Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SF in the UK

Well it's been a big day for me from a blogging standpoint. I had the first comments left on my blog. And from three different people. And one of them was from Neal Asher no less. Having one of my favorite SF authors leave a comment on my blog is very cool and somewhat amazing. I've also learned that he now has a blog on blogger. You can find it here.

In honor of this momentous occasion I decided to write on a topic that's been floating around a bit lately, and will also allow me to sing Mr. Asher's praises at the same time. Namely:

Are all the best Science Fiction writers today from the UK?

And my answer is: Yes, but I could be wrong.

I must qualify my answer because, most of the SF and Fantasy that I've read in the last five years has been written by authors from the UK (or Canada but that doesn't really qualify as UK anymore. Does it?) I just haven't read many American or other non-UK SF writers to really be able to compare. And why is that you ask? It's hard to say. Maybe I'm just not hearing about other writers. Maybe I've become prejudiced.

Here is a list of some of my favorite SF and Fantasy authors from the last five years. In no particular order they are:

Iain M. Banks
China Mieville
Neal Asher
Charles Stross
M. John Harrison
Richard Morgan
Neal Stephenson
Neil Gaiman (lives in the US but born and raised in the UK)

Where do I go when I'm looking for new material to read? Well, the internet primarily. I read lots of reviews at various SF web sites and blogs. I also read Locus magazine. It seems to me that whenever I read a review of a book that sounds interesting to me, invariably the author is from the UK. I don't know why that is. Is there some inherent bias in the reviewers themselves? Do they consciously or unconsciously give UK writers better reviews than their US counterparts. Is there something about British SF that makes it stand out? They don't all write the same kinds of stories. You can't lump all these writers together and say, Oh, that's British SF, and have anyone know what you mean. There's a wide variety of writing styles and sub-genres of SF and Fantasy and UK authors don't all fit neatly into the same one.

I think a lot of it is promotion and some of it is hype. Whenever I'm on line and hear of some hot new author with an eagerly anticipated novel, they usually turn out to be from the UK. Are the UK publicists that good and the ones from the rest of the world inept? Possibly.

Another factor is Amazon. If you order a book from Amazon.co.uk you'll get recommendations from them on other books you might like. These will be predominately British authors. If you purchase those you get more recommendations. It becomes self perpetuating.

One major problem today is that the volume of works being put out is incredible. You can't read everything. You have to pick and choose. How do you choose. Well for me, if I find something I like I stick with it. Meaning, if I read a book by an author I've never read before and I really like it, the first thing I do is go back and read everything he's written before. I read Asher's Gridlinked and was hooked. I then went out and read everything I could find by him. I think I've read them all except Africa Zero and Prador Moon and I've just received them from Amazon so I'm sure I'll be done with them in short order. I know that when the next China Meiville book comes out it will go to the top of my reading list. Because of these habits of mine, I somewhat limit myself in the authors I read. Some of these writers are so prolific that I could spend all my time reading a handful of authors and rarely run out of books.

But what about the books themselves. Most of the ones I've read lately have been great. And while you can't lump them all together there are similarities. Perhaps the hottest or most hyped British authors of the last few years are Charles Stross, Neal Asher and perhaps, Richard Morgan. What do their books have in common.

Well for starters, many of the characters in their books are "enhanced". They're stronger, smarter and have amazing abilities. This is typically achieved either through genetic manipulation (gene splicing), surgery or nanotechnology. These people are superhuman. They have amazing regenerative capacities. It's hard to kill them because with the state of medical science in these systems, almost anything or anyone can be regrown or regenerated. Or if the body fails, the mind can be digitally stored in a computer or downloaded into a new body. In essence, people become immortal. Unless their brains are vaporized and they don't have a backup stored somewhere.

Secondly, most of the worlds are populated with powerful AI's. Super computers who have either achieved sentience or are close to it. They seem to be all powerful and in many cases either run the whole show or are pulling the strings in the background.

Thirdly, in almost every case there is some overriding network or grid. Call it the internet of the future, and everyone is linked in. Only they're not linked by their laptop. They're linked in by augmentations wired directly into their brians. Or by nanomachines that flood their bodies. Or by special glasses or head gear they wear which give them heads up displays of the web and filters all of their perceptions through the grid. This keeps them in contact with the AI's and allows access to almost unlimited information and real time spying on almost anyone, anywhere. As well as holograhphic imaging that allows them to alter their environments to suit their needs, or alter their personal appearance to project an image that they want others to see.

Lastly, nanotechnology is prevalent throughout many of these stories. It seems that anything that can be dreamed of can be created or achieved through nanomachines. This is almost too easy and too convenient. Extruders that can create any object or weapon desired at any time? Nanomachines in the body that can heal any injury no matter how severe? Give me a break. I'ts too easy at times. Make the heroes work for it a little bit, will ya.

There in lies one of my major complaints with the genre. Sometimes the authors focus too much on the technology. They're so intent on coming up with new ideas and unique terminology or language that they forget to focus on the most important thing. The story. And the technology is too amazing. Having difficulty with a plot twist where the protagaonist is in a seemingly impossible, no win situation? Nanotechnology to the rescue! Some authors are more guilty of this than others. While I love Charles Stross, sometimes the "technobabble" can be bewildering. When reading Accelerando, I found myself having to concentrate extremely hard at times just to figure out what he was saying. He would throw so many new terms and new technologies at you that it became overwhelming. I had to try and break down the words into their component parts to deduce what he meant by them. Ususally I could do it but it made for exhausting reading at times. It also made it hard to figure out where the story was headed. I'm still not sure what the whole point of Accelerando was. It seemed more like a series of loosely connected stories, occuring over so many years, with the emphasis shifting so much that the ending had very little to do with the beginning.

In this regard I think Neal Asher is more successful as a writer. He's a better storyteller. Sure, he comes up with many amazing new ideas and new technologies and terminologies, but in the context of each story it all makes sense. The technology enhances the story but doesn't supercede it. His stories all have a discernable plot. There are good guys and there are bad guys, easily recoginzeable (usually). The bad guys have done something bad and the good guys are out to make them pay. The books read like mystery/thriller/spy novels with a final confrontation and a fairly definitive outcome. It makes for more satisfying reading. And that is what most readers want ( unless you're a book critic for the New York Times. In that case you have a disdain for fiction in general). They want a good story. Keep the technobabble at a tolerable level. Give us a page turner that keeps our interest.

Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovach's novels succeed fairly well in that respect. They read a lot like detective novels with a Sci Fi setting, and it works. The ideas and the new tech peak our interest but don't overwhelm the story.

This brings me to the new book by David Marusek: Counting Heads. He's an American author but this book has a lot in common with the aboved mentioned UK authors. The story is full of new ideas and new technologies. At once familiar but with some unique twists. I loved the whole "clone lines" concept with different lines of clones all having the same basic personality traits as their progenitors but each still being individuals. They all had their own names, got married and had personal lives not unlike people today. Except they were all clones. The book was full of nano technology and AI's, in this instance called Mentars, who seemed to be pulling most of the strings in the background. But I felt the plot was somewhat weak. The conclusion was unsatisfying. Too many loose ends. Too many unanswered questions. Maybe this is just the beginning of a long series of books and this is just to set the background. The ending certainly left a lot issues to explore and expand on. I also thought that the character development was lacking. With the exception of the main protagonist, Sam Kodiak, and Fred Lodenstain the Russ clone, we never really got to know anyone very well or understand what their motivations were. And Sam was not the most likable or sympathic character. What happened to him sucked but they way he responded to it and his subsequent actions made him seem more like a loser than a hero. This also raises the question: Just who is the protagonist in this story. It starts with Sam telling the story and occupying much of the book, but after he gets "seared" it seems to shift to Fred who is the major focus of the latter part of the book. This shift between main characters disrupts the narrative flow. And what about Ellen. Much of the book is spent trying to save her life and in the end what does she do. She's only worried about who she's going to cast in the latest holosim and doesn't seem at all intersted in who killed her mother and tried to kill her or what the reasons for this may be. This makes no sense.

Despite all of my perceived faults with the book (and what do I know. I'm not a writer or literary critic). I still enjoyed the book. There was enough innovation and the story was interesting enough to make me want more. For a debut novel it was very strong and I'm sure Marusek , if he continues this story and I think that he should, will expand , develop and refine these ideas and characters, and has the chance to create one of the great SF universes.

What was the point of all of this? Oh yeah. Is British SF better than all the rest? Maybe, maybe not. But it's mostly what I've been reading for the last few years. If anyone can recommend some new, exciting American SF authors I'd gladly give them a try. If David Marusek is any indication, there's a lot of promising talent out there. I just don't know who they are.

With one exception. I love Dan Simmons. He's been around for quite a while but his books keep getting better and better. Not only can he write SF, horror, hardboiled crime novels and main stream novels. The guy can just plain write. His Endymion and Hyperion books, as well as Ilium and Olympos are excellent Sci Fi. I especially love his horror books too. We need more writers with his versatility, whether from the US or the UK.


Blogger Neal Asher said...

I guess it must seem cool to have one of your favourite authors post on your blog. But it's the age we live in. Most authors are now a mouse click away from their fans, and reverse applies too.

3:54 PM  
Blogger hoosierboy said...

Dan Simmons has some Hoosier roots -- he was educated at Wabash College in Crawfordsville.

8:14 AM  

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