best of british

So I haven’t posted anything here for nearly a week. There are several reasons: I couldn’t be bothered, I was too tired, I couldn’t think of anything that even I was interested in (let alone in the general interest) and I’ve been reading.

I’ve stumbled across yet another great contemporary British SF writer: Neal Asher. He fits into a pattern I’ve noticed emerging for a while now: most of the great science fiction being written at the moment seems to come from Britain rather than the US. For some reason the American output somehow seems to be stuck in a thematic rut while the British concentrate on mongrelising different genres and twisting new memes out of classical science fiction. It would be no exaggeration to say that all the good science fiction I’ve read in the last two years has been British.

I’ve just finished reading Asher’s The Skinner, and I’m starting on another in his Polity series, Gridlinked. In The Skinner, the action takes place on a planet where the incredibly vicious carnivorous fauna carries a virus that reconfigures the predators' victims to be able to regenerate themselves. This effectively renders the human inhabitants of the planet immortal. (I can’t see how this would work long term - wouldn’t the ecosystem collapse without death and decay? - maybe I’m not thinking here.) A cop who has been dead for seven hundred years (his reanimated corpse augmented with machines) hunts for a genocidal war criminal who appears to have been changed into something less than human (the eponymous Skinner) by his thousand year contact with the virus. There’s much much more to it than this though. Definitely worth a look.

Here’s some more British SF authors of note.

Iain Banks whose Culture series is totally absorbing. Large canvas, titanic egos (particularly among his AI characters, who have believable motivations and a sense of humour of their own) and great stories. All of his are quite good, as are his non-SF novels too. For the SF works, you might as well start with Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel.

Alastair Reynolds, all of whose books are a top quality read. Good ideas, good writing, and interesting characters. Possibly the best author of all those I’ve listed here… try Revelation Space

Peter F. Hamilton, whose most famous work, the Night’s Dawn trilogy, starts out space opera but rapidly changes into something approaching horror as someone accidentally opens a portal allowing the dead to return to possess the living. All of his are worth reading too, but something I’ve noticed is that he seems to have a problem with endings (in the extremely long Night’s Dawn trilogy you get to about fifty pages away from the end and you are wondering how he’s going to tie all this up in time… and he resorts literally to a deus ex machina). Great reading though.

China Mieville, a genre-bender best known for Perdido Street Station. This is set in a massive and corrupt city (reminiscent of London, the setting for his previous King Rat) that has to be read to be believed, a place where (for example) people are punished by being magicked into steam-powered cyborgs. Although seemingly science fictional the technical culture of the city seems to be some sort of post-medieval fantasy era. Highly recommended, as is its sequel, The Scar. Although others have been known to dislike it as much as I like it, so perhaps caution is required. (Update: if you do like these two books, then try Steve Aylett’s (another UK writer) Accomplice series as well. Similar in some ways, except very funny and quite insane.)

Richard Morgan, who is on this list even though I’ve only read one of his two novels. Altered Carbon is a kind of ultra-violent cyberpunk noir detective story - extremely entertaining.

Jeff Noon, whose novels seem a product of the great British recreational dance/drug culture. Post-modern and psychedelic: information technology and communications media re-imagined (it’s actually not too much of a stretch) as psychotropic drugs. Enough multi-syllabic words: try Vurt.

Stephen Baxter, who seems to be the closest to the Americans in style. An ideas man, unfortunately his characterisation is woeful. So much so that when his ideas are epic and mindblowing (as in the Manifold series, particularly Space, his best book and which without a doubt has the biggest canvas of any SF book I’ve read ever) the results are amazing despite the paper-thin characters. But other times he writes utter dreck - e.g., the Mammoth series, which appears to be some sort of pandering to the American fantasy market. Apart from these his novels have all been reasonably good.

I wish I could make a more convincing case for all these guys. But trust me, they are good.

And special thanks to the Wellington Public Library, without which I would have read almost none of these books. I’m a very happy ratepayer, thank-you.

Gathadair @dubh
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