Thursday 20 December 2018

2018: Science Fiction Odyssey, Too

Oh good grief would you look at the time. I mean date. I mean... whatever: Christmas and New Year's are fast approaching, and I am seized by an inexplicable urge to blog about the books I bought and read in 2018 – this despite having barely posted anything all year and consequently squandered whatever remaining sliver of readership Existential Ennui yet retained. Still, when have I ever let widespread disinterest stop me from wittering on at extreme length?

2018, then. A year that, much like 2017 – which, you'll recall (or at least you would if there were anyone left to read this rubbish in order to recall anything) was characterised by an extended science fiction book-collecting-and-reading odyssey – has been characterised by an extended science fiction book-collecting-and-reading odyssey... albeit arguably a less frenzied one. Even so, there have been sizeable scores this year, not least a haul of paperbacks (plus one hardback – a first of Larry Niven and Steven Barnes' Dream Park) I secured over successive visits to Lewes' own Bow Windows Bookshop, who had bought in a huge collection of softcover SF – piles and piles of the bloody stuff – towards the end of the year. (There's still a fair bit left if you're passing.) My spoils mostly comprised space opera by Stephen Baxter, Frederik Pohl (including a couple of entries in the Heechee Saga), Larry Niven, Elizabeth Moon, Charles Stross, Orson Scott Card and others, plus some Philip K. Dick, Terry Pratchett, Bruce Sterling, Joe Haldeman and so on.

Other notable SF scores this year included a stack of Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton first editions (notably Reynolds' entire Poseidon's Children trilogy, and a signed first of Hamilton's Misspent Youth plus his ensuing Commonwealth Saga) from two of Brighton's charity bookshops on the same day:

A smaller pile of SF from one of the same shops (including Joe Haldeman's sequel to The Forever War, Forever Free, which I'd been wanting to read):

A return visit to Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne (which saw me completing my collection of firsts of Hamilton's Void Trilogy, the sequel to the aforementioned Commonwealth Saga):

And returns visits too to Leigh Gallery Books in Leigh-on-Sea (who had a half-price sale on) and the Stables Bookshop at Hylands House, plus closer to home a mooch round the charity shops of Uckfield:

There were also some (relatively slim) pickings from the Paperback & Pulp Book Fair:

And of course the Lewes Book Fair:

Then there was the stack of Analog science fiction magazines, secured in Brighton's Snooper's Paradise (including the first appearance of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game):

And a smaller selection of SF magazines, bought in London's Quinto Bookshop, and containing P. M. Hubbard's three earliest short stories, a Joe Haldeman Forever War novella (not included in the first edition I own), and Jerry Pournelle's three-part A Spaceship for the King, alias King David's Spaceship (there was also an epic Westlake/Stark score on the same visit, but that's a story for another time):

Lastly, there were the signed paperbacks I picked up online for a song:

Besides all those, there were other books acquired here and there, but I think I've given the general gist of the year's collecting. What was that about 2018's odyssey being less frenzied than 2017's...?

As for actually reading any of the bloody things... allow me to present my traditional big long list of the books I read this year, in the order in which I read them. In previous years I've also tended to detail the comics I read, and sometimes even offered some commentary on my reading, but it's been a long year and I really can't be arsed. I have, however, deigned to include links to whatever I've previously written about some of the books (however brief). You're welcome. Merry Christmas.

Raft by Stephen Baxter
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
An Entity Observes All Things by Box Brown
Tales from the Hyperverse by William Cardini
Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Forever Free by Joe Haldeman
The Forge of God by Greg Bear
Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear
A World Out of Time by Larry Niven
Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven
The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton by Larry Niven
Protector by Larry Niven
A Gift from Earth by Larry Niven
Neutron Star by Larry Niven
Spock Must Die! by James Blish (see Star Trek Magazine #69, out now, for my review)
Ringworld by Larry Niven
The Mercenary by Jerry Pournelle
He Fell into a Dark Hole (in Analog) by Jerry Pournelle
Planet of Judgment by Joe Haldeman (see Star Trek Magazine #70 for my review)
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, plus prologue in A Step Farther Out, and and missing first chapter in Infinite Stars.
Timelike Infinity by Stephen Baxter
The five Shaper/Mechanist stories in Ascendancies by Bruce Sterling
Es*Ef by Phil Elliott, Darryl Cunningham, Glenn Dakin, Paul Duncan and David Thorpe
Kingdom by Jon McNaught
XTC69 by Jessica Campbell
DC Nuclear Winter Special by various
Gateway by Frederik Pohl (still reading)

Thursday 11 October 2018

Neutron Star and Ringworld: Larry Niven's Known Space I Have Known

Mission accomplished: I've completed my maiden voyage through Larry Niven's Known Space. Actually I reached, and explored, my final destination, Ringworld (1970), a little while ago, but this is the first opportunity I've had to even think about writing anything about it and the book that preceded it on my route, Neutron Star (1968). Of the two, I much preferred Neutron Star, a collection of mid–late-sixties short stories set mostly in the 27th century, half of them starring 'crashlander' Beowulf Shaeffer; I especially liked the title story and "At the Core", which respectively detail Shaeffer's excursions to a neutron star and the galactic centre (the latter a journey also undertaken by Jerome Corbell in 1976 novel A World Out of Time, another favourite of mine from Niven's oeuvre). In fact I liked the collection so much that I wound up with four different editions of it, two of them signed.

The American first edition was published in paperback by Ballantine in 1968, under a cover sporting near-abstract art that's uncredited but reminds me of the work of Richard M. Powers. I bought this pristine copy at the London Pulp and Paperback Fair last year (from Jamie Sturgeon I believe).

The British first edition, published in hardback by Macdonald in 1969, also has an uncredited dust jacket, but the design is the same as other books in the publisher's science fiction line around this period – a large 'SF' outline with an illustration inside it (actually not a bad stab at a Pierson's Puppeteer in this instance), probably all by the same artist; see also the Macdonald editions of Niven's World of Ptavvs and A Gift from Earth, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Piers Anthony's Chthon (a copy of which I own) and many others. I bought this ex-Army Library copy (with very minimal markings) online for a tenner, a pretty good price considering comparable copies are more like fifty quid.

The signed copies are both 1972 second printings of the 1971 Sphere paperback edition... but with different covers, sporting different paintings by Eddie Jones. I can't quite work out why there are two versions of the Sphere second printing. Steve Holland gives the second one an issue date of 1976, but that doesn't match the copyright page of my copy, which definitely states "Reprinted 1972", the same as the other copy. (The Internet Speculative Fiction Database also lists both as 1972 printings.) Answers on a postcard, or in the comments, please. Anyway, each copy has been signed by Niven on the title page (with a "To Brian" in the one with the planetary landscape painting on the cover), and each set me back just a couple of quid.

Incidentally there's a Star Trek connection (isn't there always these days) with Neutron Star, because one of the stories, "The Soft Weapon", was adapted by Niven (at the request of Gene Roddenberry, after D. C. Fontana brought Niven on board) into a Star Trek: The Animated Series story, "The Slaver Weapon". Much of it survives in the episode, including Known Space concepts like Slavers, stasis boxes, and the Kzinti. And there's another Trek connection with these particular editions: Eddie Jones also painted the covers of the final three James Blish Trek novelisations, both of Joe Haldeman's original Trek novels, and the first two volumes of The New Voyages. (Blish has been on my mind of late because there's a big piece on him, featuring an interview with his wife Judy – alias J. A. Lawrence – in the next Star Trek Magazine, out November in the US and December in the UK; I also review Blish's 1970 novel Spock Must Die! in the same issue.)

Another cover that Jones illustrated was the 1973 Sphere edition of Ringworld, i.e. the first British paperback edition – a very nice copy of which I found online dead cheap – and the first to show an image of the Ringworld itself on the cover (the jacket of the Gollancz first edition is typographic). Unfortunately Jones' painting misconstrues the topography of the Ringworld, much as Dean Ellis does on the 1970 US Ballantine first edition: both artists depict the interior at a right angle to the Ringworld's edge. A better representation of the nature of the Ringworld can be found with Donato Giancola's painting on the cover of the mid-1990s Del Rey paperback edition, a copy of which I came across in a charity bookshop in Uckfield.

For anyone minded to try Ringworld, I would recommend reading Neutron Star first, partly for the reasons outlined by – doing so affords a better understanding of the concepts and characters and lends depth to the novel's revelations – but also because it's the better book. Ringworld, while terrific in bits – mostly the bits to do with the magnificent scale of the setting and the relationships between the protagonists – for me dragged a little as Louis Wu, Teela Brown, Nessus the Puppeteer and Speaker-to-Animals the Kzin made their way across the landscape. Your mileage may vary, depending on how into world-building you are.

So that's me done with Known Space... although I am thinking of reading the sequel to Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers (1980), soon. Ahead of that, though, I've started exploring another future history, one commonly referred to as the CoDominium...

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 12/10/18.

Monday 10 September 2018

Star Trek Magazine #68 (Titan, Fall 2018)

At risk of Existential Ennui becoming a vehicle for my banging on about whichever Star Trek publication I've been working on of late – which, let's face it, would be an improvement on my usual prolix piffle (posted mercifully infrequently these days at least)... here's another Star Trek publication I've been working on of late:

Star Trek Magazine #68, out tomorrow in the US and 4 October in the UK. I've no particular reason for drawing attention to this, my third issue as editor (actually twenty-eighth overall, this being my second stint in the captain's chair), other than it's quite a good one, I think – a Mirror Universe special, with a future history of that twisted alternate reality, a compare-and-contrast between Lorca and Picard (the latter of whose return to Trek is also covered), a piece on parallel universes, a profile of "Mirror, Mirror" writer Jerome Bixby, a feature on the DC Comics Mirror Universe Saga, and loads more besides (all handsomely designed, as ever, by the amazing Amazing15).

Even the contents page has been conquered by the Terran Empire. Plus there's a bizarre editorial in which I confess to reading my sister's comics as a kid. Quite what this has to do with the Mirror Universe is something you'll need to buy a copy to find out.

Friday 31 August 2018

Star Trek: Discovery: The Official Companion (Titan, 2018)

When is a book not a book? Or rather, when is a magazine not a magazine? Actually it's kind of moot, because the answer is the same:

When it's a bookazine. In this instance, Star Trek: Discovery: The Official Companion, a guide to the first season of the newest Star Trek show, arriving in bookshops and comic shops and online outlets in the US in the next few days (having made its debut at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention earlier in August, under the shiny gold-logoed con-exclusive cover above), and in newsagents in the UK on 26 September. In other words, in plenty of time for the November DVD/Blu-ray release of Discovery Season 1, to which the Companion will make a fine, er, companion.

How do I know this? Because I edited the thing, conceiving and assembling it with the indispensable assistance of designer Dan Bura, CBS's Marian Cordry, and a crack team of writers culled from the official Star Trek Magazine (of which I am also editor).

My grand plan for the Companion, such as it was, was to try and tell the story of Discovery Season 1 from both sides of the camera. So while in one sense it's an episode guide, with plot summaries, cast and crew credits, pertinent character quotes and plenty of pictures, in another it's a behind-the-scenes 'making of', with production insights and commentary from many of the principal creative types – such as Season 1 executive producers and showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts; production designer Tamara Deverell; costume designer Gersha Phillips; prosthetics and make-up maestros Glenn Hetrick and James MacKinnon, and VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman – along with actors Mary Wiseman (who plays Sylvia Tilly), Mary Chieffo (the Klingon L'Rell) and others.

I wouldn't say it's as exhaustive a document of the making of Discovery as, say, Larry Nemecek's venerated (not least by me) Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion was of the making of TNG, but it's a decent opening shot, I reckon, ahead of any more thorough making-ofs that may materialise down the line.

In any case, I'm quite pleased with it. And as further inducement for anyone minded to pick up a copy, there are four fetching covers to choose from: the aforementioned Star Trek Las Vegas cover; a newsstand one; a Diamond Exclusive one, and a hardcover edition. Collect the set and be the envy of all your friends – or at least those with a more-than-passing interest in Star Trek.

Tuesday 31 July 2018

Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs, Protector, and A Gift from Earth: A Known Space Route to Ringworld

There are myriad routes through Larry Niven's Known Space – different stories have been published in different configurations in different collections and as different novels at different times over the past fifty years – but the one I've been following has been guided partly by original publication, partly by chronology. I started with World of Ptavvs (1966, Niven's debut novel, set in the 22nd century); then made my way through Tales of Known Space (1975, containing stories from across the entire 2,000-year Known Space future history timeline); then the three-story collection The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (1976, set on 22nd-century Earth); the novels Protector (1973, set in the 22nd and 24th centuries) and A Gift from Earth (1968, set in the 25th century); then the collection Neutron Star (1968, featuring stories set largely in the 27th century), and I'm currently reading Ringworld (1970, set in the 29th century).

Along the way I've been collecting vintage paperback editions of the books – in bookshops, at book fairs and online – often, hopeless case that I am, in multiple editions and printings, a few of them signed. World of Ptavvs was one of the first I picked up (in London's Skoob Books, part of a huge science fiction paperback haul), before I even had a sense of what Known Space was and how Niven's debut fitted into it; which is perhaps why I found it a little scrappy, in spite of its exuberance and its appealing (to me) central conceit of an ancient, incredibly powerful telepathic alien – a member of a long-extinct Slaver species which a billion and a half years ago subjugated the galaxy – making a monstrous return in the vicinity of 22nd century Earth, with disastrous consequences.

I bought it in its 1978 Futura paperback edition (little realising that that wasn't the first UK paperback edition; that would be the 1971 Sphere edition, predated by the 1968 Macdonald hardback), with cover art by Peter (Andrew) Jones, who, I learned not long after, when I came across a copy of his SF art book Solar Wind (Dragon's Dream, 1980) in a Brighton flea market, painted quite a lot of Larry Niven British paperback covers in the 1970s and '80s, and those of numerous other SF authors besides. Indeed, a reworked version of Jones's painting for the 1979 fourth Orbit/Futura printing of Protector adorns the cover of Solar Wind, depicting Phssthpok, the alien Pak who travels to the Sol system in search of his (far) distant relatives and winds up altering the destiny of an entire planet.

Like others of Niven's novels, Protector is a fix-up, made up of a few different short stories. For me, "Vandervecken", the second half of the book, is the best bit, following unassuming shoe salesman Elroy Truesdale as he tries to get to the bottom of why he was mysteriously abducted and deprived of four months of his life – an investigation that takes him and Belter – i.e. resident of the asteroid belt – Alice Jordan to Kobold, a bizarre, ring doughnut-shaped artificial world with a neutronium sphere at its centre. Thereafter, the narrative escalates into a thrilling interstellar battle – one which I reckon must have been an influence on noted Known Space enthusiast Alastair Reynolds (among many other authors, I'm sure), in particular the extended chase sequence in Redemption Ark – before wrong-footing the reader and coming on like a (micro)cosmic precursor of Justin Cronin's The Passage, as, with horrifyingly inexorable logic, the fate of three million colonists on the planet Home is sealed.

Dean Ellis's cover for the 1973 US Ballantine first edition of Protector (a second printing of which, published in November 1973, two months on from the first printing, I picked up online) does a pretty decent job of depicting Kobold (Ellis also painted the Ballantine first edition cover of Ringworld), whereas Tony Roberts' cover art for the 1974 first and 1976 third printings of the UK Futura/Orbit edition could be any spaceships anywhere in the galaxy. As for the 1975 Futura second printing, that reuses the (uncredited) cover art from the 1973 Ace edition of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, and bears no relation to the story whatsoever (although I do rather like it). (The same art was also used for the 1976 Compton Russell edition of Protector, the novel's first and only hardback edition, and one of the scarcest and priciest books in Niven's backlist; copies are usually listed at upwards of £2,000, comparable with the 1972 Gollancz first of Ringworld.)

Michael McInnerney's evocative cover art for the 1971 Sphere edition (and the 1971 Ballantine edition, second printing) of A Gift from Earth – which I acquired a signed copy of – at least alludes to the story within, even if the back cover copy goes somewhat off piste: the colonised plateau on Mount Lookitihat, where the story is set, is called Plateau; We Made It is an entirely separate planet altogether, although I can see how a harried editor skimming the novel's confusing first few paragraphs might have got the wrong end of the stick. In fact the ecology of the 40-mile high Mount Lookithat – so named because the pilot of the first colony ship to reach the place exclaimed "Lookitthat!" when he saw it – is the most interesting thing about the novel, the plot of which concerns a revolution against the ruling class's authoritarian use of organ transplanting to extend their lives (a recurrent theme in Known Space stories). Half the size of California and consisting of a handful of strata, Plateau is the only habitable part of the planet it towers over, the rest of which is a mist-shrouded "eternal searing black calm, useless for any purpose".

The back cover copy of the 1978 Orbit/Futura edition provides a more accurate description of the novel, and adorns another Peter Jones painting, one that I would guess depicts the ramscoop robot from Earth that upsets the precarious societal balance on Plateau. I like Jones's Niven covers a lot; of all the artists that have lent their talents to the author's book covers – and there are some really good ones, as this post demonstrates to a degree – Jones's style and approach seem to me the most in tune with Niven's peculiar mix of hard science and pulpy abandon; see also his covers for, among others, the 1979 Orbit second printing of A World Out of Time, and the 1978 Orbit/Futura edition of Neutron Star.

Speaking of Neutron Star, I plan on writing something about that collection, and Ringworld, soon.