Saturday, October 20, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Shikasta by Doris Lessing

ShikastaThe Book of the Week is the first edition of Shikasta (officially, Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta) by Doris Lessing. This is to honor Ms. Lessing, who last week was declared this year's Nobel Prize winner for Literature. Shikasta is the first in Lessing's five-volume science fiction series Canopus in Argos: Archives, published between 1979 and 1983.

It is refreshing that, unlike many mainstream authors who dabble in science fiction, Doris Lessing makes no attempt to deny she has done so. When asked in a recent interview which of her novels she would like people to read more, she answered, "My science fiction books." She has contrasted the SF genre favorably with literary fiction, much of which she says is "parochial" and "suffocating. " Lessing describes SF as now "the most original branch of literature," declaring that "in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time." Best of all, Doris Lessing is the first Nobel Prize winner for Literature to have been a Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention, at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton, England -- yet another excuse for me to remind you that next year's Worldcon will be here in Denver.

Shikasta is social science fiction set in the far future, dressed up in the form of reports from envoys to another world, a format Lessing may have borrowed from next week's Book of the Week, by an author long overdue for her own Nobel Prize.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Book of the Week is my recently acquired first edition of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, cover art by Gail Geltner. This is the true first edition, published in Canada in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart, which predates the more common 1986 first American edition by Houghton Mifflin. The Handmaid's Tale is a classic of science fiction, set in a future in which the sharply declining birth rate has prompted the government to treat fertile women as chattel and compel them to bear children to men of the state's choosing. The Handmaid's Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for fiction, and was a nominee for the Nebula Award and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year (probably to the author's chagrin as explained below).

Margaret Atwood is one of an ever growing number of acclaimed mainstream authors who occasionally write science fiction. This is hardly surprising, since for an author who has something to say, SF offers a broader range of possible metaphors to make ones point. This year's Pulitzer Prize went to a science fiction novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and just this week the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Doris Lessing, another mainstream writer who often writes SF, including next week's BOTW.

Strangely, many of these authors insist that their works are not science fiction no matter how obvious it is to the rest of us. In denying that her recent novel Oryx and Crake is science fiction, notwithstanding its premise that civilization has been wiped out by a man-made biological catastrophe and all but one of the survivors are genetically engineered post-humans, Margaret Atwood insultingly explained that science fiction is about "talking squids in outer space."

Jeanette Winterson recently took this game to new levels of absurdity, claiming that her new novel The Stone Gods, a love story between a human and a robot traveling to another planet in the far future, is not science fiction. She went so far as to have the characters in the novel insist that science fiction is beneath them, prompting the following wonderful rejoinder from Ursula K. LeGuin. I would say I wish I had written this, but it is even better coming from Ursula LeGuin, an author so outstanding she single-handedly disproves any suggestion that the quality of writing in the science fiction genre is below mainstream standards:

It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction. I can only suppose that Jeanette Winterson is trying to keep her credits as a "literary" writer even as she openly commits genre. Surely she's noticed that everybody is writing science fiction now? Formerly deep-dyed realists are producing novels so full of the tropes and fixtures and plotlines of science fiction that only the snarling tricephalic dogs who guard the Canon of Literature can tell the difference. I certainly can't. Why bother? I am bothered, though, by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow-authors who created it and left it open to all who want to use it. A little return generosity would hardly come amiss.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Legends edited by Robert Silverberg

LegendsContinuing our tribute to Jim Rigney, better known as Robert Jordan (1948-2007), the Book of the Week is the 1998 first edition of Legends, an original anthology edited by Robert Silverberg. This contains the first appearance of "New Spring," a stand-alone novella by Robert Jordan set before the events of his best-selling Wheel of Time series. "New Spring" was later expanded and published in 2004 as a separate novel, a prequel to the main sequence of The Wheel of Time. It spent five weeks in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list, but never hit #1 due to poor timing -- it came out during The Da Vinci Code's long run at #1.

Robert Silverberg designed the two Legends anthologies to showcase some of the most popular secondary worlds in modern fantasy. It is a great way to sample The Wheel of Time before deciding whether to dive in to the series' many thousands of pages. Other very successful fantasy worlds for which Legends provides a nice introduction include Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, and George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.

If the worlds' leading science fiction and fantasy authors will all refrain from dying this week, next week's Book of the Week will begin a survey of some of the most recent additions to my collection. In honor of the American Library Association' s Banned Books Week, we will begin with a novel that (like A Wrinkle in Time, our BOTW three weeks back) ranks high on the list of most frequently challenged books.