September was my self-imposed science fiction and fantasy reading month. As ever, I aimed for more than I achieved and still had ‘hangovers’ from the previous month to finish.
I am not usually a keen reader of sci-fi, so asked around for suggestions to supplement the meagre selection in my home library. From cyberpunk to high concept near future thrillers, I was rather at sea.
I began my quest on familiar ground: Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I’d read some of his Welsh legends series in my early teens but didn’t remember enjoying them overly much. They improved with age! The Weirdstone adventure was thrilling; the mention of cagouls, bicycles, bottles of lemonade made Colin and Susan’s escapes from the hounds of Morrigan all the more chilling and dangerous. The underground scenes were particularly haunting. The setting of Alderley Edge, where now the ‘Cheshire set’ and WAGs live, provided a nice contrast to the world of dark magic and elves alongside ordinary life. The Owl Service continued the chilling theme, drawing further on the Mabinogion stories. Another terrifying story of children battling against forces of darkness; the familiar -this time a hidden tea service decorated with owls- transformed into a magic-infused dark world.
I enjoyed the equally thrilling HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As an Edwardian science-inspired thrilling adventure story, this ticked all my boxes of bemused narrator, period detail, speculative science and a focus on the human impact of an invasion. The study of the destruction of our comfortable way of life, prompting questions of how would one cope, is intriguing; an idea I am often drawn to (knowing I would be useless in a crisis). The Martians and their machines remain terrifying and the plucky British spirit shines through. My favourite quote is, ‘ I was walking through the roads to clear my brain. And suddenly – fire, earthquake, death!’
Moving on from Martian invasion, I looked at Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas to see how the space exploration, human vs alien conflict had been continued. I confess, I didn’t progress very far. I was stuck with the Changer on the spaceship, not caring much about him, his fate, the Culture, and Earth thousands of years in the future. I may return to Banks’ Culture series, but had many other worlds to explore…
Also unsucessful was my dip into the mind of Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle which I was recommended in particular. I reserved it from the library and made a start. But I stalled and didn’t return, distracted by Martian adventures instead. Perhaps his was a voice which didn’t fit with my mood this month; a lone American amongst the voices of British sci-fi? I’ve enjoyed his short stories in the past; perhaps I needed the short, sharp fix instead.
Through happenstance, this month’s choice for our library reading group was Erin Mortgenstern’s The Night Circus. I loved this romantic magical fantasy, clearly imagining myself wantering through the black and white striped tents in the darkness, inbibing the smells, sounds and sights of this most amazing spectacle. Dark figures lingered in the shadows; lovers were torn apart then bound together; mechanical books were part of magical clocks; trains were luxurious but menacing. A beautiful fantasy read.
I ran out of time to begin George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series; I did not continue Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Douglas Copeland remained unread and William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer has not yet been found by my local library. Although I dipped into a book of steampunk romances, I haven’t given the genre enough time to sing me its Victorian mechanical siren’s song to make me fall in love.
My ‘hangover’ books this month -those I’ll continue reading into October – are: Snow by Adam Roberts and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. Both are ‘high-concept sci-fi’; one set on a familiar earth, the other on an alien planet with familiar but different inhabitants. I’m enjoying them so much, I’ll continue to adventure on the planet Winter with the androgynous inhabitants and explore what our world is like, how we might cope, and why it will not stop snowing.
As I reflect on this month’s reading, I realise that I prefer concept sci-fi: how far can the author go with a ‘what if…?’ idea. What would happen to our world if it didn’t stop snowing, or if Martians invaded? How would we as individuals cope? Who would turn on whom first? And how long can one survive on tinned food?
In the past I’ve enjoyed the work of John Wyndham and John Christopher, masters of the speculative sci-fi. I particularly recommend The Death of Grass: John Christopher’s short novel exploring to a dramatic conclusion what might happen if, well, grass died. The thought of dropping atomic bombs onto Leeds and London to free up precious resources is a chilling one.
As I’ve found throughout this year’s reading experiment, I’m merely scratching the surface of the monthly genres; I’m reading only a fraction of what I intend to and end each theme with a continually expanding list of books to follow up.
What else did I miss out this month?