Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Diamond Dogs and the Revelation Space Novellas and Stories of Alastair Reynolds


I've got a lot of time for novellas. Or rather, I only have a certain amount of time available to me for reading prose fiction, and novellas offer something approaching the substance of a novel with the practical brevity of a short story. This has been pertinent as I've been making my way through Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe, a hard-science-fiction-future-history which has become something of an obsession of mine over the past six months – a mild, manageable one, but still a persistent strain in the broader science fiction fever which has infected me. Five novels form the backbone of the series – Revelation Space (2000) and its two sequels, Redemption Ark (2002) and Absolution Gap (2003), plus Chasm City (2001) and The Prefect (2007; that last one will gain a sequel – Elysium Fire – and a new title, Aurora Rising, next year) – but around those are arranged five short stories and seven novellas, and these have played a not insignificant role in the development of my mild, manageable obsession. For while the Revelation Space universe novels for me represent a major investment of time – they're all around 500 to 600 pages long, which translates as probably a couple of months' worth of reading apiece – the short stories and novellas are quicker, less daunting reads.


They're also really, really good in their own right – stylistically and tonally varied, hard SF stories which sketch in some of the background to the Revelation Space universe – "Great Wall of Mars" and "Glacial" are particularly significant here – and/or afford glimpses into some of its murkier, more obscure corners. Most of the stories are collected in the 2006 collection Galactic North, but a handful aren't, notably two novellas which were published separately as limited editions in 2001 and 2002 by small press publishers and then brought together by Gollancz in 2003: Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. I found a first of the Gollancz edition for £2.50 in Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne in April and read it on holiday in June, and Diamond Dogs in particular really got its hooks into me: a queasily gripping, unsettling, gothic tale of obsession that for the most part takes place inside an alien artefact – the Blood Spire – on a planet, Golgotha, far from human-colonised space. It brought to my mind the 1997 film Cube – which is obliquely referenced in the story, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark (that film's opening sequence especially) and Algys Budrys' Rogue Moon, all of which should give some idea of the direction of travel – and, more obscurely, P. M. Hubbard's A Hive of Glass, at least in terms of its theme of a dark, obsessive quest, if not its scything body horror.


In fact, so affecting did I find the thing that I wound up buying a copy of the original 2001 standalone first, which was issued by PS Publishing in an edition of 500 numbered paperbacks and 400 numbered hardbacks, all signed by Alastair Reynolds. Taken with the evocative David A. Hardy cover art – and the fact that it was signed – I'd been idly looking at listings for the hardback on eBay, considering stumping up £30–£50 for a copy, when I spotted one on Amazon Marketplace for a fiver. I snapped it up, and discovered when it arrived that not only was it brand new and unread, but it had been signed by both Reynolds and fellow SF author Stephen Baxter, who wrote the illuminating introduction. A nice addition, then, to my growing Revelation Space universe collection.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space Universe


If I ever get the chance to meet Alastair Reynolds, I've a lot to thank him for. Not only have his books helped fuel the science fiction reading and collecting odyssey I embarked on six months ago, but his afterword in his 2006 short story collection Galactic North – a first edition of which I picked up in Oxfam Books in Brighton for a couple of quid – has informed and shaped it too: acting as a guide through the kind of modern hard/operatic SF in which I've become interested, introducing me to SF authors of whom I was previously unaware – John Varley, Gregory Benford, Paul McAuley, others besides – and opening my eyes to a handful I was, such as Samuel R. Delany, M. John Harrison, Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling and Iain M. Banks.


Perhaps the biggest revelation – if you'll excuse the pun – has been Reynolds' own Revelation Space universe, a future history comprising five novels and twelve novellas and short stories (to date; there's another novel due next year) – Galactic North being a collection of most of the latter. Sprawling yet tightly choreographed – at least it seems so to me; Reynolds himself has confessed that he's unconcerned with inconsistencies from book to book – the stories span tens of thousands of years (although the bulk concentrate on the 25th–27th centuries), depicting a technologically advanced but plausible future of sub-light interstellar travel (with its attendant – and to me fascinating – suspended animation – "reefersleep" to use the vernacular – and time dilation), planetary colonisation, warfare and plague, populated by a splintered humanity comprising various conflicting factions (hive-minded Conjoiners, cybernetic spacefaring Ultranauts, etc.) and haunted by long-dead but still influential alien races (arguably the least plausible aspect of the stories, but hey – who's to say?). To date I've only really skimmed the surface – I've read the first-published novel, 2000's Revelation Space, plus a good number of the short stories and novellas, and I'm partway through the second-published novel, 2001's Chasm City – but even so I've become mildly obsessed.


Accordingly, I've been picking up here and there Gollancz first editions of Revelation Space universe books, with their distinctive Richard Carr-designed/Chris Moore-illustrated dust jackets and covers (and in most cases distinctive dimensions: a whopping 10" x 6.5" – roughly royal octavo – rather than the standard 9" x 6", or octavo). Partly out of necessity (I am, as I've noted previously, a man of slender means), partly as a challenge, I've restricted myself to relatively cheap copies. Aside from the aforementioned Galactic North, in Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne I dug out from the teetering piles of SF a 2002 first trade paperback printing of Redemption Ark (the third-published Revelation Space universe novel, and a direct sequel to Revelation Space), priced at £3.50, and a 2003 hardback first of the two-novella collection Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, priced at £2.50. But my best scores have been made online, notably a hardback first edition of Revelation Space itself, which, according to some sources, only had a print run of around a thousand copies – it was, after all, a debut novel by a relatively unknown writer – and which as a consequence has become quite scarce and pricey; I managed to secure a nice copy for a tenner.


Naturally, me being me, I've acquired some signed books as well: a 2000 first trade paperback printing of Revelation Space, bought for the princely sum of one pence (plus postage); a 2001 first paperback printing of the same novel, bought for £7.25 (if you're wondering at this point what on earth possessed me to buy another two copies – albeit signed ones – of a novel I already owned in hardback first, you evidently haven't read Existential Ennui before); a pristine 2001 hardback first edition of Chasm City – at £20 my most expensive Revelation Space universe purchase, but still, I reckon, something of a bargain.


Although maybe not as much of a bargain as my most recent Revelation Space universe acquisition – a 2001 PS Publishing hardback first of the novella Diamond Dogs, dust jacket by David A. Hardy: limited to just 400 copies (in hardback; there were also 500 paperbacks) and signed by both Reynolds and Stephen Baxter – who provides an introduction – it set me back a fiver. Though I've a good many Revelation Space universe stories still to read (and a number of first editions still to collect), I suspect Diamond Dogs – a brilliant and disturbing tale of obsession that really got its hooks into me – will remain a firm – if not overall – favourite, for reasons I'll expand on in a subsequent post.

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books round-up.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Science Fiction from the Lewes Book Fair: Poul Anderson, Keith Laumer, Ursula Le Guin et al

It was back in March at the Lewes Book Fair, where I bought a first edition of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, that I embarked on the science fiction book collecting odyssey which has proved such an enjoyable diversion over the past six months – for me if not for my illusory readership – and the Lewes Book Fair has continued to provide, with a bunch of cheap SF paperbacks at the May fair and a haul of cheap SF hardbacks – plus a couple more paperbacks – at the most recent one at the start of August.

Those hardbacks came courtesy of that book dealer's book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, who, knowing that I was on a science fiction kick, brought along what little SF he could find in his stock (he largely deals in crime fiction) – much of it space opera of one sort or another, which was just what I was looking for. He'd actually brought some SF to the previous Lewes Book Fair too, but that was for another collector – I know nothing about this person; for the sake of argument let's call them The Adversary – who was also keen on SF. On that occasion, by the time I got to Jamie's table whatever SF he'd had was gone – to be fair, he'd brought it along especially for The Adversary – but this time I was there early doors. I left one or two things for The Adversary, but I must admit I took the lion's share. Sorry, The Adversary, but as I'm sure you understand, when it comes to book collecting, you win some, you lose some.


And what I won – or rather purchased, for around a couple of quid each – on this occasion were: a first edition (ex-library but complete, with no pages removed) of Louis Charbonneau's Antic Earth (alias Down to Earth) (Herbert Jenkins, 1967), which I quite like the sound of despite its terrible online reviews; first editions of Ray Bradbury's short story collections The Day It Rained Forever (an ex-library – but again complete – 1962 second impression of the 1959 Hart-Davis edition), jacket by Joe Mugnaini, and Long After Midnight (1976 US Knopf), jacket typography by Ray Cruz, painting by Fuseli; a first hardback edition of Damon Knight's 1959 second novel A for Anything (alias The People Maker) (White Lion, 1974); a first of Hal Clement's second short story collection Small Changes (Robert Hale, 1969), jacket by Brian Netscher; a first of Robert Silverberg's short story collection Sundance and Other Science Fiction Stories (Abelard-Schuman, 1975); a first of Poul Anderson's Trader to the Stars (Gollancz, 1965); and a first of Keith Laumer's Bolo: The Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade (Millington, 1977), jacket by Lorie Epstein, photography by Graham Tucker.

I think I'm most pleased with the Anderson, which collects three of the author's Nicholas van Rijn stories – part of Anderson's wider Technic Civilisation future history – and which isn't terribly common in its Gollancz edition, and certainly not in this nice a condition; the Laumer, which is the first collection of the author's Bolo (futuristic tanks) military SF stories – the first of which, "The Night of the Trolls", I've read and rather enjoyed – and which is extremely scarce in this, its only British edition; and the Clement, which is another of those curious Hale SF books I've been picking up here and there.


The two paperbacks came from another dealer at the Lewes Book Fair (possibly the guy who runs Ubu Books in Brighton's Open Market) and are the British first editions of Ursula Le Guin's first and second novels, Rocannon's World and Planet of Exile, both published in the UK by Tandem in 1972 (both originally published in the US by Ace in 1966). I'd planned on reading some of Le Guin's science fiction at some point, so coming across these editions of the first two novels in her Hainish Cycle, with their fantastically gothic Peter Goodfellow covers, was serendipitous. For me, anyway; less so for The Adversary.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

2017: Odyssey to... Bookshops in Worthing, Leigh-on-Sea and Tunbridge Wells


The science fiction (primarily hard SF and space opera) book collecting odyssey begun in March of this year – in Lewes and thereafter pursued with vigour variously in London, Eastbourne, Chichester, the Isle of Wight and Brighton – has proceeded apace, with additional stops in, among other places, Worthing, Leigh-on-Sea, Tunbridge Wells and, naturally, Lewes and Brighton – those last two being my 'manor', so to speak.


The Worthing excursion, which took place in June and was combined with a mooch around a handful of seafront gaffs with my mum, Rachel and Edie to look at paintings and sculptures and photography and suchlike on the annual Worthing Artists Open Houses trail, was to the reliable Badger's Books (where I once purchased a signed Victor Canning first edition), the bijou science fiction section of which produced literally a handful of books. Clutched in my filthy paw there I have a 1976 New English Library paperback of Christopher Priest's first short story collection Real-Time World (with a cover by, I believe, Bruce Pennington); a 1987 Futura paperback of Kim Stanley Robinson's early novel The Memory of Whiteness; a 1980 New English Library paperback of Bruce Sterling's debut novel Involution Ocean; a 1975 Eyre Methuen first edition of Alfred Bester's Extro, alias The Computer Connection; a 1977 Heinemann first of Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle's The Incandescent Ones, and 1979 Millington firsts of Piers Anthony's Vicinity Cluster and Kirlian Quest, books one and three in the author's Cluster series.


By far the biggest haul of books came from the two bookcases of SF in Leigh Gallery Books in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which I visited twice on successive July days during a weekend trip to Rachel's folks' place nearby (twice because after the first visit I couldn't stop thinking about a book I didn't buy, so I went back the next day and got it – and some others). (I spared Rachel and Edie the tedium of having to hang around a secondhand bookshop by abandoning them on the little beach at Old Leigh after we'd had fish and chips for lunch – in the Mayflower pub – with Strangehaven creator Gary Spencer Millidge, who lives locally.)

Those visits produced books by, among others, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (a 2015 Titan paperback of Shipstar, the sequel to their Bowl of Heaven), John Brunner (a 1974 New English Library paperback of The Dramaturges of Yan), Joe Haldeman (a 1992 New English Library first edition of Worlds Enough and Time, the third book in his Worlds trilogy), Ken Macleod (2001 and 2002 Orbit paperbacks of Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light, books one and two in his Engines of Light series), Paul McAuley (a 2015 Gollancz paperback collection of his Confluence trilogy), Loren J. McGregor (a 1987 US Ace paperback of The Net), Naomi Mitchison (a 1976 New English Library reissue of Memoirs of a Spacewoman), Richard Morgan (a 2007 Gollancz first edition of Black Man, which was the book I couldn't stop thinking about and went back for the next day), Keith Roberts (a 1972 Panther paperback of The Inner Wheel) and Kim Stanley Robinson (a 2012 Orbit first edition of 2312).


The 'among others' were probably the more interesting books of the haul; more interesting to me anyway – your mileage may vary – but in any case those were the ones I was more inclined to go to the trouble of photographing. Top row, left to right: a first edition of Piers Anthony's debut novel Chthon (MacDonald, 1967); a first (ex-library) of John Paget's (alias John Aiken) World Well Lost (Robert Hale, 1970), another of those intriguing Hale SF books I've been picking up here and there; a first hardback edition of John Brunner's Times Without Number (Elmfield Press, 1974), jacket by Josh Kirby; a first of Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man (Gollancz, 1988), jacket by John Avon. Middle row, left to right: paperbacks of John Varley's short story collection The Barbie Murders (Futura reprint, 1986) – which contains some of his Eight Worlds tales – and novel Millennium (Sphere, 1985); a paperback first of Gregory Benford's Across the Sea of Suns (Orbit, 1985), second in Benford's Galactic Centre saga; a paperback first of Murasaki (Grafton, 1993), a shared world anthology edited by Robert Silverberg and written by Benford, Greg Bear, Poul Anderson and others. Bottom row, left to right: a paperback first of Christopher Priest's A Dream of Wessex (Pan, 1978), his fifth novel; and paperbacks of Brian Aldiss's Earthworks (Granada/Panther, 1979, cover by Peter Goodfellow) and Enemies of the System (Triad/Panther, 1980), both of which are signed.


Tubridge Wells I took the bus over to on a rainy day late in July having learned that Hall's Bookshop (which I wrote about a couple of years ago when it was taken over by Adrian Harrington) was having a summer half price sale. There wasn't a lot of science fiction on offer, but I did manage to find one or two – or three or four – intriguing items, namely...


A British first edition of John Brunner's Total Eclipse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975); a US first edition of Brunner's A Maze of Stars (Del Rey, 1991), jacket by John Berkey; a British first of Brunner's The Wrong End of Time (Eyre Methuen, 1975), and a US first of A. E. van Vogt's Rogue Ship (Doubleday, 1965), jacket by Peter Rauch.


Two of the Brunners, Total Eclipse and A Maze of Stars, are the late author's own copies, both bearing his 'ex libris' bookplate on their front pastedowns. (The Wrong End of Time may well be Brunner's own copy as well, but it doesn't have a bookplate.) The van Vogt, on the other hand, has on its front free endpaper a heartfelt 21st birthday inscription (non-authorial) to a Marty from his "understanding but confused friend and athletic foe, Barry," who also advises Marty to "keep cool".


As for the wares from Lewes and Brighton – and other such exotic locales – I think I'll save those for another post. This one's quite long enough as it is.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Some Science Fiction Books Bought Near Brighton Station

Just outside Brighton Station, round and down and through the tunnel at the top of Trafalgar Street, there is, on days when the weather is clement, a pavement book stall. I walk past it every fortnight or so (having got the train over from Lewes), usually on a Wednesday on my way to Dave's Comics on Sydney Street. It's rare that I don't take at least a cursory glance at the books on its three or four tables – a mixture of mostly recognisable fiction and non-fiction, for the most part paperbacks, some hardbacks, along with kids' annuals and picture books (and even some DVDs) – but in all the years I've been trotting past I can't recall ever having actually bought anything. Until last month, when I spotted a small box full of science fiction – mainly paperbacks, one or two hardbacks. Given my Damascene rediscovery of SF earlier in the year, I reasoned it would be remiss of me not to stop and have a proper rummage, and after a few minutes came up with four paperbacks I liked the look of. Then the guy manning the stall – not the regular guy, it should be noted – advised me that it was three books for a fiver, so naturally I added a couple more, to wind up with this little lot – largely space opera, all first printings, one a hardback:


Top row, left to right: Born Under Mars by John Brunner, published by Ace (US) in 1967, cover by John Schoenherr; The Infinitive of Go, also by John Brunner, published by Magnum in 1981, cover by Chris Moore; Finches of Mars by Brian Aldiss, published in hardback by The Friday Project in 2013, cover design by Ifan Bates. Bottom row, left to right: Titan by John Varley, published by Futura/Orbit in 1979, cover by Peter Andrew Jones (with interior illustrations by Freff); Kinsman by Ben Bova, published by Future/Orbit in 1979, cover by Colin Hay; Capella's Golden Eyes by Christopher Evans, published by Granada in 1982, cover by Peter Gudynas.


I was especially pleased with the Varley and the Evans – Varley is an author I'm very interested in right now, while Evans is a name I'm unfamiliar with but who comes recommended by Christopher Priest – but they all look promising, and together constitute quite a nice little score, all the more so for being so unexpected. The temporary stall-holder told me the books were his rather than the regular proprietor's and that he had more science fiction in storage, which he would dig out and bring along on a day I would be likely to be passing, if the weather was clement. I've been by the stall a couple of times since – on clement days – but as yet no luck. I live in hope.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Secondhand Bookshops of the Isle of Wight, or, Wot I Did on My Summer Holidays

It's been a few years since I last did a 'secondhand bookshops wot I visited on holiday and the books wot I bought' post, for the simple reason that it's been a few years since I've been on a holiday where visiting secondhand bookshops and buying books was any kind of prospect. Happily, last week's week-long excursion to the Isle of Wight presented a number of opportunities for browsing in bookshops, and knowing how much my largely imaginary audience has enjoyed previous accounts of my ridiculous holidays, I decided I'd document the books-related bits of this one too. You're very welcome, my nonexistent readership.


Before we got the ferry over to the Isle of Wight I established (via Inprint's Bookshop Guide) that there are eight secondhand bookshops dotted about the island. Given that this was supposed to be a holiday and not merely a flimsy excuse for my seeking out secondhand bookshops, I thought it unlikely I'd get to visit more than a couple, but in the end, to my surprise, I managed to make it to half. (It would've been more but Babushka Books in Shanklin was inexplicably shut when I visited. Or maybe not so inexplicably, considering the vagaries of secondhand bookshop opening times.) However, by far the biggest haul of books came from a comic shop.


First port of call was the Mother Goose Bookshop on the village green in St. Helens, on the east side of the island. I only had a limited amount of time to investigate as we were on our way to the seaside town of Ryde, a little further up the coast, but it was a sizeable shop with an extensive stock of modern firsts (and plenty of non-fiction too). After a survey of the shelves I located in the crime and thriller section a first edition of The Double Agent (Gollancz, 1966), the first spy novel by ex-spy (and reportedly the inspiration for George Smiley) John Bingham – a book I've had on my list for quite some time.


That find paled in comparison to the riches Ryde itself offered up. I'd intended to head straight to the Ryde Bookshop, a fair way up the hilly high street, but on the way I noticed a comic shop, the splendidly named Fantastic Store, and decided to pop in. On first inspection it seemed to stock mostly back issues, graphic novels and collectables, as one would expect of a comic shop, but a further survey revealed a few shelves of hardback and paperback fiction. This turned out to be largely science fiction, a fair amount of it first editions (albeit ex-library in some cases – those keenly priced, mind, at two quid a pop) – just the sort of thing I was hoping to stumble upon given my recently reignited enthusiasm for SF. Accordingly, I went a little crazy. Besides the 1971 Science Fiction Book Club edition of Murray Leinster's The Listeners seen above, I also came away with nine other books, most of them space opera of one sort or another:


Top row left to right: a US first edition of Gregory Benford's Great Sky River (Bantam/Spectra 1987, jacket by Roger Bergendorf), the third novel in Benford's Galactic Centre Saga – the first being In the Ocean of the Night, which I bought online few weeks ago; a first edition of Wulfsyarn by Phillip Mann (Gollancz, 1990, jacket by John Brettoner); a first edition of The Brooch of Azure Midnight by Anne Gay (Orbit, 1991, jacket by Fred Gambino); and a first edition of Eternal Light by Paul J. McAuley (Gollancz, 1991, jacket by John Brettoner again), the third and final novel in McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars Series – the first being Four Hundred Billion Stars itself, which again I bought online a few weeks ago. Bottom row left to right: A. E. Van Vogt's Children of Tomorrow (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972); James Blish's Midsummer Century (Faber, 1973); Clifford D. Simak's Cemetery World (Sidgwick, 1975); John Wyndham's Exiles on Asperus (Severn House, 1979), and Paul J. McAuley's short story collection The King of the Hill (Gollancz, 1991).


Phew. After all that excitement, Ryde Bookshop initially looked somewhat unpromising, its stock comprising remainder and newish books. However, an easily overlooked – not least because it was closed – door in the back room opened onto the secondhand bookshop proper. Slightly labyrinthine in nature and arranged over a few floors and staircases, it was overflowing with books, a lot of them either the kind of hardback fiction one sees littering charity shops, or not terribly interesting paperbacks. But there was a sizeable SF section, and some decent books secreted therein. I came away with these:


A first edition/printing of Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World (Gollancz, 2010); a first paperback edition of John Varley's debut novel The Ophiuchi Hotline (Orbit/Futura, 1978; I already had a Sidgwick & Jackson hardback first, but I couldn't resist that Chris Foss cover); a 1997 Vista paperback of Paul J. McAuley's Secret Harmonies (originally 1989, and the second in the Four Hundred Billion Stars Series), and a first paperback edition of Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain (Gollancz, 2005).


The next day I made it to one of the two secondhand bookshops situated in Freshwater, near the Needles on the west coast of the island. The charming and inviting Mrs. Middleton's Shop had a small selection of fiction but specialised more in local authors and books about the Isle of Wight (while I was there another customer asked after a particular Isle of Wight book and was immediately rewarded). Nevertheless, I came away with a 1969 New English Library paperback of A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (cover by Bruce Pennington), plucked from the bijou shop's equally bijou shelf of science fiction paperbacks. When I asked Mrs. Middleton – I presume it was she – if the other Freshwater bookshop, Cameron House Books down near Freshwater Bay, had a bigger selection of modern firsts she confirmed that it did, but advised that the owner tended to close at four – earlier if custom was slow. This was at just after three, so I reckoned I was in with a shot. Alas, by the time we got there...


...it was shut. Curses. Fortunately we were able to make a return visit the next day, and even more fortunately this time it was open!


Just as bijou as Mrs. Middleton's but boasting a much bigger selection of modern firsts, Cameron House Books is housed in Dimbola Lodge, once the home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and now a gallery devoted to her work and that of other photographers (it's well worth a visit if you're ever in the area, if only for the excellent lemon drizzle cake served in the cafe). The bookshop comprises just two smallish rooms, but I must've spent a good half hour browsing its wares, at the end of which I'd ferreted out five science fiction first (and other) editions (again some ex-library – evidently the Isle of Wight County Library's loss was the local bookshops' gain – but again keenly priced):


Top row left to right: Dark Constellation by Alex Random (Robert Hale, 1975); The Omega Worm by Douglas R. Mason (Hale, 1976), and Another Eden by W. D. Pereira (Hale, 1976). Bottom row: Threads of Time (Millington, 1975), edited and introduced by Robert Silverberg and containing novellas by Gregory Benford (Threads of Time), Clifford D. Simak (The Marathon Photograph) and Norman Spinrad (Riding the Torch); and Yesteday's Children by David Gerrold (Readers Union, 1975).

Not a bad haul. And not a bad holiday either. (And the non-books bits weren't bad neither.)

Friday, 2 June 2017

2017: A Science Fiction Odyssey


It's all The Forever War's fault.

Actually, way back when the Earth was young (or at least it sometimes feels that far back), it's probably fairer to say it was the fault of Doctor Who novelisations and Ray Bradbury collections and Glenn Chandler's short story "Bobo's Star" (an alarming tale with a mind-blowingly bleak ending which properly shat me up when I read it in the 1979 anthology Space 5, alongside Bradbury's equally unnerving "A Sound of Thunder"), all of which got me hooked on science fiction as a kid (most of those books borrowed from Beckenham Library). But in the here(ish) and now(ish) it was reading Joe Haldeman's 1974 novel that got me back into science fiction in a major way.

Not that I'd completely stopped reading (and collecting) SF, although in recent years my forays into the genre have either been at the more dystopian end of the scale – J. G. Ballard's High-RiseEmily St. John Mandell's Station Eleven and Justin Cronin's The City of Mirrors spring to mind – or taken the form of comics like Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta's East of West or Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko's Invisible Republic. It was more that, for the most part, SF had taken a back seat to crime fiction, spy fiction and, increasingly over the last year or so, comics and graphic novels (constant companions, but ones that have been drawing more of my attention in recent years).


Then, in March of this year, I bought a British first edition of The Forever War at the Lewes Book Fair, and read it, and loved it, and found that I'd rediscovered my fervour for SF. I set about looking for books similar to The Forever War, a quest which led me to the kind of contemporary hard (well 'ard mate) SF that has its roots in the work of Arthur C. Clarke (a writer I was already more than familiar with) and the new form of space opera that came to prominence from the late 1970s. In charity shops and secondhand bookshops in Lewes and Brighton and Chichester and Eastbourne I turned up a stack of science fiction first (and other) editions (notably a ten-book haul from Camilla's in Eastbourne, ferretted out from that shop's precarious multi-layered piles) by Alastair Reynolds, Gregory Benford, Bruce Sterling, M. John Harrison, Stephen Baxter and Clarke himself, while explorations online turned up key works by Reynolds, Benford, Paul J. McAuley and John Varley.


My guide through all of this, often as not, has been the afterword in Alastair Reynolds' collection of short stories Galactic North (a first edition of which I found in Brighton's Oxfam Books), which details the inspiration for the Revelation Space universe stories Galactic North is a part of – a future history I'll be further investigating (I snagged a scarce hardback first edition of Revelation Space itself online for less than a tenner – an absolute steal) alongside Reynolds' other work (I've already read his recent novella Slow Bullets, his 2016 novel Revenger and his and Stephen Baxter's The Medusa Chronicles – all three in signed first editions).


Then there are the many vintage SF paperbacks I've been picking up here, there and everywhere – at April's Paperback and Pulp Bookfair in London, in Kim's in Chichester, in Revive-All in the Needlemakers in Lewes and in Ubu Books in Brighton's Open Market – books by Clifford D. Simak, Samuel R. Delany, Gavin Lyall (of all people), Robert A. Heinlein, Keith Roberts, Christopher Priest, Louis Trimble, Edmund Cooper, Colin Kapp, Joe Haldeman (him again), Gordon R. Dickson and Barrington J. Bayley, sporting fabulous cover art by the likes of John Schoenherr, Ed Valigursky, Jerome Podwil, Jack Gaughan, Bob Haberfield, Chris Foss, Frank Kelly Freas, Tony Roberts, Josh Kirby and Peter Elson.


Add to those another stack of more modern space opera by David Brin, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson and Peter F. Hamilton, acquired at the most recent Lewes Book Fair, plus a couple more Hamiltons bought from Brighton's Savery Books, and it seems I have quite a bit of reading ahead of me, about which I'm quite excited. Which is good because, to be frank, prior to reading The Forever War I'd pretty much lost all enthusiasm for prose fiction; I think I only managed to read six novels last year – and most of those in the first month or two – and this year was looking like it was heading in a similar direction until Haldeman, Harrison (whose Light – a 2002 first edition of which I bought ages ago – I also recently read and loved), Reynolds and the rest hoved into view. So hooray for them, and for space opera, and for science fiction... and for me too. My 2017 SF odyssey... continues.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ultimate Guide to the Cosmic Outlaws and Ultimate Sticker Collection by... Me!


Well, me and a bunch of editors and designers and picture researchers at DK and Amazing15, not to mention the writers, artists and editors at Marvel – among them Arnold Drake, Gene Colan, Jim Starlin, Bill Mantlo, Steve Englehart, Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier, Andy Schmidt, Bill Rosemann and Brian Michael Bendis – who had a hand in creating and expanding upon the Guardians of the Galaxy in comics. But anyway; Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ultimate Guide to the Cosmic Outlaws and Guardians of the Galaxy: Ultimate Sticker Collection have now been published by DK in the UK and US, and since I wrote both of them, and copies turned up in the post yesterday, I figured they deserved a blog post.


Of the two, I guess I'm proudest of The Ultimate Guide, if only because I put so much into it – a period of five or six months over summer of last year establishing the structure and running order, doing the research (which essentially entailed reading or in some cases rereading a bunch of old comics), selecting images (which again essentially entailed reading or in some cases rereading a bunch of old comics) and writing. (My abiding memory of this period is of pacing round the garden trying to get my brain cells sparking in between feverish bouts at the keyboard.) But it's also the thing of having written a book – not cowritten, as in The Mysterious World of Doctor Strange, or written a bit of, as in my essays in the first volume of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future and last year's Murder in the Closet or an entry or two in The DC Comics Encyclopaedia, or edited, as in the countless books and graphic novels I've, well, edited; but written. Actually written.


Obviously it's not a peerless work of literary genius or owt, but it's a pretty good read, I think, with hopefully a compelling structure which I strived to make not only chronological – as is traditional in these DK comics guides – but narrative as well, tracing the wider Marvel cosmic events that brought the disparate Guardians of the Galaxy together (about a quarter of the book concentrates on matters to do with Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest, which took place before Star-Lord, Rocket, Gamora, Groot and Drax were even a team), buffeted them and then blew them apart, and taking care on each character spread to only detail those events that had happened to that character up to the point they entered the wider narrative (if that makes sense). Whether anyone will notice or even care about my efforts to make the book something you can satisfyingly read front to back almost as a story as well as dip in and out of – especially the kids the book is aimed at – is open to debate, but I'm pleased my structure made it through the process intact.


As for the Ultimate Sticker Collection, that for me was an exercise in brevity (not something that comes naturally to me, as anyone who's read Existential Ennui can attest), as I tried to squeeze info about the Guardians and their allies, enemies and worlds into 25-word captions in an entertaining fashion. I didn't get as involved in choosing images as I did on The Ultimate Guide – not least because The Ultimate Guide was taking up so much of my time (I was writing both books concurrently) – but I gave what directions I was able to, and the end result is a lot of fun (my three-year-old daughter can't wait to get sticking).


So there you have it. The books exist. You can buy them right now (for instance here and here). And if you're unfamiliar with the Guardians of the comics – not just the Star-Lord-led team but the original 31st-century Vance Astro-led team too – and fancy finding out about them ahead of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie (which opens in a few weeks), perhaps you'll consider doing just that.