Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Books That Preceded the Web

In my recent interview at A Dribble of Ink, I mentioned that I quite like it when sf/f book bloggers shift their attention away from new releases and try to tempt their audience into giving some older books a try. Figured I might as well put a little of my blogging time where my mouth is, so herewith - selected semi-randomly by staring blankly at the bookshelf nearest my desk and seeing which titles telepathically suggested themselves - some books that first saw the light of day long before 'online buzz' was anything other than what might happen if you trod carelessly while crossing an electrified railway line. They're hardly what you'd call obscure, but there might be one or two readers out there just waiting to be persuaded to try them.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Was very well known when it first came out (1984, I think), yet over at Neth Space it was recently mentioned as a book that isn't as widely read now as it deserves. I was shocked. Shocked, I was. I would have assumed that everyone had heard of Mythago Wood and its (even better, in some ways, I think) sequels. Shows how much I know. The basic concept is brilliant: a wood in southern England is, to an extent that would shame the Tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside, and has the power to give physical form to the mythic and folkloric concepts lurking in visitors' brains. I'd be willing to cut off my little finger for an idea as good and rich in story potential as that. Well, maybe not cut it off. I'd be prepared to lightly bruise it, though.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Okay, everybody's heard of this one, but not everybody's read it, which is a bit of a shame, I think. Since it's a product of the 19th century, the style and pacing can be a bit off-putting for the modern reader, but I've found that there's a certain unquantifiable proportion of people who, if they can get past that stumbling block, find it an extraordinary book. It might not work for you, but if it is does, there's a good chance it'll really work. Personally, I think it's got a sort of deranged clarity of theme and vision that marks it out as a genre high point (and maybe, as you sometimes hear people say, the beginning of the sf genre too) even after all these years .

Earth Abides by George Stewart. Possibly my favourite post-apocalyptic novel, certainly in the top two or three. Was written around 60 years ago, and its style and attitudes might seem a little dated now, but despite that, I love it. It's an evocative and ultimately rather moving look at what might happen if (in the mid-20th century) you came home from a solo wilderness trip to discover that almost everyone else in the world had died during your absence. There's relatively little action (though I do think there's a certain kind of heroism going on), so it's one for those who like their sf, at least occasionally, thoughtful and cumulative in its effect. It also, as it happens, has one of my favourite endings of any book, which resolves everything and nothing simultaneously.

The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss. The fact that I can't immediately find this, or any of its three constituent volumes - Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter - in stock at any of the big UK online bookstores leads me to consider the mildly distressing possibility that it might be out of print. I'd be surprised if so, but life's full of surprises. It's got some fantasy trappings but is actually sf through and through. Loads of stuff happens (some of it a bit weird, this being an Aldiss story), but the real star of the series is the planet Helliconia itself, with seasons that last centuries and whole societies and cultures that rise and fall as the climate changes. Visionary stuff, painted on a huge canvas. And it also contains one of my favourite of all non-human races in sf/f: the bipedal, goat-like phagors, who trade dominance of the planet with humans depending on the season.



Blogger R. said...

I just finished Earth Abides. I thought I was the only person in the world who knew about it. Found it at a thrift store. Glad to know that we have similar taste. Perhaps, my novels will be as great as yours one day.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Well I haven't read or even heard of any of those (except frankenstein of course!). They all sound like a good read, I shall have a hunt for them in the bookshops of Bath.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't agree more about "Frankenstein". Possibly off-topic, but "Dracula" is equally as great a read : find out what the real story is about.

Another 'classic film' book that deserves more is "Jekyll and Hyde" : an easy evening read as its so short, but brilliant.

The others mentioned I know and would particularly recommend the Brian Aldiss books : a great read.

Holdstock I recognise as author of the 'Merlin Codex' books. I have to say they didn't grab me, though the subject is right up my alley. I reckon the "wood" must have re-appeared in this series, as it sounds just like the wood he envisions in Southern England.

I would also add Keith Roberts wonderful "Pavane", if its still in print.

For a sprawling take on a dystopian earth heading toward overpopulation, I would recommend John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar". Very much pre-web and a wonderfullly absorbing read. 'Why bother to be human, if it takes a machine to save us ?' was one of the main questions, I seem to remember.

I bought 'Bloodheir' when in the UK recently, as I was amazed to discover it wouldn't be out in paperback until Summer '09. With the reduction on the price it meant the hardback was just a pound more expensive that the the large format airport paperback : bizarre, but at least I can read it only 6 months after finsihing the first !

5:28 PM  
Blogger Brian Ruckley said...

I decided this post was getting a bit long so I left off after four books, but had I gone but one further, the fifth would have been ... Stand on Zanzibar. I love it. Takes a while to get your head around the mosaic/collage approach to story-telling he uses, but personally I ended up thinking it was inspired.

And re: Dracula, I agree it's a fine book, well worth reading, but I don't like it as much as I like Frankenstein. What they definitely have in common is that the originals are both considerably more interesting than the vast majority of what's been done with them in popular culture since.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Perry Droast said...

I also loved Earth Abides.

I read it at least 25 years ago. I think I read it twice.

I was talking on the phone with a friend a couple years ago and out of the blue he also recommended Earth Abides, saying it was one of his all time favorite books.

I think I'll have to pick up Frankenstein.

I reading "The Last Kingdom" by Bernard Cornwell right now. I'm enjoying it a lot.

Another older book I enjoyed more than once was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Adam Whitehead said...

Helliconia is excellent. A very worthwhile work. An omnibus of all three books came out a few years ago, but I believe it is no longer in print.

I need to read Mythago Wood and Gollancz very handily just issued a reprint with the first three volumes in it.

9:09 PM  

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