Sunday 31 August 2014

Ten Novels

So the challenge passed to me by Deborah Whitehead was to name "ten books that have stayed with me for one reason or another throughout my life." It's an interesting challenge, but I'm going to play fast and loose with the counting.

Pride of Chanur and Foreigner, C J Cherryh
C J Cherryh has been a favourite for as long as I've been reading her books, and one of the reasons is her detailed worldbuilding, or perhaps I should call that species building, as that's what she does best. Pride of Chanur and Foreigner share similar structures, both the starts of series, both featuring male humans dropped into an alien species which they aren't fully able to understand. Pride takes the story from the alien side, Foreigner from the human. And in both affection successfully crosses the species barrier, raising deeper questions of mores and sexuality.

Cyteen and Regenesis, C J Cherryh
Having picked a pair of Cherryh books for what she does with aliens, a further pair for what she can do with humans. Cyteen and Regenesis deal with the death of scientific genius and political icon Arianne Emory, and the childhood of Arianne Emory 2, as her project to recreate herself in not just body, but mind as well takes form. But who killed AE1, and are they still out there, targetting AE2... All the major players are psychological manipulators, but they're about to be outwitted by their own creation.

Little Fuzzy, H Beam Piper
The only book I'm listing from the Golden Age, Little Fuzzy has all the strengths of pacing and concise storytelling that the best of the pulps offer, but with the addition of a sense of the environment that seems more post-80s than pre-60s. A prospector out in the wilds of a backwater planet realises there is actually an intelligent native species, a fact which will destroy the planet's economic value if it becomes known, but the entire planet is a company town, and they don't want to lose their economic prize.

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
A book I try to reread at least once a year, and the start of a loose trilogy (with Spook Country and Zero History) tied together by the character of Belgian billionaire and marketing genius Hubertus Bigend. This is undoubtedly a Gibson book, with all his strengths, but unlike his previous SFnal work it's a contemporary, post-911 book, with the protagonist, Cayce, having lost her father during the attack (emphasis on the 'lost', he's not confirmed dead). Cayce's thing is fashion and trends, something she is uncannily sensitive to and employed to advise on, and her passion is a series of odd, haunting, noirish film clips, the Footage, that are being released onto the net with no idea of where they came from, or who created them. Then Bigend hires Cayce to track down the origin of the Footage, but does he just want to monetize it, and does the Footage want to be found?

The Winter Market, William Gibson
So why am I listing a short story (technically a novelette) in a list of novels? Because if you want the works that have affected me most, then this is undoubtedly one. Published in Gibson's Burning Chrome anthology, one of the most important anthologies in SF history for what it and Bruce Sterling's contemporary collection Wired did to shape the field, this is a stunning exploration of disability, death and identity, but mostly listed because 28 years on I still can't escape being haunted by Lise's 'Sometimes I like to watch'.

At the Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold
Like 'The Winter Market', a list of the works that have affected me most wouldn't be complete without this short story (technically it's a novella, and published in the collection of the same name). The Miles Vorkosigan books have always had a focus on disability, Miles being disabled in a society that doesn't tolerate the Other, but in this story LMB foregrounds that even more than usual and a very young Miles takes it on himself to investigate the death of a disfigured infant, a death that exposes more of the ugly underside of Barrayaran society than Miles may have expected to find.

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold
Having listed a Miles Vorkosigan short story, I think I have to have a novel length one, because it takes that amount of space to see the glory that is Miles, that hyperactive runt (as Cousin Ivan designates him), at full throttle. I could as easily have picked any of the later Miles novels, but Memory is where Miles is finally forced to grow up and assume his position in Barrayaran society. Originally I loved Miles for being a disabled action hero, but Memory is where he demonstrates he can be just as compelling a hero when the action takes place in the Imperial court, or in an interrogation cell.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
Ash has apparently just been republished in the Masterworks of Fantasy series, but it's actually very well disguised SF hidden behind the tale of the exploration of the background of an alternative Joan of Arc (the eponymous Ash) and the discovery that the fantastical elements of the story may not be as fantastical or allegorical as modern researchers have believed. Mary Gentle has been one of my favourite fantasy authors for as long as I can remember, and one of the most ambitious, which may perhaps explain why she isn't as well known as many less ambitious authors.

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Cryptonomicon (and it's prequel trilogy The Baroque Cycle create a secret history of connections amongst the lesser known movers and shakers of the world, in Cryptonomicon's case deeply linked into Enigma, Bletchley Park, and Nazi gold. And that's only half the book, because the intertwined rest revolves around their grandchildren, trying to create an artificial currency and offshore data haven, and what happens when they run into the story of that Nazi gold. Neal Stephenson's books manage the weird combination of being both incredibly dense, and dragging you in with often breakneck pacing. 

Look to Windward and The Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks
Iain Banks was guest of honour at LonCon3 a couple of weeks ago, even though he died last year, and he's been one of the strongest voices in British SF (and mainstream) since I first read him in my early 20s. It's difficult to pick one Banks book, I could as easily have picked, say, The Business from his mainstream works, that's another favourite, but the Culture was at the core of his work, so one late Culture novel, Look to Windward, which I think is Banks at the peak of his work, and one early, The Use of Weapons, for Banks at his early, stylistic, best, and for the image of that chair, which has stayed with me for 25 years.

Locked In and Unlocked, John Scalzi
Putting a novel that only released a couple of days ago in the list may seem excessive, but I've been waiting for Locked In with bated breath since reading the companion novella Unlocked a couple of months ago. It's an SF novel about disability, with a disabled protagonist, and it gets it right; that's so rare. But even if you don't recognise the sharp observation, it's a damned good murder mystery with a logic to the crime that's deeply embedded within the milieu in which it occurs. I'll be astounded if this isn't short-listed for next year's Hugo. Unlocked, by contrast with the novel, sheds the tight focus on the crime in favour of a wide and deep investigation of the post-Haden's Syndrome World, that lets it look even more closely at the disability parallels, and it gets them even more right than in the novel (and it's free). 

I make that 12 novels, 2 novellas and a novelette - close enough.

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