SF bookshelf

This is a collection of tiny reviews of science fiction and fantasy. They are books which I liked enough to recommend but haven’t reviewed at length (often because I couldn’t find time). The collection is structured like a blog, with the most recent additions at the top, and dates are the dates of my mini-reviews, not book publication. It began as a comment-string to an identically-titled post on Green Path which drifted away from its environmental theme and into general SF.

Here’s an index, now that it’s long enough to need one:
The ScarBabelThe Year of the JackpotChildren of MemoryFuturistic Violence and Fancy SuitsReconstructionThe Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe AnomalyFlyawayFrom Here On, Monsters

The Scar

The Scar (2002) is set in the world of Perdido Street Station, China Mieville’s breakthrough second novel. It’s a completely separate story, however, set mostly on a floating city. It resists categorisation but I will call it epic steampunk with magical elements. Whatever it is, it’s very good. Iron Council, the third of Mieville’s novels set in the same world looks good, too
(30.4.24).

Babel

Babel (2022) by R.F. Kuang is an alternate-history novel presented as fantasy. The fact that the novel’s central characters meet and bond as first-year students of magic makes Oxford in the 1830s look like a grownup version of Hogwarts; so far, so generic. Never mind; the fantasy aspects will attract readers who wouldn’t pick up a straight historical novel and that’s all to the good.

Kuang’s main concern is anti-colonialism. Babel eviscerates the British Empire through the protagonists’ political awakening; and the subtitle, on its title page but not on its cover, articulates its mood. In full, it is Babel, or the Necessity of Violence.

In this alternate past England’s lead in ‘silver-work’, a specialised form of magic, has enabled British colonialism to become even more dominant than it was in reality. Silver-work drives the narrative but it makes remarkably little difference to the history: the Empire was built on misery just the same.
(17.4.2024)

The Year of the Jackpot

In Robert Heinlein’s apocalyptic 1952 novella, a statistician attempts to make sense of a world gone mad. Potiphar Breen has been carefully noting a rise in odd behaviors all around him in the hope of discovering some pattern or meaning in them. Then one day, he comes upon a beautiful young woman who is taking off all her clothes at a bus stop – and she doesn’t even know why.

I have added the novella to this page because it still stands up remarkably well, and because it resonates so strongly with William Gibson’s far longer and far more recent Jackpot which I’ve been talking about over on Green Path. Anyone wanting to read Heinlein’s story can find it as an e-book; anyone wanting a mere plot summary can get it on Wikipedia but be warned: the spoilers in it will ruin the novella for you.
(18.2.24)

Children of Memory

This is the third novel in a trilogy by Adrian Tchaikovsky which begins with Children of Time. It’s space opera, but lifted out of the generic by interesting explorations of identity and the nature of intelligence.

Tchaikovsky is a prolific youngish British author whose Cage of Souls impressed me enormously. He writes both fantasy and hard SF. Some of it seems to be aimed at the YA market but isn’t labelled as such, and has therefore failed to live up to my expectations, but most of it is very good.
(13.10.23)

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

In Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (2015), David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin) takes the ugly near-future American world of Gibson’s The Peripheral and Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife and uses it for black comedy. Like his John Dies At the End, which does the same for paranormal horror, its humor is gross but its central characters are engaging and its fundamental values are good.

Looking for light reading and don’t mind gore? This book is for you!
(So are the Laundry Files books.)
(21.9.23)

Reconstruction

Reconstruction is a collection of short stories by Alaya Dawn Johnson, all written 2005-2020 and all very, very good. They range from paranormal fantasy (both serious and spoof) to science fiction per se and magical realism. Most of them centre on women, people of colour, or both, which is a nice corrective to the bulk of the genre. She has written novels, too – I will be looking out for them.

Author’s site: https://alayadawnjohnson.com/
(6.4.23)

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

It won the Booker so it will probably be on the Lit Fic shelf, like The Anomaly, below, but apart from that it would be on the Fantasy shelf. Most of the action of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida takes place while the protagonist is in the bardo, the Buddhist version of Limbo. There are plenty of ghouls and monsters there, but some of the living people they track are far worse.

Read more about it on the Booker Prize site.
(19.3.23)

The Anomaly

More good non-generic SF: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier. It will probably be on the Lit Fic shelf, not F & SF, but it’s definitely SF and very good. Big themes, well handled; good enough to win the French equivalent of the Booker; etc.
(6.3.23)

Flyaway

Kathleen Jennings’ Flyaway is another that deserves to be mentioned alongside Monsters (below). It’s Australian Gothic, fantasy with deep roots in both our landscape and our heritage of European mythology. More about it on Readings.
(15.6.22)

From Here On, Monsters

If you like books, Umberto Eco, ASRC, puzzles within puzzles, bookshops, the art world, thinking about the ways language shapes our thought, detective stories, Orwell, urban fantasy, literary hoaxes or any combination of the above, I think you will like Elizabeth Bryer’s From Here On, Monsters. It’s a book with both a heart and a brain and, in case you didn’t guess, I loved it.

Bryer is a prize-winning translator so although it is her first novel it doesn’t read like one. One of the few books I could compare it to was Vandermeer’s Hummingbird Salamander. Dyschronia is another.
(7.6.22)

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