Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Quantum Science Fiction Programme (1977–1981): Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, John Varley, Gregory Benford et al

In 1977, a self-described "international publishing venture" was launched. Selected and edited by authors Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova (ostensibly; as Todd Mason notes in the comments, the real editor was D. R. Bensen) and published in the first instance by the Dial Press in the US, the Quantum Science Fiction programme proclaimed on the cover of its first book that it would be "presenting the best in modern science fiction". Over a five-year period nine books would be published under the Quantum umbrella – two per year, then one in the final year of the programme – penned by some of the brightest new talents in SF (plus a couple of older hands, including one of the editors). It was a Quantum project for the quantum age... and yet these days it barely merits a footnote in the history of SF.

I learned of the Quantum Science Fiction programme recently having become interested in the work of SF authors John Varley and Gregory Benford, who both had early novels issued under Quantum's imprimatur. Though the programme seems to have been a Dial Press (where Asimov was an editorial board member) initiative – aside from an isfdb list of series titles (which neglects to include Orson Scott Card's Songmaster) there's next to no information about it online – most of the books included (bar Card's two entries) were also published by Sidgwick & Jackson in the UK, and it's in those editions that I bought Varley's debut novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline, and Benford's fourth, In the Ocean of Night. With the books in my hands it was hard to miss the Quantum connection: where in the US they were issued with illustrated wrappers utilising a border design that deployed the Quantum identification discreetly, in the UK Sidgwick & Jackson used the Quantum 'Q' logo as the key element in their near-uniform typographic gold dust jacket designs.

The authors and books published in the Quantum Science Fiction Programme were as follows:

1. John Varley, The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977)
2. Gregory Benford, In the Ocean of Night (1977)
3. Gordon R. Dickson, The Far Call (1978)
4. John Varley, The Persistence of Vision (alias In the Hall of the Martian Kings) (1978)
5. Spider and Jeanne Robinson, Stardance (1979)
6. Ben Bova, Kinsman (1979)
7. Orson Scott Card, Songmaster (1980)
8. Joan D. Vinge, The Snow Queen (1980)
9. Orson Scott Card, Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (1981)

I've no idea how well received the programme was at the time – the scant information available online suggests it's at least not terribly well remembered – but it certainly started strongly. Varley and Benford were I guess back then the (relatively speaking) 'hip young gunslingers' of science fiction, The Ophiuchi Hotline and In the Ocean of Night the opening shots in their respective Eight Worlds and Galactic Centre sagas: distinctive, exciting SF offering fresh perspectives on space opera. Thereafter, while the fourth Quantum offering, Varley's first short story collection, The Persistence of Vision – UK title In the Hall of the Martian Kings – was and is highly regarded, the third one, veteran Gordon R. Dickson's The Far Call, was and is perhaps less so – witness this withering contemporaneous Kirkus review and this scathing 2015 one (although this review from 2000 is kinder) – while the inclusion of fellow veteran Ben Bova's own Kinsman smacks slightly of favouritism.

In any case, the Quantum brand clearly propagated further than the Dial Press and Sidgwick & Jackson first editions. Subsequent paperback editions of some of the Quantum books also carried the 'Q' logo and the "international publishing venture" legend, while Sidgwick & Jackson seemingly did their best to extract as much capital as possible out of the brand by publishing three Quantum Specials – omnibuses which paired the initial six books in the series (counterparts to the publisher's long-running Science Fiction Special series), as follows:

Quantum Special 1 (1979): The Ophiuchi Hotline and In the Ocean of the Night
Quantum Special 2 (1981): The Far Call and In the Hall of the Martian Kings
Quantum Special 3 (1981): Stardance and Kinsman

Despite all this, by 1981 the Dial Press had dropped any mention of Quantum from the jacket (front or back) of the final book in the programme, Orson Scott Card's Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (although it still carried the Quantum logo and the legend "A Quantum Book" on its title page). And that was pretty much it for Quantum Science Fiction – and pretty much as much as I've been able to find out about it. Still, at least in the unlikely event that anyone else goes looking for information about the programme – and I'm still wondering what on earth possessed me not only to do so myself, but to then write a fairly lengthy blog post about it – there's a bit more readily available now. And if anyone can shed any more light on Quantum, please do leave a comment.

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 29/9/17.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, James Mitchell, Victor Canning, Anthony Price, Cornell Woolrich and Harry Carmichael on eBay

What do Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, James Mitchell, Victor Canning, Anthony Price, Cornell Woolrich and Harry Carmichael all have in common? Aside from the fact that they're all blokes... and all crime/thriller writers of one sort or another... and indeed all wrote spy fiction at one time or another... and doubtless there are other commonalities besides, but the one that concerns us here is that presently I have eBay auctions running for books by all six of them (Westlake and Stark of course being the same person).

There are auctions for ten books in total, all of which finish on Sunday, and only one of which, as I type, has a bid in. The books are a mix of British and American first editions, mostly hardbacks (and one paperback), some quite scarce, all plucked from my personal collection (most having appeared previously on this very blog), all listed with relatively low starting prices. They are as follows:

A 1974 American first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Jimmy the Kid, the Dortmunder novel that features  excerpts from the 'missing' Parker novel Child Heist.

A 1974 American first edition of Richard Stark's Butcher's Moon, the sixteenth Parker novel and the explosive finale to the original run of Parkers.

A 1977 American first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Nobody's Perfect, the fourth Dortmunder novel.

A 1971 British first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Adios Scheherazade, his fictionalised account of his time as a sleaze paperback writer.

A 1966 British first edition of Donald E. Westlake's The Fugitive Pigeon, his first 'nephew' caper, featuring a fab Denis McLoughlin dust jacket.

A 1974 British first edition of James Mitchell's Death and Bright Water, the third Callan spy novel.

A 1972 British first edition of Victor Canning's The Rainbird Pattern, second novel in the 'Birdcage' spy series and believed by many to be the author's best book.

A 1974 British first edition of Anthony Price's Other Paths to Glory, the fifth novel in his David Audley spy series.

A 1958 British first edition of Harry Carmichael's A Question of Time, with a great William Randell dust jacket.

And a 1946 first American paperback edition of Cornell Woolrich's classic noir thriller The Black Path of Fear.

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 afford 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 the bloody extremes that people will go to to get what they desire, 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.

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 22/9/17.