Saturday, 29 October 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Eighties

The eighties, now this is when I started reading sci-fi, so there are going to be some real favourites here. And it was a pretty good decade to get the sci-fi bug really. As well as new books we also had new sub-genres, which is a sure sign of rude health.

Firstly the graphic novel really came of age during this decade. Perhaps they should have their own category, but personally I'd rate Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (1982-5), The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-6) and Watchmen (1986-7), and Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-96) as up their with the best novels.

Given how visual the graphic novel is it's a bit of a surprise that the film versions have only been mediocre, but I suspect perhaps that's because people underestimate the subtlety of a good graphic novel. They may have pictures, but they still require you to have an imagination, whereas cinema doesn't.

A genuine new sub-genre was Steampunk. It's difficult to say when this began, but the novel that brought it to my attention was The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. A menagerie of weird and wacky ideas including sinister stilt walking clowns and an attempt to catch a body-swapping werewolf by opening a hair removal clinic. It really has to be read to be experienced.

Then there was Cyberpunk. I suppose an unbiased list would give this decades award to the book that begins "The sky was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." Not really my genre but still, great book. And those of us who've grown up with the Information Revolution sometimes forget how new ideas like this are. When I were a lad sci-fi computers were, at best, avatars of HAL from 2001. The one in the original Star Trek seems little better than a Sinclair Spectrum. Arthur C Clarke may have said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but it took William Gibson to show us how close we were to that point. This may not have been the first cyberpunk novel, that may have been Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, serialised in New Worlds in 1969, but it in the book that popularised the genre.

Another novelty was in Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts , about a binary planet with shared atmosphere, hence interplanetary travel could be accomplished in a balloon.

Rather more complex was Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Set in a future where the galaxy has been colonised but the earth has slipped back into medieval barbarism, the titular hero is a Journeyman of the Guild of the Seeker After Truth And Penitence. The layers of deception laid down by the author are Byzantine in their complexity and nobody is as they seem.

Another almost winner is a novel in an unlikely location for a science fiction story; a wood in Kent. This is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock,a place that is it not only bigger on the inside than the outside, but also a place where myths take physical form.

I read the book whilst living in the woods of Newbury during a record cold winter, which probably increased its effect on me a touch, but it is a magnificent and thoughtful book. Alas I have to admit that although you could make an attempt at explaining all this by means of Relativity and Jungian archetypes, I have to ultimately classify Mythago Wood as fantasy and not sci-fi.

Gosh that's a lot of worthy winners, and I haven't had time to mention Carl Sagan's Contact, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaiden's Tale, Greg Bear's Eon, Frank Herbert's Dune and many others.

Instead I'll skip straight to the winner; Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks, the first of his Culture novels.

It is difficult to describe how much I love these books. Firstly here is top notch space opera, lasers, battles, robots, The Works. Secondly we also have something that has largely disappeared from the silver screen - an optimistic, liberal future.

Banks's Culture is a strange beast. It is not only Post-Scarcity, it's also post-human. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat has been ditched in place of the Dictatorship of the Artificial Mind. It clearly works, because Banks says it does, but does beg some interesting questions. Do the controlling Minds really have the best interests of human being at heart?

And what do those humans (and not quite humans) actually do? Banks describes their spaceships in details. Communist from the inside and Anarchist from the outside, they skip merrily about his stories. However as we only ever get to hear about how the Culture interacts with other civilisations we don't learn alot about the daily lives of its less adventurous denizens. Oodles of sex and drugs are clearly on the menu, but its not clear how they avoid the pointless debauchery of Brave New World.

But most of these questions are for the future for in Consider Phlegas we are catapulted into the middle of the best space war since Bob Heinlein passed on as the Culture takes on the Idirans, a bunch of space faring warriors who make the Klingons look like a bunch of boy scouts.

We have not yet seen a film version of any of these books, which is probably fortunate, but thanks to his non-sci-fi output Banks has at least received the critical acclaim he deserves, and which previous writers have been denied. As a book of the decade Consider Phelgas could well mark the high point of the genre.

Winner: Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks (1987)

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