Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, December 19, 2014

Gollancz Masterworks Wish List: Post-1980 novels

My precious.
SF fans from all walks—be they greenhorn newbies reading Dune (1965) for the first time (let's not discuss it here) or seasoned archivists hunting down novels by one-off authors—can all agree and appreciate one thing: the Gollancz Masterworks list. While every book may not cater to one reader, it does capture so many milestones through the evolution of SF, it highlights the victories of literature which have sprung from SF’s pulpy origins. The list includes powerhouse novels which every reader should read as a rite of passage—I’m looking at you Dune (1965) and Ringworld (1970)—yet there are other novels that even I haven’t heard of—Cecelia Holland’s Floating Worlds (1975) and Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird (1980).

If you’re unfamiliar with any of the works, there are excellent reviews—all inclusive—in the fanzine published by Pete Young: Big Sky. Read the third and fourth editions.

The question: Could the list be improved?
The answer: An elite team of trained SF bloggers scheme to produce superlists.

Actually, it wasn’t as diabolical as it sounds. I jest.

Anyway, Joachim Boaz suggested the project months ago and we—the elite team of superfriends—shot off into seclusion to eye and paw at our personal libraries. After the eying and pawing affair was over, we all selected books that should be included in the Gollancz list for one reason of another. Below are my five choices, a selection that focuses on novels between 1980 and 2000. This time period, especially after 1990, is a budding era that will slowly be integrated into the Masterworks library. I understand that one of two of the novel below are still being published, but the others deserved to be lifted from the ashes of those decades.

For reference, here are the other and their themes:

Joachim Boaz: yet-to-featured and female authors prior to 1980
Admiral.Ironbombs: classic novels and authors that have slipped through the crack
Couch to Moon: Truly MASTERworks and the endangered species
Ian Sales: classics from 1950-1994
Jesse: a similar post-1980s selection of modern classics
Tongues of Speculation: translated classics
Martin@Cloggie: female authors through the decades

Phillip Mann’s The Eye of the Queen (1982)

Phillip Mann is a lesser-known author whose works have graced the minds of readers since 1982 with his freshman novel The Eye of the Queen. Regardless of it being his first novel, Mann had followed up the equally as genius novel Wulfsyarn (1990) and much later with The Disestablishment of Paradise (2013). Though his brilliance speckles the latter four decades, it is his first novel, The Eye of the Queen, that lingers on weighs upon my mind with its hypnotic concoction of the evasive extrospective of alienness and the elusive introspection of humanity.

Too often in science fiction, aliens never live up to their categorization as being truly alien. Authors throw in a certain quirk which makes them “alien” to the human characters, but when taken objectively, very few alien races created by science fiction authors stun the mind. Phillip Man created such a race in The Eye of the Queen—an alien species that will always remain alien because their nature will forever be elusive to the humans who search for understanding. Spiritual and altruistic, the Pe-Ellia race are enlightened in both media of interpersonal and intrapersonal ways.

Compound this with journalistic narrative through the eyes of the contact linguist, Marius Thorndyke—his detached reflections on contact with the aliens and their world gradually liquefy to subjectively taint or purify the understanding of his own nature. Is the symptom of difficulty in integrating a prognosis of his inability to grasp their evasive alienness, or is it his incapacity to relate the experience of their alienness to his own nature?

The Eye of the Queen is one of the most powerful portrayals of the difficulty of understanding an alien race and humankind’s reflective struggle to integrate into their understanding of themselves.

Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day (1984)

Apocalyptic stories have become fashionable thanks to the popularity of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Holocaust by nuclear destruction is often a theme in these stories of human apocalypse, where humanity struggles with radiation, mutation, starvation, and roving bands of those who have chosen to digress.

Where War Day differs is in its foci; rather than center on the general decay of humanity and the local dissolution of common ways, Strieber and Kunetka—both as authors and as narrators, uniquely enough—tour the lands of post-nuclear America in order to capture the state of the people, the state of the land, and the state of the future. The book opens with Strieber’s words: “The survivor’s tale is the essential document of our time” (3). And so, the entire novel follows this announcement just as even these first words follow the dedication of the novel:

This book is respectfully dedicated to
October 27, 1988,
the last full day of the old world.

Nor is this account of the aftermath merely a snapshot of what ensued after America’s rain of nukes, but it is also a report on what could have happened during the insane icy relationship between the USA and the USSR. It’s important not to forget that embarrassing part of our shared history—nuclear war was always a near-at-hand reality for much the twentieth century and War Day captures that what if? in shared objective and journalistic circumspect and the subjective swath of human experience through the eyes and fingers of Strieber and Kunetka.

No other nuclear novel, other than Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), captures the technical and human elements of nuclear war as well as War Day. It’s not only a great novel, but a document of could have happened.

Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas (1987)

Algis Budrys once referred to Greg Bear and Gregory Benford as the “Killer Bs” after they each wrote a novel based on Asimov’s Foundation universe (the Second Foundation Trilogy). With Bear and Benford being sympathetic fellows, they included David Brin—who also wrote a Second Foundation novel—into their Killer B brotherhood. Budrys, Bear, Benford, and Brin: that makes four Bs from America, sadly forgetting their cousin across the Atlantic Ocean—Iain M. Banks.

While the original Killer Bs are all notable authors of science fiction through the 1980s and 90s, none of them had a style coined after their surname—that accolade is given to Banks, whose Banksian style is infused with far-flung future, galaxy-spanning utopian civilizations. This Banksian science fiction began in 1987 with his first SF novel Consider Phlebas (though his first novel was the non-genre but still fantastic Wasp Factory [1984]). This salvo of a novel was the first shot of many across a quarter of a century (1987-2012) and acted as the impetus for modern British Space Opera.

This landmark novel established an expectation for every novel that Banks would ever publish, but frustratingly for some readers, Banks would not always stick to this formula of success. Regardless of whether he wrote a Culture or stand-alone novel, each was infused with a remarkable wit that pushed the boundaries of dark humor. Consider Phlebas is a detailed landscape of universe building (for the then upcoming Culture series), a foray into the darkly humorous mind of Banks, and a thrilling adventure through both—the Culture and of Banks.

More on that:, Speculition, Aerin, and ISFDB

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992)

He was not the first or the last to write a novel taking place on Mars, but readers of science fiction can’t talk about Martian stories without mentioning Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s not only a pivotal novel for SF, but it also happens to be a pivot for NASA’s exploration for Mars. In the same month as the book’s release (September), NASA’s Mars Observer was lost; prior to this, the last visit was in 1975… but after Robinson’s novel, fourteen missions have been launched.

Everyone who has read the Mars trilogy is familiar with the names John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Hiroko Ai, and Desmond “Coyote” Hawkins. These characters become a part of your life when you read the trilogy; they are of utmost importance to the novels, to the future history, that almost physically manifest themselves to the reader. Even years after reading the novels, you can still feel the tension and hope, the expectations and regrets. As these characters develop into their future selves, one character evolves on a more epochal scale—Mars.

The idea of colonizing Mars has been done before and after Red Mars; so has the theme of terraforming Mars, but watching the transformation of Mars through the trilogy is a spectacle in itself. What’s beautiful (yes, beautiful) about it is that Mars isn’t becoming more Earth-like, rather it’s maturing into its own form with a helping hand from the characters mentioned. And like the shift in its once lethal gaseous atmosphere, so too does the Martian constitution evolve from toxic anarchy to fertile progress.

I can’t be alone is thinking that I would shorten my own life to see another book in the sequence, something that, as a connoisseur of novels, I loathe to hear anyone saw about any novel I cherish.

John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997)

When it comes to literary SF, a few names immediately come to mind: J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, and Gene Wolfe. But… did you know that John Updike wrote a novel in 1997 that takes place in the year 2020? It stands as one of his few SF stories but, golly gee willikers, it captures one aspect of humanity that a few novels have attempted but they haven’t quite created such a picturesque snapshot as Updike has written—the elderly dealing with change.

As Updike aged, so did his characters; lecherous yet inflective, the archetypical male were represented as the same character and were never bound by time, be it Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run (1960), Joey Robinson in Of the Farm (1965) or Ben Turnbull in Toward the End of Time (1997). Toward the end of Updike’s own era, his characters took on the misery of hopeless nostalgia as a symptom of their inability to cope with changing times.

In Updike’s 2020, nuclear war with China has changed the American way of life and, rather than gripe and moan about it all, Ken Turnbull attempts to adapt at the age of sixty-six. His adaptations to the new reality have mixed success, but as circumstances keep altering against his will, he’s unable to adjust. There on, Ken experiences alternate realities where life could have taken him, unreliable echoes of his history that cast an uncertain future. Ken’s not even sure which version of his reality is the here and now.

No other SF-esque novel has captured the frail essence of the aging mind in circumstances that would daunt even the soundest of minds. It also happens to have succulently syrupy prose and imagery that stuns the mind.


  1. Glad to see Red Mars made it on your list! As for the others, it looks like I have more catching up to do.

  2. Awesome list and great post! For some reason I thought Red Mars was already in the series or wasn't applicable, but I agree it's a worthy inclusion. Same for Iain Banks. Had not heard of War Day or Eyes of the Queen, but you've sold me there, and the Updike sounds fascinating.

  3. Mann's The Eye of the Queen sounds fantastic. He's on my when I'll read books in the 80s he'll be one of the first list ;)

    Thanks so much for participating!

  4. Phillip Mann is an excellent choice. I really ought to reread his novels one of these days. From memory, I recall being most impressed by Wulfsyarn - although I also like the Story of the Gardener diptych a lot. However... Whitley Streiber? Seriously?

    1. I was also really impressed with Wulfsyarn - been meaning to re-read that for a while now. I've never read anything else Streiber has ever written (though I've bought Nature's Way, which he wrote with Kunetka) because the man's a utter kook (am I, right?). His alien conspiracy stuff I would never touch!

    2. Streiber is a nasty piece of work as well as a kook. I've read his Majestic, and it was absolutely terrible.

  5. Why Consider Plebas? Do you consider it the best sf Banks wrote, or is there another reason? I would have chosen Excession. But I'm sure other Banks' fans would have chosen something different. I know Use of Weapons and The Player of Games are both popular, also...

  6. I've read The Algebraist twice and The State of the Art twice, but everything else only once. I LOVE to re-read everything and suggest the best book, but my gut tells me that Consider Phlebas was the first push to get the ball rolling, therefore setting the standard of Banksian SF.