So… in the end, a quiet year on the published story front, with two new stories out in the first half.

Still, I’m happy with what’s out there, and happy in the progress I think I’m making in writing at a more consistent level. Happy, really, to be still writing at all, considering the many other much more talented people I’ve known who’ve stumbled upon the rock-strewn way. Happy to be able to pick my own slow path to my own destination, with whoever is willing to come along.

Despite the barren-looking fields, be assured that deep in the earth, there are roots still frantically growing.

“Fallow field” photo by Henry Szabranski

2019 Wrap Up

Not the greatest of years in terms of new stories published, with only two out:

Still, I’m happy with both, and there were also a couple of reprints last year, including my first ever appearance in a “Best Of” anything with 2018’s “The Veilonaut’s Dream”, and also my first ever Chinese translation with the same story. So no complaints really, even though most of the year was spent writing a 15K novelette I poured a lot into, but at that length it’s really very difficult to find a market.

So what will 2020 bring? At least one more new story, the prequel to “Witch of the Weave”, “Climbing the Motherman”, should be out early 2020 in issue #5 of DreamForge Magazine, and I’m close to completing the sequel too, although of course there is no guarantee it will ever get accepted anywhere. Also this year, my story “Against the Venom Tide” should be reprinted in the Rosarium Press “Trouble the Waters” anthology (touch wood).

Any other stories coming out this year? As always: who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

2018 Wrap Up

An odd year. Odd in many ways, not least of which I still consider 2000 to be in the far distant future and how come we’re already at the end of 2018?

Some nefarious plans came to fruition. Others did not. A couple of reprints scheduled to appear didn’t (although they may yet, next year), but some did, with “The Osteomancer’s Husband” featuring in “Diabolical Plots: The First Years”, and “In the Belly of the Angel” in the Metaphorosis 2016 annual anthology. And three new stories came out online, in print, and as podcasts, in some really great venues:

As for next year, at least one new story should be appearing in Kaleidotrope. A tale that when it first started out was about despair and addiction and the physical origins of giants… but in the end turned out to be about something else entirely.

Any other stories coming out next year? As always: who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


On Persistence (Part 2)

I’ve written about persistence before, but it’s a subject I want to return to. See, I’ve been sending stories to Clarkesworld for years now. Because of its fast turnaround time (typically a rejection only takes a couple of days, sometimes even less) it’s one of the first places I and many other writers send a new story. It’s high paying, prestigious, publishes great stories by some of the best writers in the field, has great art direction and production values — why not see if your brand-spanking new story is one Neil Clarke might be interested in before sending it anywhere else? So that’s what I’ve done. Many times. Over the years. 15 times, to be exact. Each time rejected.

Until my sixteenth submission, a few days ago.

Yes, this is a sly way to announce my story “The Veilonaut’s Dream” has been accepted by Clarkesworld. I still can’t quite believe it.

So you — yes you, with your seemingly endlessly growing pile of rejection e-mails — there is hope. If not this story, maybe the next. Keep trying. Keep improving. Stay professional. Read the guidelines. Push on through that dark night of the soul — we all get them, all of us. Try new styles, new subjects, new ideas, new characters. Keep getting feedback, keep an open mind, keep the faith. Because one day… you never know.

(PS. Just make sure it’s not a zombie story.)

“The Long Route to Acceptance”

Flash in the Pan

Almost five years to the day since my first story was published (“Amy’s First” at Daily Science Fiction). As good a time as any to reflect on the path taken and to take a squint at the route ahead (or is it only into my fluff-filled navel? — hmmm, not sure).

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have twenty other stories published in the intervening years. Half in pro-paying markets, the rest in semi-pro or token; about half flash, the rest short stories and a novelette. I’ve been privileged to share ToCs with writers I’ve admired since I was a child, and I’ve been published in markets that folded shortly after my story appeared. I’ve had acceptances on first submission in less than a day, and I’ve had stories rejected over thirty times and over the course of many years before they were finally published. I’ve been paid on acceptance and never paid. I’ve had complimentary mail, messages and tweets from total strangers and I’ve had stories utterly ignored. I’ve had stories edited to an inch of their lives, and (mostly) I’ve had stories completely untouched.

Verdict? I still feel I’m very much a beginner, wandering about in the foothills. Possibly lost. Possibly making progress. Possibly just covering necessary ground to get to where I need to go. So many markets and types of stories I still aspire to that I lack the skill and courage to even attempt. Still so many stories in my trunk that I really like, but I don’t know how to fix. I can’t even tell whether they are fixable or not. So the submission process remains largely a matter of throwing stuff out and seeing what sticks. Or not. No magic secret revealed apart from sheer persistence and constantly striving to improve.

I’ve deliberately moved away from writing flash length pieces, for the time being. Nothing wrong with flash — such stories can pack a mighty punch — but it’s currently the longer lengths that I find most challenging and satisfying to work on. Consequently the more difficult to place. And I’m OK with that. That’s where I need the practice. Where I need to improve. Where I need to spend the time, no matter how long it takes.

Because don’t kid yourself. This is a long, long game.

(Which isn’t a game.)

And perhaps, one day… the novel, again.


Acceptable in the 1980s (Part 2)

So here is Part 2 of the list of ten books I read during the 1980s that for one reason or other have stuck with me to the present. (See here for Part 1.) I noted previously that the entries so far were exclusively by white male American authors… time for a break from that, surely?

DreamsnakeVonda McIntyre – “Dreamsnake”

A book difficult to summarise, one that left impressions and memories of moments rather than grand sweeps of plot and conflict. And very different from the visions of glittering hardware so prevalent in most other SF at the time. Snake, the protagonist, is a healer travelling in a post-apocalyptic world, making use of her genetically modified and alien snakes to help those in need. Her quest is not one of earth-shattering consequence, but it’s of important to her — to replace her murdered dreamsnake so she can provide relief from pain to her patients. This is a story about society, about the internal journey, about people.

Gate of IvrelC. J. Cherryh – “Gate of Ivrel”

Hugely prolific, many of C. J. Cherryh’s books dominated the store bookshelves of the early- to mid-80s, “Downbelow Station” probably being chief amongst them. But I mostly remember her first novel, “Gate of Ivrel” (actually first published in 1976). It turned the tables on standard F&SF gender roles, with the male Vanye being the frustrated companion to Morgaine’s enigmatic champion (in Moorcockian terms). I also remember many of the characters having motivations and agendas that appeared ambiguous and difficult to fathom. I had to think. Who did I trust? Who was telling the truth? What people said and how they acted didn’t necessarily match — a very valuable lesson.

The StandStephen King – “The Stand”

Uh oh. Back to the white US male dominance again.

So, growing up, horror never really appealed to me all that much… garish covers of giants slugs, crabs, or half-melted human faces… no thanks! But then I caught the TV adaptation of “Salem’s Lot” — the one with David Soul and James Mason — and I knew this was a book and an author I would have to read. From “Lot” to the “The Shining” and then to “The Stand”. For most authors just the initial premise of a virus devastating the human population would have been enough to fill an entire book, but King goes beyond that, to a climactic confrontation between “good” and “evil”, with one of the most memorable deus ex machina resolutions ever. The novel’s true power lies in its characters, of course, each faced with multiple opportunities to change their destiny from damnation to salvation (and visa versa), and the reader caring about the outcome. Neat trick. Like GRRM, another up-and-coming author to keep an eye on.

WindhavenGeorge R. R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle – “Windhaven”

GRRM’s first appearance in this list (and second overall), here along with Lisa Tuttle is — shock! — a tri-part tale of high hopes, dashed dreams, a life made worthwhile despite (and perhaps even because of) tragic events and unexpected defeats. “Windhaven” is basically a tale of class warfare, the struggle between those with talent and ambition but no means, versus the entitled flyers who inherit their privilege — in this case the right to own artificial wings which allow them to travel across Windhaven’s vast stretches of ocean. An age old tale with far-reaching appeal, but certainly not simplistic: unintended consequences, setbacks, and complications abound, with eventual “success” only achieved at the expense of struggle, loss, sacrifice, and compromise.

Fevre DreamGeorge R. R. Martin – “Fevre Dream”

In my considered opinion, possibly the only vampire novel you’ll ever need to read. The whole trope has been so bombed out recently that reading it now it could appear derivative, but remember it predates the recent run of movies and TV series. “Dream” basically explores every reasonable permutation of the sparkly vs non-sparkly vampire conflict: vampires as unthinking beasts that consider humans their cattle to feed on as and when they desire vs vampires as enlightened rational beings struggling to uplift their kind against their nature. So: no more need for “The Vampire Diaries”. Plus! Paddle steamers, ugly person ennui, gumbo! GRRM’s best novel, IMHO.

The Many-Coloured LandJulian May – “The Many-Colored Land”

Heavily promoted at the time as the first part in a ground-breaking epic trilogy (which, of course, later grew to more than three books), I fell for the marketing and cool cover… and found to my surprise that actually, yes, this was something I hadn’t seen before – science fiction but with epic fantasy/fairytale overtones. Starting in the future, it fairly swiftly and decisively shifts to the far past — the Pliocene Era — where a ragbag band of human exiles twine through their various character arcs alongside the Tanu (read: elves) and the Firvulag (read: dwarves), who also happen to inhabit that distant time. It’s pretty kooky, but the setting and the various soap-opera like developments for the diverse cast grips and gives the story impetus that almost lasts for the whole of the first trilogy.

The Black CompanyGlen Cook – “The Black Company”

I first encountered Croaker and the Black Company in the pages of F&SF. Only much later did I realise that initial story had been expanded to a novel (and, inevitably, into a whole series). I loved the Black Company’s camaraderie, their deadpan humour, their grim understatement. It felt very real(istic). “The Black Company” highlighted the importance of names (such great names: Croaker, Limper, Raven, Darling…) and the gamifying allure of enumerated groups (something Tolkien and Moorcock had obviously taken advantage of long before, but which I had never really been conscious of): the Ten Who Were Taken, the Circle of Eighteen, etc., immediately creating a plot punch list of escalating opponent encounters.

Mythago WoodRobert Holdstock – “Mythago Wood”

The first novel I read of Holdstock’s was the criminally under-rated “Where Time Winds Blow” — a sort of temporal version of Pohl’s “Gateway” — and I knew immediately that as the buzz around “Mythago Wood” grew it would need to be added to my TBR list. “Wood” is a very different novel from “Time Winds”, but they are both very British, confounding the expectations of a simple quest-driven plot (although there are certainly elements of that), or a neat and tidy conclusion. Nor are there too many elements shared with Enid Blyton’s “Far Away Tree”. “Mythago Wood” is its own thing, and you may only successfully approach it on its own terms, a singularity hidden deep within the heart of ancient English woodland, inhabited by… well, who knows what?

NeuromancerWilliam Gibson – “Neuromancer”

What list of SF in the 80s can be complete without mention of “Neuromancer”? None! I first encountered William Gibson’s writing in the monthly glossy Omni, with his “Johnny Mnemonic”. That story’s streetwise “razorgirl” Molly Millions went on to feature in “Neuromancer”, and despite the battle between the Wintermute and Neuromancer AIs having dated somewhat, at the time it seemed punky, urban, gritty, ground-breaking and there’s no doubt it helped spawn a host of imitators and what went on to become a decade-defining subgenre. My day job now involves plenty of exposure to evil corporate mainframes… and I can tell you, “Neuromancer” they are not.

HyperionDan Simmons – “Hyperion”

My first encounter with Simmon’s writing was “Song of Kali”, a grim and gritty travelogue urban horror, as well as some of his great short stories (“Metastasis”, “Iverson’s Pits”, etc.). Then there was a fairly long gap, and then suddenly he seemed to re-explode onto the scene, with his gripping thriller “Carrion Comfort” and terrifying “It” tribute, “Summer of Night”. But it’s his “Hyperion Cantos” that he’s best known for, and deservedly so. “Hyperion” is loosely structured along the lines of The Canterbury Tales, a series of narrated, interwoven tales by a variety of characters travelling to the mysterious Time Tombs on the planet of Hyperion. Sense of wonder galore here, as Simmons targets organised religion and human hubris.

Life During WartimeLucius Shepard – “Life During Wartime”

And so we close with Lucius Shepard’s second novel. A hallucinatory, largely plotless novel where reality and hallucination intertwine. Like many of the authors featured here, I think Shepard’s short stories are stronger than his novel work, with such classics as “Mengele”, “R & R”, “The Jaguar Hunter”, “Kalimantan”… not to mention his sequence of tales set in and around the gigantic corpse of the Dragon Griaule…  all packing one hell of a moral punch. But “Wartime”, I think, perfectly captures a moment, just before the 1990s, a transition from one decade to another, a point where the 80s, for me, came to an end.

So. That was my 80s. Spanning my nerdy teenage years in Thatcherite Britain to university and beyond. My personal reading golden age. How could the Nineties possibly compare?

Acceptable in the 1980s (Part 1)

So, as promised, here are ten books that I read during the 1980s that for one reason or other have stuck with me to the present. (Note that I read them in that decade, not that they were necessarily published in that decade.) They’re not necessarily the best books I read in the 80s. They’re not necessarily ones I would recommend you read. Some of them I’ve not even read since, so I’m writing about my possibly rose-tinted recollection of them rather than the reality. And there were, of course, so many, many others from about the same time, all with a various impact, far too many to mention in the space and time available.

The Source of MagicPiers Anthony – “The Source of Magic” 

Oh crikey, it’s a Piers Anthony book. You may snurk, but actually I read of lot of Piers Anthony in the 1980s. There were certainly a lot of his books and series around: Macroscope, Chthon, Pthor, the Battle Circle trilogy, the Manta trilogy, the Kirlian Quest series, the Apprentice Adept series, etc…. the guy’s nothing if not prolific.

In time honoured tradition I began his Xanth trilogy (yes, it was a trilogy, back then) with its second instalment. I loved “The Source of Magic” — a quest to find the source of magic itself! I loved “Source”‘s posse of goofy characters, the world building, yes I even loved the punnery. Hey. I was 12.

"Titan"John Varley – “Titan”

Now we’re getting into my tweenage years and beyond. I’d graduated from the local high street’s W. H. Smith’s SF, F & H section to that hardcore genre stalwart, Andromeda, situated in its early years in the shady part of Birmingham town centre, sandwiched between a porn shop and a bookies. And here at last I found I could buy copies of Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, etc. Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of SF had already pointed me towards Varley’s first novel “The Ophuichi Hotline” but, as with GRRM’s writing, I was drawn to Varley primarily through his short fiction: “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank”, “Air Raid”, “Press Enter” and other such classics. It was in the pages of Analog, in fact, that I read the first chapters of “Titan”, then waited impatiently for the book: another quest plot, a climb from the perimeter of a colossal structure towards its centre in a search of salvation and answers. Unfortunately, now that probes and Hubble have resolved the titular moon in more detail, the novel’s central conceit has dated fatally. But I still remember “Titan” and its sequels fondly.

The Shadow of the TorturerGene Wolfe – “The Shadow of the Torturer”

I learnt of “The Shadow of the Torturer” (the first volume in the classic tetralogy known collectively as “The Book of the New Sun”) via an Arrow book marketing mail shot. And Bruce Pennington’s cover immediately sold it to me: the archetypal man in hood artwork, available as a poster that I immediately sent off for. Other boys my age had photos of footballers or pop stars adorning their bedroom walls — I had this cover. Severian’s journey isn’t as straightforward a read as that epic fantasy cover may suggest — it was something of a shock to deal with Gene Wolfe’s uncompromising show-never-tell prose and stories within stories, layers within layers, the future and the past interleaved. On finishing “Torturer” I thought — what the hell just happened? The next three books received the same reaction. And I still feel the same way. Surely the sign of a classic, no?

Larry Niven – “Ringworld”"Ringworld"

“Protector”, “A Gift From Earth”, “Neutron Star”, “The World of Ptaavs”…drawn in by the lush Orbit paperback covers and all eminently collectable, “Ringworld” was by no means my first Niven. Not just his novels, but his short stories abounded too (“Inconstant Moon” is a classic). But I guess it’s inevitable “Ringworld” has to be the one entry to represent his work: probably his best known novel, a prime example of the Big Dumb Object story (see also “Rendezvous With Rama” from Acceptable In The 1970s, “Orbitsville” by Bob Shaw, “Eon” by Greg Bear, etc.). I remember precious little of the characters, even much of the plot (such as it was), but the technology and the mind-bending sensawunda remain. Shame about the cover, though.

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – “The Mote in God’s Eye”

The Mote in God's EyeContinuing with the hard SF kick we segue into borderline military SF, with Niven the gateway drug to Pournelle.

“The Mote In God’s Eye”, with it portentous Biblical title, positively glows with sensawunda and the full-on joy of discovery as it explores the well-worn trope of the principled scientist types versus the grizzled military hardliners. I actually do remember something about the characters here, so it’s not all spaceships, aliens and dry exposition (although there is some of that). The surprise, at the end, is that “Mote” subverts the expectation of most (left-leaning liberal type, like me) readers — the alien Moaties actually do turn out to be a threat to humankind, though more subtle than imagined. Perhaps that’s why — along with its kick-ass title — it continues to remain so popular.

Joe Haldeman – “The Forever War”The Forever War

I needed an antidote to all this tech-driven gung-ho SF – the next two entries provided it.

“The Forever War” is unambiguous as to who is at fault in the war between humans and the Taurans. We are — specifically the aged Vietnam vet generals who plunge the two species into conflict with their presumption of alien hostility and their “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. The book is highly episodic (it was originally published as a series of instalments in Analog), but that suits the time-warped nature of the war as the protagonist finds himself jumping through centuries of elapsed Earth time due to the relativistic effects of space travel. Haldeman’s own wartime experiences obviously inform the portrayal of the ambiguous, ridiculous, cruel and often unintended consequences of war, lending it a rare feeling of authenticity. As with other authors in this list, Haldeman’s short stories are also excellent, and his second novel “Mindbridge”, which experimented with form and narrative structure, was also hugely influential.

Frederik Pohl – “Gateway”

GatewayMore hard SF! Black holes! Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity! Black holes! Psychiatry! Felatio! What’s not to like about “Gateway”?

Again sensawunda and the sense of scale in time and space, of discovery, abounds, but so does the grit and the experimentation with structure and chronology. The narrator struggles with post traumatic survivor guilt as he recounts how he and his crewmates risked their lives on board the ancient alien ships launched from the Gateway asteroid to predetermined but unknown and very possibly dangerous distant locations, hunting for alien Heechee artefacts.

The later sequels reveal too much about the Heechee and deflate the initial premise, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Gateway” was a genre game-changer.

Right then, so that’s half of my ten from the 80s. So far it looks pretty white, American, and male. Will Part 2 be any better? Tune in to see.

The Devil’s Waltz

My horror short story “The Velna Valsis” has been accepted by Fantasy Scroll Magazine and, touch wood, should be out later this year. Although the image below wasn’t part of the story’s origin (I came across it on the interwebs long after I had finished “Valsis” and sent it out on submission), I immediately thought of that dark, dark little story when I saw it… 


Acceptable In The 1970s

A number of memes have gone round recently about “your top 10 (favourite/influential/memorable/whatever) books”. I’ve generally ignored these — they’re so frustratingly reductive — but in the end I’ve given in. Because who doesn’t like making lists? Or lists of lists?

So here are ten books that I read in the latter part of the 1970s that for one reason or other have stuck with me to the present. (Note that I read them in that decade, not that they were necessarily published in that decade.) They’re not necessarily the best books I read in the 70s. They’re not necessarily ones I would recommend you read. Some of them I’ve not even read since, so I’m writing about my possibly rose-tinted recollection of them rather than the reality. And there were, of course, so many, many others from about the same time, all with a various impact, far too many to mention: I was a voracious reader, and there’s no time or place here to mention Alan Garner or Tove Jansson or Joan Aiken and many others. In future posts I’ll move onto the 80s, 90s, and so on. But you have to start somewhere. And so, in no particular order, here’s a list of books that were bobbing about in the primordial genre soup I was first steeped in, starting with:

J. R. R. Tolkien – “The Lord of the Rings”

Yup. Sorry. Did I mention I was boringly conventional? And unashamedly genre-orientated? Afraid so. “The Hobbit” first got me hooked, at age eight, but if there’s only going to be one entry per author, for Tolkien LotR has to be it. As soon as I finished “The Hobbit” I desperately wanted to step up to that big-ass trilogy of his I’d spotted on the local library shelves, but frustratingly “The Fellowship of the Ring” was always out on lend. After a year or so of waiting I eventually gave in and borrowed “The Two Towers”. It had a synopsis after all, so how much could I have possibly missed? So my LotR experience began very much in media res: I read the last two volumes first, and only much later did the pesky readers of Erdington, Birmingham, afford me the chance to catch up on how the trip to Mordor started out. For much of my life, if anyone asked me what my favourite book was, “The Lord of the Rings” was my automatic response. Now I hesitate a bit, but those few weeks in 1977 spent travelling with Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom — to the soundtrack of Manhattan Transfer’s “Chanson d’Amour”, which seemed to play incessantly on the radio every day — will stay with me forever.

Richard Adams – “Watership Down”

A picture of a cute bunny rabbit on the cover. How harmless could the contents be? I can’t remember exactly what first attracted me to “Watership Down” — whether it was a recommendation or the back blurb or whatever. It certainly wasn’t the cover, with its obvious lack of either a spaceship or a dragon. But as the gas hit the warren in the first few pages, it soon became clear this book was about life and death, about (human) nature red in tooth and claw. I was sucked into Fiver and company’s at times surreal quest to find a new home. And it introduced me for the first time to what is now my very good and somewhat over-familiar friend: deus ex machina.

As soon as I was done with “Watershed Down” I immediately progressed to Adam’s darker and more adult, more brutal, “Shardik”, which forever embedded in my mind the image of a man’s face being torn off by a bear’s claws. Which I guess is totally fine and healthy for a ten year old. [NB: My father often used to comment on the cover for “Shardik”. Because in his time in the army he used to play wrestle with and sleep beside a bear. But that’s another story for another time.]

Susan Cooper – “The Dark Is Rising”

Well crikey — you really can’t beat that title for a hook, can you? The stakes all laid out there, right at the beginning. But the real secret to the success of Cooper’s work is its grounding in reality, in its loving detail of domestic comfort and familial familiarity. That’s why when the magic and mystery intrude, it’s both striking and believable at the same time. This is urban/rural fantasy at its finest, where the walls between worlds are both distant and close, strange and familiar. I could be Will Stanton. You could be Will Stanton. The battle between the Light and Dark is right here, right now, our modern world nestling in a far more ancient landscape than most of us choose to recognise. Cooper’s ability to evoke that old green wildness is second to none.

Michael Moorcock – “The Bull And The Spear”

Moorcock. Sounds dark. Vaguely sinister. Even a little transgressive. And with so many books to that name … where was I to start? Well, now that I had lost my fear of starting in mid-series — anywhere! “The Bull And the Spear” was my first Moorcock, but the fourth instalment in his Corum sequence. (To be fair, it was the first in a second trilogy.) I can’t remember too much about it now, other than the roaring green dragon on the cover, the wintry mist and the wolves in marsh, and Moorcock’s magnificent villain: Gaynor the Damned, with his hollow, colour-changing armour and bitter, maniacal humour — but I do remember the feeling of having made a profound discovery. This was my gateway to the Multiverse. To the never-ending war between Law and Chaos; the Eternal Champion and his companion in their many guises. The earlier Corum “Swords” trilogy, Hawkmoon, Elric, The Dancers at the End of Time, et al,… all soon followed. And I was hooked.

Ursula K. Le Guin – “The Wizard of Earthsea”

A different type of fantasy to Tolkein and Moorcock. Lyrical, allegorical, parable-like — and just as gripping and entertaining. “Wizard of Earthsea” may have been about magic, but it was also magical itself.

I sort of figured out the name of Ged’s shadow from the very start — but that didn’t matter. The story is the journey, not the destination. Later “The Tombs of  Atuan” taught me that sequels can be oblique, need not immediately feature the hero of the predecessor novel, that they could stand as works in their own right. “The Farthest Shore” showed me that the stakes can always be raised, that the setting be utterly different, that characters can age and change and be both foolish and wise.

John Christopher – “The White Mountains”

I’m not sure whether the “The White Mountains” — the first instalment of Christopher’s classic Tripods Trilogy — was my first encounter with his work. It may have been “The Prince In Waiting”, or even “The Lotus Caves”, but “The White Mountains” certainly had the most lasting impact. The sense of young teenage alienation, of the wilful and impulsive protagonist, the edge of paranoia and injustice, caught me just at the right age. Plus! Giant marching machines! Tentacles! Ruined cities! Such a great little book. And “The City of Gold and Lead” one of the great escape from captivity tales that the denouement “The Pool of Fire” would always have difficulty to top. But that final book’s epilogue — the return of squabbling nations after the defeat of their common enemy — remains prescient to this day. It disapoints me greatly these books are no longer in print. They seem more relevant now than ever.

Isaac Asimov – “The Caves of Steel”

By this time I was unleashed from the library (although I always kept returning to it). It was in in the local High Street W. H. Smith‘s tiny SF section that you would now find me with my fifty pence weekly pocket-money gripped in my sweaty little pre-teenage fist. I’m not exactly sure if “Caves” was my first Asimov. Possibly it may have been the short story collection “I, Robot”. But I think it was this. Because look at that amazing Chris Foss cover. Now that I had begun to buy books, my collector instinct cut in. At that time Panther UK had a whole series of similarly packaged Asimov titles all with covers by Foss: I had to buy them all, and I pretty well much did. (The Foss covers even tempted me into forays into the likes of E. E. “Doc” Smith — but I soon learned that not all content was created equal.) “The Stars Like Dust”, “The Currents of Space”, “The End of Eternity”, the amazing triptych cover for the “Foundation” trilogy… I got ’em all. Asimov’s commentary and biographical notes in his story collections and “Golden Age” anthologies basically informed my (naive) understanding of the SF field at the time.

Frank Herbert – “Dune”

A monster of a book. Not sure how I first heard about “Dune”. I suspect its sheer width on the bookshelf and the cover art by Bruce Pennington caught my eye. From the opening pages with Paul Atreides facing the Gom Jabbar it had me in its thrall. Despite all the interstellar political intrigue and complex tapestry of its worldbuilding, the secret to Dune’s success remained, to me, its very human focus, on Paul’s journey from privilege to fugitive, from rebel to messiah. Something fairly quickly lost in the numerous sequels (I didn’t get much far beyond “Children of Dune”). But I’ll never forget that first thrilling encounter with the Shai-Hulud.

Robert Heinlein – “Glory Road”

Certainly not Heinlein’s best, or the first book of his I read. “Starman Jones”, I think, was that. Followed by “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, which probably went over my head at the time. Then “Starship Troopers”, “The Puppet Masters”, “Farnham’s Freehold’ (oh God), etc. So how come “Glory Road” wins over, for instance, “Stranger In A Strange Land”? Well, although the latter was certainly more affecting at the time, the simplicity of “Road”‘s quest plot has stuck with me. Set a goal. Add a companion. Skew from the known world. Throw in adversity. It’s time-honoured and bare-boned, but it’s a structure I simply cannot resist.

Is “Road” problematic? I haven’t read it since that first time, but even from memory I suspect it is. Would I read it or recommend it again? Probably not. I suspect my memory of it is better than the reality.

Anne McCaffrey – “Dragonsinger”

Again the covers drew me. Dragons! Again, I started mid-series, with “Dragonquest”, followed by the somewhat flaccid “The White Dragon”, before returning to the original “Dragonflight”. And in the parallel Harper Hall trilogy, I began with “Dragonsinger” instead of “Dragonsong”…but it’s “Dragonsinger” that has stuck with me. A simple YA story of the talented but overlooked Menolly, who struggles to achieve a measure of justice over her spiteful classmates: a masterclass in emotional button-pushing. Alongside McAffrey’s more adult “Restoree”, this was one of the few books from that era I read which contained a strong female protagonist. Speaking of which…

Robert C. O’Brien – “Z For Zachariah”

Z Is For ZachariahMy sister handed me this book, said it was brilliant and that I should read it. She was right: it was brilliant! But also, frankly, terrifying! Full of nail-biting tension as the initially ambiguous invader in Ann Burden’s post-apocalyptic valley becomes increasingly deranged and threatening. Although I’ve forgotten many of the details of the plot now, this story’s bittersweet yet hopeful ending has stuck with me.

Harry Harrison – “The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge”

Voice! The importance of voice! That’s what Harrison’s “Rat” taught me. And what a voice Slippery Jim diGriz has — confident, rakish, and not entirely reliable. Of course I started with the sequel to “The Stainless Steel Rat”, “Revenge”, and I still remember it well, as I was laid up in bed with my foot throbbing from having a liquid nitrogen-cooled probe pressed against it (that’s how they used to treat a verruca in those days). The Rat’s capture and torture and subsequent escape from the grey men had me riveted, and I remembered that long after the pain in my foot had faded away.

Arthur C. Clarke – “Rendezvous With Rama”

One of my first encounters with a “Big Dumb Object” storyline — but what an encounter! Later on there would be “Ringworld” and “Orbitsville” and “Titan” and “Eon”(one or more of which may feature in my subsequent “Acceptable in the 1980s” post), but first there was Rama.

Of the characters I can recall hardly anything, but of Rama itself, and the sensawunda it instilled… that remains. That, and the lesson that you can knock out the reader with a single closing line.

Clarke’s “2001”, “Childhood’s End”, and “The City and the Stars” cemented his position as one of the triumvirate which ruled 70s SF: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke.

Roger Zelazny – “Nine Princes in Amber”

Another multiverse this, with all creation a fluid concertina of worlds betwixt the poles of Amber and the Courts of Chaos. Like Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” and Heinlein’s “Glory Road”, “Princes” begins in our familiar world, but rapidly morphs into a tale of multidimensional pursuit, treachery, intrigue, and filial conflict. Corwin’s character shines right through and is the core of this book. And what I particularly liked about this first instalment of what I later learned was actually a sprawling saga, was how it closed on such an open-ended note, with anything possible but nothing else required. The perfect end. The perfect start. The later books always seemed like something of an addendum — but what an addendum. For some reason they were difficult to find, so again I found myself having to read them out of sequence as and when I could lay my hands on them, and it took me many years to finally reach the Courts of Chaos. Which somehow seems appropriate.

Robert E. Howard – “Conan The Something”

Please. Don’t judge me. I’m a child of the 70s. It was Frazetta’s pulpy art that drew me into the Conan series, and the collectable nature of the books that were soobviously meant to be gathered together to sit as legion on your bookshelf.

Even at that age, I found the adverb-dense, melodramatic prose and the unsubtle, often racist characterisation problematic. But there were flashes, here and there, an emergent dark magic, descriptions of a mysterious valley, an abandoned citadel, a decadent city, where Conan himself was little more than a bewildered animalistic force of nature…that occasionally actually matched the magic of the covers.

George Lucas – “Star Wars” 

Wait — what? Isn’t “Star Wars” supposed to a movie experience, not a book? Well…not for me. Not at first. Long before I saw the film, queueing round the block with my brother at the Birmingham city centre Odeon, “Star Wars” was to me a novel. Purchased from a Safeway’s supermarket, as I recall, and its tiny SF section at the time. I wasn’t too sure about the title screaming out at me in bold red from that white cover, but there were definitely spaceships exploding in the background and that vaguely simian-looking chap with the triangular mouth in the background looked very intriguing.

I read the novel months before the film was released in the UK, and to a large extent the film was, after all the pre-release hype, something of a let down, as I sat in the theatre and mentally checked off the scenes that appeared in the book. In the end, I thought the film a fair adaptation of the book.

Robert Holdstock (ed) – “The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction”

Lushly and lavishly illustrated, unashamedly orange, this huge hardback 1970s Christmas present was to become my faithful guide to new horizons and new voices in the SF & F field. Alongside Asimov’s “Golden Age” anthologies, this tome gave a historical and critical perspective to the genre I was becoming increasingly familiar with. It pointed out exciting new authors and works for me to try and track down, as well as giving the background to my current reading at the time.

If there was any one book that tipped me over from being a casual reader into being that strange creature known as a “fan”, then I guess this was it.

George R. R. Martin – “The Dying of the Light”

…And finally.  From the recommendation in Holdstock’s Encyclopaedia (see above) I began to seek out Martin’s work. I was blown away by his short stories, by “A Song For Lya” in particular (still one of my favourites), many of his others from around that time. Martin’s first novel is a flawed affair, but all the ingredients that make his Song of Ice and Fire so successful are present here: honour, family, tradition, doomed love on a dying world, sacrifice, visceral action. Martin, even then, was obviously an up-and-coming young author. One to keep an eye on.

Hmmm. Did I say ten books? The list appears to have grown. Never mind. Maybe I’ll stick to that number when I go for my next nostalgic trawl, this time through the 1980s.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though.