Some New Books – January 2016

I haven’t bought any new SF books in ages now, but, with Christmas behind me and a few quid spare in my pocket, I took the notion over the past couple of weeks to trawl Ebay.co.uk for some books. Actually, none of them are “new”, as there’s not a lot of modern SF that I enjoy, with the exception of some anthologies of short fiction and a very narrow range of authors and sub-genres. But I did find two second hand/used anthologies of classic Golden Age stuff, which is much more my kind of thing, one collection of Isaac Asimov’s fantasy stories, essays and articles, and, finally, one “Best of the Year” SF anthology, from 2007.

  • SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST OF THE YEAR 2007 EDITION edited by Rich Horton (trade paperback, Prime Books, Germantown MD, US, 2007, ISBN-10: 0-8095-6297-9, ISBN-13: 978-0-8095-6297-8)
  • MAGIC: THE FINAL FANTASY COLLECTION by Isaac Asimov (Paperback, Voyager, London, 1997, ISBN: 0-00-648203-1)
  • GREAT TALES OF THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg (hardback, Galahad Books, New York, 1991, ISBN: 0-88365-772-4)
  • THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Kingsley Amis (Large Format Paperback, Penguin Books, 1983, first published by Hutchinson & Co., 1981)

The SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST OF THE YEAR 2007 EDITION trade paperback is a nice anthology of reasonably recent (less than ten years old) stories, twelve in all, five from Asimov’s SF Magazine, two from F&SF, and the other five from five different sources both magazines and books. I haven’t read this one yet, but there are a few authors in it that I usually like (Robert Reed, Walter Jon Williams, Ian Watson, Robert Charles Wilson), and Rich Horton rarely puts together a bad “Best SF” anthology.

MAGIC: THE FINAL FANTASY COLLECTION is a single-author collection of Isaac Asimov’s fantasy (as opposed to SF) short fiction. It’s also notable for collecting a number of Asimov’s essays and articles about fantasy and other subjects. It’s a bit of a strange one, this, although I found it an interesting mix of articles and fiction. And Asimov’s fantasy is just as logical as his science fiction, with its own strict internal rules and limitations, which made it easy for me to read, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of reading fantasy.

GREAT TALES OF THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION is a cracking anthology of classic Golden Age SF put together by the ever-reliable trio of Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg. Nine stories in all, almost all of them published in Astounding during the 1941-1947 timeframe. Some of the biggest names in SF are in this one – Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Jack Williamson, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, C.L. Moore, Ross Rocklynne, A. Bertram Chandler, T.L. Sherred – and with some of their most classic stories.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by Kingsley Amis is another cracking anthology, with a completely different group of stories and authors to the previous anthology. Only Asimov appears in both, but with different stories. And there are seventeen stories in this one, almost twice as many as the other anthology. Aside from Isaac Asimov, we’ve got Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, Brian W. Aldiss, Cordwainer Smith, H. Beam Piper, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, Anthony Boucher, James Blish, Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Jerome Bixby, F.L. Wallace and Philip Latham. That is a hugely impressive line-up of SF author talent with some of their most classic stories.

The Kingsley Amis anthology is a completely different kind of book to the other one edited by Asimov, Waugh and Greenberg. I wouldn’t really consider it a real “Golden Age” anthology at all, as the stories are from the 1950s and 1960s (there’s even one from 1979!), rather than the 1940s (the actual “Golden Age of SF” is usually considered to be circa 1938-1950, when Campbell’s Astounding ruled the roost unchallenged, and before the appearance of F&SF and Galaxy). The stories are therefore slightly more sophisticated than those in the other book, with much less of an emphasis on stories from Astounding, and a much higher percentage coming from F&SF, Galaxy and other sources. The stories are of the highest calibre, and the only criticism I would have is none of them actually qualify as “Golden Age” SF, as they come from a later period, and there are several of the 1960s stories that even come dangerously close to belonging to the New Wave. I guess Amis’ interpretation of “Golden Age” SF is a bit different to the rest of us, and maybe a bit more of a personal one. 🙂

All in all, a nice little batch of books. I’ve gotten the bug back again for hunting down SF books. I must get back on Ebay to see if I can find a few more classic anthologies.

Advertisements

A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I’ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.