The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

(I’m still catching up with SF classics I missed first time round.)

Inspired by the excellent TV series, I finally got round to reading Margaret Atwood’s classic novel of religious dystopia. I’m sure everyone knows the set-up by now – a near-future New England, in which the US government has been overthrown by an extreme, Christian theocracy. The story focuses on Ofred, a handmaid, whose role is to serve the family of a powerful member of the elite, and to try to bear a child for him, through regular ‘ceremonies’, in which she is forced to have sex with him (toe-curlingly described, in a way that makes you feel sorry for everyone involved).

The television version was so tense that after each episode, I found myself releasing a long breath and wondering how I could face the next one.

If anything, the book is even more tense. Ofred’s thoughts flit from present to past erratically in a thoroughly convincing evocation of the mind of someone utterly terrified that the slightest mis-step, or word out of place, could be fatal. I don’t know how convincing the future world might have seemed in 1986, but in 2017 it is eerily on the money.

How did I miss this back in the 1980s? Atwood is a writer with a lot of mainstream credibility, by no means confined to a genre. But it was nominated for a Nebula and won the Arthur C Clarke award, so is clearly science fiction. I think – to my shame – that at that young age I probably assumed the book was not for me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I probably saw it as a ‘women’s book’, and passed by.

My loss, which I’m glad I’ve now put right. A big thumbs-up and eight out of ten.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2014)

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed.]

I suspect there is little I can say about this. Ann Leckie’s debut won just about every award going in 2014, and I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t yet read it.

Sometimes, when you come to a book that has been so highly praised, it can be off-putting. There’s a little internal voice that says, ‘go on then, impress me.’ And if you aren’t immediately grabbed, you might turn against it.

I had no such problems here – this was fantastic. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the set-up. The protagonist, Breq, is the sole remaining part of what was once a group of ‘corpse soldiers’, part of a hive-mind military unit controlled by the AI that runs a troop spaceship on behalf of an expanding galactic empire. The book tells the story of her seeking revenge against the person who betrayed her, and also in parallel the story of that treachery.

I was utterly gripped from page one. The storytelling was engaging and compelling. I was so impressed with the way Leckie made the reader care deeply about the characters, even while playing all sorts of tricks with gender, point of view, individual consciousness. I especially liked the way the main character referred to everyone as female, even when noting that some people appeared to be male! (This appears to have annoyed some readers, but I thought it was funny.)

The far-future society was suitably strange, and sketched convincingly by the author, without going overboard on exposition – the focus remained strongly on the characters and their struggles. Breq, as the remnant of an artificial intelligence controlling a cadre of zombie soldiers, ought to be thoroughly inhuman. But Leckie gives her warmth and character, and a humanity that outshines that of some of the more ‘normal’ characters.  The occasional line such as, ‘I’m not human, but my body is’, made me laugh out loud.

A definite 9 out of 10, and I expect I will read the two further books in the trilogy.

Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland (1975)

This was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t quite fit into my category of SF-Classics-I-missed-in-recent-years. It came out in 1975, when it was nominated for a Locus award. So it ought to have been picked up in my peak juvenile SF-reading years. But I missed it back in the day, and nowadays it mostly appears on lists of lost and neglected classics.

Another book that had rested undisturbed for a couple of years on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf. Until recently, I regularly passed over it in favour of other books. Mainly, I think because I knew nothing about Cecilia Holland. This is apparently her only science fiction novel, among many reputable historical fictions.

If you’re only going to write one SF novel, this is a pretty good one to have on your roster.

The set-up is simply stated: thousands of years in the future, in a solar system where anarchism is a settled system of ‘government’, Earth has been largely damaged in some past disaster, and humanity has spread to other planets. The civilisations of the inner solar system are troubled by raids from the Styth, a race of mutants descended from early pioneers to the outer planets of Uranus and Saturn. Paula Mendoza accepts a mission from the ‘Committee of the Revolution’ to negotiate a treaty with the Styth. This she does in an unorthodox way, going on to spend many years living among the Styth, and acting as ambassador between them and the inner worlds. She also skilfully builds a role as adviser to the Styth leader in the brutal politics of his people.

I found so much to enjoy and admire in this book. Unusually for a science fiction novel, the future world is drawn very subtly. There are big and imaginative ideas here, but the world-building is left in the background. We learn about the characters through their actions and their reactions to the world around them, not through interior thoughts or monologues. Holland doesn’t trouble to explain how the domes of the ruined Earth work, nor how the world came to be wrecked. Nor does she linger over the technicalities of the way the Styth live in the inhospitable environment of the outer planets. The prose is taught and spare, and we see the world as the characters do, in the moment.

There are important themes of race and sexism, explored thoughtfully and subtly. Mendoza herself is a fascinating – and at time frustrating – character, who embodies a convincing way of operating – anarchistic in a plausible, real-life way in her refreshing disregard for rules and authority, rather than the caricature some other writers might have offered.

It’s a big, sprawling story, wide in scope and vision, but intimate in its focus on realistic people, grappling with realistic problems in fantastic circumstances. Vividly written, with tight dialogue. The 600-plus pages fly by.

I see from a glance at Amazon and Goodreads that the book divides readers: plenty of rave reviews, but some people absolutely hate it. Sure, it has flaws (I was never quite sure what motivated Mendoza, the ending was a little flat and inconclusive for me, and it’s very much a 1970s conception of the far-future). But I’m definitely more on the rave end of the spectrum. Shame there was never a sequel. Maybe someone could have a go…

A well-deserved 8 out of ten for me.

Grass by Sheri S Tepper – 1989

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed]

Near my home in south London, there is a splendid library, housed in an old red phone box, and run by community volunteers. The deal is that you can take a book that takes your fancy, and you’re encouraged to donate books you’ve read.

I pick up a lot of good books here. There is obviously at least one other SF fan in the neighbourhood, because I get numerous SF Masterworks from here (if my friend Max doesn’t snaffle them first!).

I got a copy of Grass some time ago, and then it sat on my shelf, unread, for months. Every time I needed a new book I passed over Tepper’s novel. For some reason, despite it’s Hugo and Locus nominations, it didn’t appeal. It was, after all, called Grass. About a world covered with grass. That sounded a bit, well, dull.

How wrong I was. The novel is set in a future where the earth has become overstretched, and is dominated by a ruthless religious cult. Humanity has spread to other worlds, including Grass. A plague threatens all worlds, except Grass, where for unknown reasons it does not take hold. Earth sends an ambassador and his family to try to find out more.

I loved the start of the book. (It was bold to make the first paragraph simply “Grass!” That made me laugh.) There is a great sense of dread as a group of aristocrats set out on a hunt. Without being told explicitly, it is clear that the hounds are not actually dogs, the ‘mounts’ are not horses, and the fox is not really a fox. Something is badly wrong with the whole picture, and it takes much of the rest of the book to tell you what and why. I have not read any other Tepper books, but was impressed by the style and delivery of this one.

The world-building is detailed and beautifully unravelled bit by bit. Some of the characters are real and interesting (although some of the men are a little cardboard). The first half of the book is slow-moving, but never dull. In fact, when the action hots up in the second half, I found I could have done with a bit less of the chasing around, and a bit more exploration of why the alien creatures are as they are. This was the only drawback for me, so much so that my excitement over the prospect of another two books in the trilogy had dulled by the end, and I’m not sure I’ll be reading them soon.

But still, overall a solid 7 out of 10.

Where I’m Coming From…The Stories I Love

I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger. In truth, I read little else. Stories set in the world I recognised around me seemed too mundane; I wanted imagination-stretching, mind-bending tales of adventure in the made-up realm.

So I grew up on Heinlein, Farmer, Asimov, Le Guin, Ellison, Pohl…the list goes on.

Later, I fell out of the SF habit. Did it get dull, or did I? I don’t know. I still dipped in occasionally, but I mainly moved on to crime fiction, non-fiction, the occasional ghost story.

Recently, I have come back to SF. I was led by my writing – after years of ghost stories and horror fiction, I found myself writing SF. Not very well, but I found myself enjoying it.  I also soon realised that a lot of things I was thinking about had already been written, earlier and better by other writers. The SF world had moved on since I drifted away from it.

I didn’t entirely abandon the field: I find I have read 10 of the Hugo-winning novels since 1986. But I have read 17 of the winners from the 20 years before that.

So, I’m setting out to explore the treasures that I have largely missed in the past nearly two decades while my attention has been elsewhere. I apologise for being so behind the game, but as penance I’ll write about the books as I catch up with them.

Let me know of the books you think I really must not miss, and I’ll try to read them.