2021 in books: Science-fiction special (January-March)

Books

Well, here we are, three months into 2021 already. How’s this year looking for you, compared to it’s predecessor? Already it seems that there are reasons to be hopefully optimistic.

Last year, I made brief notes on every book I read (excluding the academic texts I had to consult as part of my psychotherapy work) and published mini reviews in four different blogs; one every quarter. You can find the most recent one by clicking here. I enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and thinking about it a little more, so I have decided to do it all again this year.

Here are the titles I have read from the start of the year, up until the end of March. It was only in March itself that I realized that every title in this article could be considered science fiction. This was not intentional, not least as I had recently written about the genre of Mundane science-fiction – a category that would not include many of the novels I speak about here…

The second sleep by Robert Harris (2019, Arrow)

Set in the future, in a society which has reverted to a more middle-ages style of living, thanks to an unnamed disaster which has apparently happened around the time of our own present. Harris paints an England without electricity, and where the church has once again become a force of power, and science is labelled as heresy. We follow a young priest sent to bury an older priest in a remote parish in Exmoor, only to discover the deceased parson’s collection of ‘pre-Armageddon’ artifacts, which set him down a path which makes him question what he has been taught. This book provides mystery, thought experiment, sexual tension and archaeology – all in a little over 400 pages!

I’ve read a few of Harris’s novels, and found them all to be similarly fast-paced. Easy read they may be, but not for lack of detail. I heartily recommend this book, and if you find you enjoy it, perhaps try Fatherland (similar to this novel, in that it is an alternate version of 20th century history, with one major difference!) Conclave (set during a papal election) and Pompeii (the days leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, followed by the aftermath). Like The second sleep, these novels take place over a short period of time, usually about a week, which helps keep the plot moving quickly. Sometimes we need a nice, quick & easy read in our lives, and Harris is a great author for that.

On the steel breeze and Poseidon’s wake by Alastair Reynolds (2013 & 2015, Gollancz)

I read the first part of this sci-fi trilogy, Blue remembered Earth, towards the end of last year (read about it here). I decided to read both sequels back to back, to avoid forgetting too much of the detail, and in order to stay fully immersed in the world Reynolds has created in this story. That said, both of these books do enough of a job reintroducing you to recurring characters that they almost work as standalone novels, not least because the protagonists change with each novel, as time shifts forward a century or so with each installment.

Time-hops like this can be tricky to pull off, but Reynolds manages it here, without having to resort to Isaac Asimov’s method of using something akin to a chain of short stories in his excellent Foundation novels (the original first three, anyway). The story flows well, with enough science fantasy to be interesting, but not too much that it bogs the book down – plot is still very much the main driver of these books, especially as the final novel looked like it might wrap up some of the mysteries set out in the previous installments. However, there were a few minor errors in the paperback versions I was reading; really simple things which could have easily been avoided with more thorough proof-reading. Other than that, very enjoyable.

The Themis Files trilogy (Sleeping Giants; Waking Gods and Only Human) by Sylvain Neuvel (2016, 2017 & 2019, Del Ray)

Sleeping giants must have been on my bookshelf for a while, perhaps purchased as part of a 3-for-2 offer at one of the more well-known bookstores. At 376 pages, it seemed a nice short book to enjoy after finishing the Poseidon’s Wake trilogy by Alastair Reynolds (see above). But as I started I realized – dammit! – it’s another trilogy! What happened to the good old standalone sci-fi book? Still, since each book is just over 300 pages or so, at least it didn’t take long to get through the entire trilogy…

These are a series of epistolary novels, meaning that the story is told in a series of documents, usually collections of letters, through which the wider plot is gleaned along with the insight of the characters. In the case of this trilogy, the short chapters include log entries and articles. However, they mostly take the form of transcribed interviews between the characters of the story, often with an anonymous, CIA-style interviewer. This can be a useful device for driving the plot forward, as well as maintaining suspense. However, at times I felt that the exposition was forced. At times, the characters seemed to be saying things which would have been unnecessary. It would have been more interesting to leave certain pieces of information out, to be revealed more subtly in later chapters. But here lies the biggest problem in composing a novel this way. How can one attempt to follow the golden writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ when a epistolary novel places so much emphasis on the tell, with very little show?

Despite this, the story was interesting and the entire trilogy was a very quick read. I found that I had settled into Neuvel’s style and enjoyed the story he spun over three short books. If you’ve never read a novel composed this way, I would recommend you give these books a go. They also serve as a way of stepping into science-fiction for those who haven’t really tried out the genre before.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, This edition 2020, Penguin Classics Science Fiction)

The life story of Zamyatin is as interesting as this story, recognized as the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Escaping prison in his native Russia (for being anti-Tsar), Zamyatin finished his engineering studies, worked in England then returned back to his homeland in time for the 1918 October Revolution. However, he had a strong belief in allowing artists to have creative freedom. We is set in OneState, where the only ‘true’ happiness can come from a kind of subjugation in this futuristic communist state, where the inhabitants have numbers instead of names (such as the narrator and protagonist, D-503). Although he might not have been the first to write dystopian fiction (H.G. Wells and Jack London can both lay claim to getting there first), We served as an inspiration (direct or otherwise) for many future writers.

The first manuscript was smuggled out of Soviet Russia, and a translation by E.P. Dutton was published in New York in 1924. The republished edition I read was based on the more recent translation by Clarence Brown in 1993. It captures the dry, characteristically Russian humour that appears throughout the novel, as well as the slightly otherworldly sequences that help to confuse the readers – D-503 doesn’t know for sure if certain sections in his ‘notes’ (the novel) actually took place, or are merely dreams brought on by his ‘mental illness’ (referred to as ‘imagination’ and ‘developing a soul’). It is an interesting book, and slightly wacky in places. The only thing that didn’t sit comfortably with me was his regular reference to his friend’s ‘African lips’, hinting at non-Russian features which, while not immediately offensive, feel very much like a product of Zamyatin’s age that hasn’t stood the test of time very well. But read as a social criticism on one-party states and human nature, it continues to resonate.

The penultimate truth by Philip K. Dick (1964, Gollancz)

Less well-known than some of his other works, I found The Penultimate Truth surprisingly difficult to get into. At only 191 pages, it shouldn’t have been a slog, and the characters inhabit the story well. The story itself is an interesting one – most of humanity is living underground, believing World War Three continues to rage over them. In truth, the war only lasted two years and a small elite work to maintain the illusion to the masses in their ‘ant tanks’ while living in palacial villas on the surface. This much is on the back cover’s synopsis, so no real spoilers here. However, I spent most of the first half of he book with the feeling that it might have been better to withhold the ‘truth’ of the surface, adding a greater mystery element. A simple rearranging of the chapter order might have achieved this. Perhaps Dick was more concerned with the other themes which emerge towards the end of the story, and I’m sure this book has many fans. However, it took a while for me to get into this novel, which I considered abandoning.

Final thoughts

I mentioned at the start of this article that I had not intended for every book to be a work of science-fiction, and as enjoyable as it has been escaping to other fantastical lands, I feel the need to dive into a non-fiction book soon! I also noticed shifs in my initial expectations with some of these titles. I did not think I would enjoy the Themis Files series as much as I did, and I ended up a little disappointed with The Penultimate Truth. Similarly, We was a lot more trippy than I expected it to be, but that was no bad thing in and of itself.

These are, of course, my own opinions. As always, do let me know if you have read any of these titles, what your thoughts were, or even if you have any recommendations for me. I always love discovering new books and authors!

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