooks.
But it IS an option.

People who doesn’t read
So, I do know they exist. But so MANY?! Perhaps they are cold rationalists, denying the “false” joys of the fictional novel? But then they ought to have non fictional works. Alas, they don’t. Perhaps they find reading hard? But many of these flats seems to be lived in by people who have incomes in the higher regions or they should not be able to afford either them or the designer furniture they display.
Do they get their mental challenges from the tabloid press and the teen-blog squad that writes about the woes of the designer handbag life?
I simply don’t know.

A mystery.

And a scary one.

A teacher I once had said “an empty desk is an empty brain” – she was about as keen on tidying up her workspace as I was. In other words – not at all. And I think that sentiment apply across a wast dimension of media and storage spaces, books and walls included.

Of course this is very judgemental of me. But I can’t help it. I just can’t.

The Future is Now: Books in a digital age

In today’s paper edition of Dagens Nyheter there’s yet another news item about a smallish book publisher in crisis. Last year was all time low for the book business in Sweden, with a record low turn-over in bookshops all around.

So, let’s look at bookshops. Do they sell books? Well, yes, but not mainly. The people owning the large chains, like Akademibokhandeln, have decided people don’t buy books… so instead they have turned into miscellanea shops. Things like paper and pens – that’s no big leap. Same with magazines. DVD’s? Chocolates, olive oil?!?! An instore Apple store?!

Well, I can actually see the justification for the Apple store BUT if you’re really committed to the digital age, perhaps you should have other brands as well… But no.

Space isn’t infinite, and these new things has pushed actual books to the back of the shops. And as someone has made the (insane) decision that people shop based on book covers covers should be exposed, not spines, which results in even less books per available shelf. And with little space you have to restrict yourself to a few best selling titles… and suddenly the difference between the book rack at the line to the check out counter at the supermarket and the bookshop has diminished beyond recognition.
And I don’t go there, because I can’t find the titles I’m interested in.

Talk about digging one’s own grave.

At the same time lots of people are talking about ebooks. I’ll hereby state that I love paper books. I love my shelves and the atmosphere the lend our flat. I love the touch and smell of books, of pulp and printers ink. I also enjoy ebooks, for their portability and for sheer reasons of space – my shelving space, like that of the bookshops, is not infinite. Those books that I own in an electronic format are actually e-editions of books that I already own, in paper format. This, to the publishing business, is actually a chance to larger sales. But the people up there doesn’t read books, apparently, and don’t socialise with people who do it either, not beyond the supermarket trash/flash. So they don’t know about patterns and opportunities like these.

On another level ebooks are considerably easier to make – yes, some manual work if the original file doesn’t use correct mark up, but beyond editing and proofing it’s just straight to the desired medium – no stock except the digital file, no costs for printing, no costs for shipping, no costs for handling unsold copies…
Marketing and editing still will be very much needed, but at the same time the possible audience has grown to encompass the whole globe and just not a specific country or region.

The possibilities are overwhelming. An online acquaintance, situated in Australia, complained yesterday that getting his hands on a certain graphic novel because the shipping, from France, would equal a week’s salary. So the publisher won’t do that sale.

Some of them publishes some books in e-format. But often just odd books, or best sellers.

In reality book sales would benefit hugely if all back catalogues were reissued as ebooks – especially for genre writers, like crime, mystery, science fiction… the back catalogue is essential, because they tend to write more than one book featuring a special character, be it officially labelled as series or not. Not to mention that niche writers would be cheaper to publish, and would more efficiently find their way to their readers.

But we all know why the publishing houses won’t rise to this. They would have to scrap most of their present infrastructure, including the knowledge of how to write contracts. Hugely impopular, especially with leaders, owners and managers that are clueless in the digital landscape.

So they sit there, with their financial losses, watching sales decline and blaming it all on the “financial crisis”, while we, the readers, lose our access to good books.

Idiots.

Unalien aliens

Picking on aliens not alien enough is a common pastime among people with a bone to chew when it comes to science fiction. Certainly not the last, but the most recent (that I know of) is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who just like all the others think aliens have to lack faces, an even set of limbs, etc, to be alien enough to qualify as aliens.

My problem with this is most of the film or book alien aren’t there as true aliens. Anyone thinking that doesn’t understand the basic premise of science fiction. At all.

True, some aliens are there to be 1000% ALIEN. Alien (the film) itself is a point in case. The Crystalline Entity, of Star Trek fame, is another. But they are fairly few, and in most cases they are symbols of Evil, or at the very least the truly undecipherable. But the wast majority are humanoid, seductively similar to us. And the ‘seductively’ part is the important one. Because it is in the way the ALMOST like us actually differ, and how we handle this, that forms the backbone of many a science fiction story. And in this it isn’t a story about foreign planets and peoples, but about us – humanity – and how we handle change, and how we interact /or not/ with people different from ourselves. Science fiction in this sense is a looking glass or a mirror, reflecting our own behaviours and customs, forming an arena for inspection and criticism, for questioning certain behaviours and world-views.

In these stories the aliens has to be reasonably humanoid or the point of it all is lost, or at least buried deep enough for it not to get through to the majority of the readers/viewers.

In this light it is totally reasonable for the atevi (Foreigner/Cherryh) to be humanoid in general appearance, just like the mri (Faded Sun/Cherryh), or the ferengi or the klingon or the andorians (Star Trek) or the Na’vi (Avatar). Just to name a few.

Picking on unalien aliens is thus so far besides the point a gas giant can pass through the resulting void. If doing it makes you happy – please continue, but don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone.

When bookshops turns into “bookshops”

I like books, so it’s only natural I like bookshops too. Or, perhaps LIKED should be the expression used.

When I started liking bookshops, somewhere back when I started liking books, libraries, and anything carrying books, one of the big things was how these places enabled me to go browsing. Reading spines, picking up a book to get a feel of it, weigh in in my hand, decide if it was a “buy me” or a “put me back”.

Bookshops used to be palaces for book lovers, with muffled sounds, occasionally some words between a clerk and a patron.

Books in Sweden was outrageously expensive, though, and one day back in 1996 or so I found Amazon.com. I actually have no idea what was my first book bought from them but I remember sending half of my credit card number by email and, and the other half by fax because there just wasn’t such a thing as secure online payment, and the pages were all that special web grey everything was before html expanded to allow background colour. Back then returning customers got Yule gifts – I still have a mouse mat, and a hot drinks mug.

About every fourth package got stuck in customs, increasing the cost by 25%, but even so it was worth it.

I guess it was back then it all started, and that I am part guilty – the decline of the brick’n’mortar bookshops. They have been threatened for some time now and the last handful of years I have consciously done my best to support them. Every now and then I take a detour to a bookshop. When I look for something SF or F I visit SF Bokhandeln, else I go to Akademibokhandeln at Mäster Samuelsgatan. Lately I have been forced to order from an online entity nonetheless, because the books that I’ve been looking for has been very much absent from the shelves.
But at one special occasion the book WAS there but scandalously overpriced – buying it online from a company functioning as the online presence of Akademibokhandeln (Bokus.se) made it over 100 SEK (about US$14) cheaper. I had opted to support the shop with a street window but decided to leave without making a purchase.

Last week I went there again. I decided some time ago that I wanted to read Macbeth and I was pretty sure the largest bookshop in the Swedish capital would have a copy. It is a famous play by a famous playwright – a classic. Enter bookshop. I already knew there was a instore Apple Store at the entrance. I ventured further, and realised they had discontinued their paperback/english paperback section on the second floor. I went in search for it and found it had replaced a huge and interesting section of interesting non fiction books (maps and travel miscellanea). Also they had managed to make place for a rather large section of DVD’s… anyway, I found a shelf labelled English Classics, and started to browse. No Shakespeare. I found a clerk, who directed me to the “drama shelf”, in the “red section”, a mezzanine floor away. I went there. I searched. I asked another clerk. He told me he understood my difficulties and led me to the shelf. It turned out to be about three metres of swedish drama, and perhaps one and a half of english language drama. He started to look for the book, looked at me, shaking his head. Not one edition of Macbeth. He went to his desk, made a search, and informed me that no, they weren’t planning on ever stocking it again (admittedly this was the Oxford Shakespeare edition; they MIGHT have some other editions, in the future – I don’t know).
Hello! It’s MACBETH!!! I don’t expect the paperback peddler at the train station to shelve it but I d***n right expect to find it in the largest bookshop in town.

In all honesty I don’t think I’ll go there again for quite a while. I demand more of something called a bookshop than one million copies of the latest Dan Brown or Twilight book. And don’t get me started on this annual sale that’s about to start… I won’t dictate other peoples’ tastes in books but that anything at all, beyond cookbooks and children’s books, gets sold is a mystery to me.

Somewhere at the beginning of this rant I mentioned SF Bokhandeln. They’re a bit better than the general bookshops. But almost every second time I visit I have to leave without what I was looking for. As an example they don’t stock one single volume from Roger Zelazny. Not in the year or so I have been looking. And often only half of the books in a series is available, even when they’re possible to order, instant delivery, online.

Note that I SUPPORT their existence. I go out of my way to buy books from real life shops. I’m very close to giving up on them, however. I’ll have a bit more patience with SF Bokhandeln. But Akademibokhandeln… bye bye. You’re not a bookshop any more.

No patience for fantasy

As a rule I have small patience for works in the fantasy genre. I have not stopped to analyse why; I just tend not to choose to read a work of fantasy, except if it has gotten raving good reviews by people who I trust.

Reading Eco‘s The Search for the Perfect Language has inadvertently provided me with some tools for analysing, though. While telling the story of the search for the perfect language the book also works as a rough catalogue listing different beliefs and concepts ruling the statesmen, intellectuals and the church of Europe, starting with the late Greeks and proceeding through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into our own time.

This exposé of the evolution of ideas is extraordinary (and quite fun, Eco has a wry sense of humour and I do not agree with those deeming this a “dry” book). He connects the need for different ideological constructs with the economic history of Europe, the development of the nation states, etcetera, all the while telling the reader about one bizarre idea after another – ideas genuinely held as true, at least by the originator, some hundreds of years ago.

And as I said – it also helped me analyse my aversion against a lot of fantasy. Because there, in the clear open, lies a smorgasbord of ‘magical’ concepts commonly used in fantasy novels. Everyone of them justified, historically, by a lack of knowledge and a wealth of imagination, and a basketful of faith, in one god or another (but mainly one in number, lol, whatever the creed of the originator).

Today superstition can’t be justified, at all – it’s just ignorance, or wishful thinking. Of course, most fantasy isn’t about today, or about ‘here’. This means that if the concept is well executed and the characters are nicely done the book can be a highly enjoyable experience. If not it just becomes a hotchpotch with deus ex machina on deus ex machina – it’s just poor writing, nothing more. However famous the author.

Urban fantasy is even worse. It’s supposed to be here and now, with werewolves and demons and whathaveyou (zombies, now, are the worst – don’t get me started…). It’s just so unbelievable and… downright INANE.
I get very sad when authors I otherwise think highly of do this kind of book. Like Guy G Kay did with Ysabel

Most of these books are written as pure ‘entertainment’, many of them utilising the horror trope. I have no problems with that. Entertainment is good, I read a lot of books for entertainment, not to mention watching TV or films. Now, to me, of course, entertainment is not having to wince inwardly twice on every page, like I do when I read a Harry Dresden book. So it’s poor entertainment.

I accept that some people like these things. Everyone to his or her own. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s NOT my cup of tea. At all. And now I know why.
Thank you, Umberto Eco, for that.

Creative minds

I’m of the firm belief that all human beings are born being creative and innovative. It’s a survival trait, we have to be able to solve hitherto unencountered problems to grow up and we often have to make do without the help of others. As time and socialisation works on us we learn to shed or hide that creativity. We learn to conform, to do as expected. We learn that some solutions are NOT valid in this particular society. IF we are lucky we can see that this is not the case universally but we’re still encouraged to do it the way we do it here. So to speak.
This is of course also a kind of survival trait. It works to unify a certain community, to make that community walk in step. This is what the community needs, and often it benefits the citizens of that community.

Sometimes it gets too strict, though. In our present time we get told that being creative is childish and irresponsible.

I think this is one of the reasons the mainstream despise the science fiction genre. Only the other day I had a conversation were the other part said he had enjoyed SF when he was a kid but then grew out of it, then going on to tell that what had been so great with it was how it showed other perspectives, other ideas, other ways to organise society. And believe it or not but he was talking of Flash Gordon! Science fiction is, at it’s root, creative, and demands a mentality that wants to make that journey, to explore the unknown.

Contrast this with the kind of mainstream books out on the market who works to explore certain relationships or characters (mother-daughter, father-son). Those books work to establish which step to walk in, and to assure the reader that other people have felt that way and it’s only normal.

Society needs balance. Society needs both a solid ground to stand on and creativity. Society needs both kinds of literature/fiction.

But it would be so much easier if those reading confirmation lit could acknowledge that while the explorative stuff is not their cup of tea at least it’s not unworthy of a grown up mind.