My Summer Reading Project: Which SF/Fantasy Epic Should I Read?

I do not read beach books in the summer, unless they are literally beach books:  I recommend the Odyssey, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, and Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage.

For summer reading projects I prefer classics, the kind for which you need an introduction and footnotes.  One summer my husband and I read Juvenal’s satires (at a coffeehouse called Cafe Diem).  We pored over Roman phrases, trying to decipher the slangy meanings our Lewis and Short dictionaries were unprepared to reveal.  And we found a little of Juvenal’s obscenity goes a long way…

The summer we read Juvenal…

For six summers I comically tried to finish Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil, a German classic which, via stream-of-consciousness, portrays Virgil’s dying.  I started it, abandoned it, and restarted it every summer… and after 100 pages I crossed it off my list as unreadable.  The sentences, which may be beautiful in German, go on for pages, Virgil grotesquely has an eye for the boys as he’s dying (one accompanies him from the ship to Augustus’s palace), and starting around page 100 Broch decides to arrange some clumsy sentences in verse. My guess is the lack of an introduction and footnotes is due to the unpopularity of the English translation.

Usually I enjoy my summer projects I loved The Histories of Herodotus, The Tale of Genji, and Durrell’s Alexandria quartet.

But this summer I am thinking of reading an SF/fantasy epic instead of a literary classic. Why?  Because I say SF is my preferred genre, and yet I’ve read remarkably little SF in the last few years.

Critics seem to be crazy about George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series.  At The Guardian John Mullan wrote,

Any connoisseur of narrative drive who crosses that divide will surely be caught up by the sheer energy and inventiveness of Martin’s multi-viewpoint story. His is a peculiarly unidealising variant of AU (alternative universe) fiction. In the land of Westeros, a chivalric yet brutal pre-industrial world, warring kinship groups struggle for power. In the adjacent land of Essos – more primitive, even more thoroughly Hobbesian – a young woman descended from the ancient rulers of Westeros plots and struggles to lay claim to the land from which she is exiled. JRR Tolkien, who may not have invented AU fantasy but certainly was its most influential exemplar, gave weight to his imagined world with invented languages, legends, genealogies, poetry. Martin provides some of this, but devotes most of his energies to convincing the reader of the entirely human fears and ambitions of his leading characters. Tolkien gave us hobbits, orcs, elves and dwarves. Martin deals in men and women.

I am a “connoisseur of literary drive,” but there are 5,216 pages in the series.  Perhaps I don’t have to read all the books?

Should I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels, available in two Library of America volumes? But do I want to immerse myself in the Hainish cycle?  Some are great (The Left Hand of Darkness), some are mediocre (The Word for World Is Forest).  I have read a lot of Le Guin over the years.

How about Frank Herbert’s Dune series?  But I’ve heard the series went downhill after the first book (which I loved and wrote about here)… and then there are so many in the series, several written by someone else.

And  C. J. Cherryh?  I read her stunning, angst-ridden novel, Downbelow Station.  (and wrote about it here).  One of the best SF books I’ve ever read.  But she has written so much–a novel a year, I think.  Where do I start?

Please recommend your favorite SF and fantasies!

Why Read SF Classics? George R. R. Martin, The Critics, & Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Genre fiction is popular, but it is still not quite the thing among the literati.   In order of acceptability, we have (a) mysteries, (b) historical fiction, (c) SF, and (d) romance.

SF is the most daring of the genres, but has long been considered a bastard child of literature, perhaps because it depends on “world-building” rather than corpses, Henry VIII, or flirting with guys with waxed chests.   It’s fairy tales, it’s epic, it’s tragedy, it’s fantastic voyages, and it’s medieval romance, but with robots and dragons, which doesn’t always go over well.   Critics  praise SF founders Jules Verne and H. G. Wells but have skipped over many stunning later SF classics.

In recent years, however, I have noticed that science fiction and fantasy have become more visible in literary publications. It may be solely because of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Why?  Male critics John Mullan (The Guardian), John Lanchester (The London Review of Books), Daniel Mendelsohn (The New York Review of Books), and Tim Martin (The Telegraph) have compared the series to Shakespeare’s history plays and Lord of the Rings.  Fans, especially men, have gone mad for it.

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenI very much enjoyed the first volume of Martin’s series, Game of Thrones, and if it brings people to SF/fantasy, I’m all for it. What the critics don’t seem to realize is that other SF  writers are equally well-acquainted with Shakespeare, history, and classics. For instance, the award-winning Jo Walton and C. J. Cherryh both have classics degrees.  Pamela Dean, author of the masterpiece, Tam Lin, has a master’s in English.  The genre-bending David Mitchell, twice nominated for the Man Booker Prize, has a master’s in comparative literature.

Sure, some SF writers write formula fiction, but the best SF writers take big chances. Not only do they create a viable future or fascinating alternate history, but some criticize the consequences of political and sociological trends. In Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner describes the fragmentation of society in a postmodern narrative broken up by quotations from radical sociologist Chad Mulligan (who is rather like Marshall McLuhan), news blurbs, and rumors on something called “Scanalyzer.” (There is even, bizarrely, an African president named Obami:  pretty close to reality, right?)  Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, another post-modern classic, is an SF lyrical Ulysses set in a city that has survived an unspecified disaster. Philip K. Dick’s alternate history, The Man in the High Castle, explores what might have happened in the U.S. if the Nazis had won.  All of them are brilliant writers.

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie 51fearKC3QL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_But what about new SF?  I recently discovered Ann Leckie’s fascinating novel, Ancillary Justice, which in 2014 won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the BSFA Award.  That’s quite a sweep. And it’s the first of a trilogy.

Is it an SF classic? Yes.  It is a beautifully-written first novel, a very fast read, and parts are brilliant.  I loved it from the opening pages.  The  narrator, Breq, a soldier who has trouble identifying gender, is in search of a very specialized antique on a dangerous trip to a cold, isolated wintry planet.  (A nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.)

The book opens like a noir western (if there is such a thing).  Breq finds a body in the snow.  Somehow it looks familiar.

Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.  Even after all this time it’s still a new thing for me not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next.  So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.

Frozen, bruised, and bloody as she was, I knew her.  Her name was Seivarden Vendaai, and a long time ago she had been one of my officers, a young lieutenant, eventually promoted to her own command, another ship.  I had thought her a thousand years dead, but she was, undeniably, here.  I crouched down and felt for a pulse, for the faintest stir of breath.

And so Breq rescues Seivarden, whose body was frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster and recently rediscovered and thawed. Seivarden is  now a drug addict who will sell anything she can find  for drugs. But Breq understands the tragic history of the unlikable Seivarden only too well:  she refused “re-eduaction” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand.  Breq never liked Seivarden, and yet she can’t let this victim of the past go.  It is a thankless job.  And yet they form a strange alliance.

Breq has business with a doctor/antique dealer, who can’t cure addiction but gives medical treatment to Seivarden.  It turns out Seivarden is a man (which we promptly forget, since Breq refers to everyone as “she, but it is a revelation:  I am surprised by how differently I regard her when I learn she is a man..). Breq’s purpose on this planet is to buy the doctor’s special gun, made by aliens.  At first the doctor pretends she doesn’t have it, but Breq has done her homework:  24 of the 25 guns have been recovered, and the doctor is the collector who vanished.

Why does Breq need the gun?  Gradually, through a beautifully-written unfolding of the story that is at first bewildering, we learn that she is not human but AI, with a revenge mission.  She used to be the central intelligence of a ship, Justice of Toren, or rather one of the ship’s  hundreds of ancillary soldiers.  Ancillaries are human corpses,  surgically rebuilt with implants and made into obedient soldiers to the ships and their human officers.  Their brains are connected to each other’s and the ship’s, until a catastrophe tears Breq from the others and she is forced to act as an individual.

Sound complicated?  It is.  But it is the quality of Leckie’s writing and the vivid characterization that keeps us reading as much as the storytelling.  Breq is an incredibly sympathetic character.  And she wins the loyalty of Seivarden.  After killing for 1,000 years or more, it turns out she can’t stop saving lives.

What a fantastic novel!  And I hear the next in the series is even better.  This is SF, in the tradition of the great C. J. Cherryh.

Mirabile Does Genre Fiction: Historical Novels, Science Fiction, &Jonathan Lethem’s Brilliant Amnesia Moon

Are you ready?

A quick blog.

7:45 p.m.

I love genre fiction.

librarian sexyIt all started when my friend, Maya, a former librarian who went back to school in classics, recommended Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. As a librarian, she had had a lot of free time, and science fiction was her favorite genre.

Classics departments teem with genre-loving ex-librarians, and library schools with genre-loving classicists who can’t find jobs.

And though the ex-librarians didn’t quite look like the woman in the picture, they certainly knew how to party:  on Diet Coke and popcorn, that is.

Classicists are a surprisingly unclassical lot when it comes to English literature.  You would expect them to read nothing but Sophocles and Anne Carson out of the classroom.  Instead, they recommended historical novels like Susan Howatch’s The Rich Are Different, the story of a banking family, and all the characters based on Caesar and the First Triumvirate, if I remember correctly?  which complemented our studies.

Augustus John WilliamsA better bet was John Williams’ Augustus, the National Book Award–winning historical novel by the writer now best known for Stoner, reissued by NYRB a few years ago.  But Augustus is just as brilliant, the story of Augustus’ bid for power after Julius Caesar’s murder and his dealings with the likes of Cicero and Mark Antony, some of our favorite historical characters.

Shambleau c. l. mooreThe most notable of all my classicial friends were the professors who were SF fans.  After I earned my degree, I became fair “prey” to the profs, who only had about seven women students a year, so I looked good, surprisingly good.  They were a decent lot, if clueless, with their offers of vacations in, of all places, New Jersey (they would have had a better chance with Rome, but I declined all invitations:  they were my friends and father figures).  One of them, by far the most brilliant, introduced me to the science fiction of C. L. Moore, Joanna Russ, and some other great American writers. And, by the way, the Library of America should have hired him to edit one of their science fiction books, because he could have recommended a few books by women, and we know that’s not LOA’s strong point.  (By the way, I am a big supporter of LOA, but they need to publish more interesting women’s books.)


Amnesia Moon Jonathan LethemAnd now just a little bit about Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite American literary writers, the author of Chronic City (my favorite), The Fortress of Solitude (my second favorite), and the National Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn (my third favorite).  I am now exploring his  1990s work, which was science fiction.

Amnesia Moon, his second novel, is surreal, funny, and sad.  Is the hero, Chaos, a survivor of a postapocalyptic world, dreaming his world, or his world real?

Chaos lives in a former cineplex in Hatfork, Wyoming.  He tries not to sleep, because he and the other residents all dream the dreams of the local despot Kellogg.  Kellogg is in charge of everything:  dreams, history, and the funky canned food he sometimes distributes.  Nobody can remember what was there before the apocalypse.

When Chaos decides to take a trip to get away from Kellogg, Melinda, a furry mutant teenage girl,  happens to be in the car.  They take off for Colorado, where they find a world of green fog, dreamed by another dreamer.  And in Vacaville, California, where their car breaks down, they find a city based on luck tests and moving twice a week to houses assigned by the government.

In Vacaville he tells Edie, with whom he falls in love, that there was a war. “Everyone remembers some kind of disaster.  But it’s different in different places.”

Then a hippie friend says Chaos needs to go back to San Francisco to see his best friend and girlfriend.  Chaos remembers little about them, but wants to know his past.  And when he starts dreaming everybody’s dreams–well, you can imagine.  San Francisco is by far the scariest place in the book.

When I read Lethem, I always wonder how he comes up with such strange plots.  His style is astonishing.  You really read him for his style.

A great book, not just great SF.