Recent SF: Hidden Gems from Mainstream Publishers

There are tons of science fiction and fantasy publishers these days. From Tor to Orbit, Del Rey to Night Shade Books, EOS, ACE, Solaris, etc, chances are you’re familiar with at least a few of these. Some of the SF publishers you’re familiar with are independent, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of them are owned by just five publishing houses (the big five).

As readers, we become familiar with the names of these publishers and trust them as marks of quality or as indicators that we might like a new book. I have particularly loved recent titles from Orbit and Tor, whose books have deservedly dominated the Hugo, Nebula and Locus award nominations and winners in the last few years. The flip side of this affinity for the same few publishers is that a lot of great SF novels published by non SF imprints can go under noticed by the SF community.

There have been several terrific recent science fiction and fantasy novels from mainstream literary imprints and independent publishers that I think deserve much more attention than they received. I’ve put this list together to remind readers that there is quality SF all over the place. Most of the books in this list are still from the big five, but I’ve included some from smaller, independent publishers as well. They are all wonderfully well rounded stories, told through beautiful language. Hopefully you’ll find something you like, or maybe even a new favorite. Enjoy!

Version Control, Dexter PalmerVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016, Pantheon/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

Although Rebecca Wright has pieced her life back together after a major tragedy, she can’t shake a sense that the world around her feels off-kilter. Meanwhile, her husband’s dedication to his invention, “the causality violation device” (which he would greatly prefer you not call a time machine) has effectively stalled his career—but he may be closer to success than either of them can possibly imagine. Emotionally powerful and wickedly intelligent, Version Control is a stunningly prescient novel about the effects of science and technology on our lives, our friendships, and our sense of self that will alter the way you see the future—and the present.

Why it’s awesome:
Dexter PalmerThis was one of my favorite reads from the last few years. It came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass in 2016. It’s a slow burn novel with one of the most emotionally fulfilling conclusions that I have ever read. It’s a highly character driven, yet cerebral examination of causality, physics, and concepts like parallel worlds and time travel. But it never loses it’s core focus: humanity, and human relationships.

It’s set in a near near-future, and does a fantastic job of telling a beautiful story about the far reaching effects that advances in technology might bring to our lives, particularly the collision of the Maker/DIY community and advanced self driving vehicles.

Version Control is a masterpiece of literature, SF or otherwise.

Void Star, by Zachary MasonVoid Star, by Zachary Mason (2017, FSG)

Publisher Synopsis:

Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor. Irina isn’t rich, not quite, but she does have an artificial memory that gives her perfect recall and lets her act as a medium between her various employers and their AIs, which are complex to the point of opacity. It’s a good gig, paying enough for the annual visits to the Mayo Clinic that keep her from aging.
Kern has no such access; he’s one of the many refugees in the sprawling drone-built favelas on the city’s periphery, where he lives like a monk, training relentlessly in martial arts, scraping by as a thief and an enforcer. Thales is from a different world entirely―the mathematically inclined scion of a Brazilian political clan, he’s fled to L.A. after the attack that left him crippled and his father dead.
A ragged stranger accosts Thales and demands to know how much he can remember. Kern flees for his life after robbing the wrong mark. Irina finds a secret in the reflection of a laptop’s screen in her employer’s eyeglasses. None are safe as they’re pushed together by subtle forces that stay just out of sight.

Why it’s awesome:
Zachary MasonIt not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jump-start your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

Read the full Heradas review of Void Star

Little Sister, by Barbara GowdyLittle Sister, by Barbara Gowdy (2017, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman’s body.
Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.
In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.

Why it’s awesome:
Barbara Gowdy Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Read the full Heradas review of Little Sister

Gnomon, Nick HarkawayGnomon, by Nick Harkaway (2018, Knopf/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.
When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.
Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.
A dazzling, panoramic achievement, and Nick Harkaway’s most brilliant work to date, Gnomon is peerless and profound, captivating and irreverent, as it pierces through strata of reality and consciousness, and illuminates how to set a mind free. It is a truly accomplished novel from a mind possessing a matchless wit infused with a deep humanity.

Why it’s awesome:
Nick HarkawayGnomon is simultaneously many different things: A cautionary tale about our modern moment’s convergence of technology, surveillance, and human hubris. A matryoshkian novel, as narratively complex as it is straightforward and readable, that is itself ultimately all about storytelling, narrative, and books. A satisfyingly self-aware postmodern book that wants access to your mind as a tool to self-propagate. A beautifully designed physical book (Chip Kidd doesn’t mess around). A book that teaches you how to read it as you read it.

Gnomon is also staggeringly vast in its scope and ambition: It’s about math, immigration, surveillance, sharks, encryption, ancient Rome, video games, economics, hive minds, the near future, the far future, liberty and security, mirrors and parallels, disconnection, right angles, mythology, time travel, social manipulation, the human connectome, steganography, racism, intertextuality, detective novels, religion, castouts, manipulation, our ever changing definition of reality, interrogation, torture, and so many, many other things.

If you like books by Borges, Neal Stephenson, Cherise Wolas, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace or Ted Chiang, this is one I think you will immensely enjoy.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeerBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2016, MCD)

Publisher Synopsis:

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Why it’s awesome:
Jeff VanderMeerJeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels.

Read the full Heradas review of Borne

Mort(e), Robert RepinoMort(e), by Robert Repino (2015, SOHO)

Publisher Synopsis:

The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. Under the Colony’s watchful eye, this utopia will be free of the humans’ penchant for violence, exploitation and religious superstition. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.
Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.

Why it’s awesome:
Robert RepinoA terrific, wholly original story. Brutal, straightforward and unflinching yet really fun at the same time. It had elements of Planet of the Apes and the better works of Heinlein, but with a lot more heart.

Mort(e) did that thing that only SF can do so well. It told a story about humanity and all the things that we get wrong, transplanted into a completely alien, unfamiliar point of view, so as not too come across as obviously preachy. Repino removed the “serial numbers” from a great story about humanity, and turned in a thrilling science fiction tale.

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch (2018, Putnam)

Publisher Synopsis:

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind…
Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL’s family—and to locate his vanished teenage daughter. Though she can’t share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra—a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL’s experience with the future has triggered this violence.
Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence to crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it’s not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time’s horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.
Luminous and unsettling, The Gone World bristles with world-shattering ideas yet remains at its heart an intensely human story.

Why it’s awesome:
Tom SweterlitschThis is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

Read the full Heradas review of The Gone World

The New and Improved Romie FutchThe New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott (2015, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

A debut novel that is part dystopian satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale: a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a surreal New South where newfangled medical technologies change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape.
Down on his luck and still pining for his ex-wife, South Carolina taxidermist Romie Futch spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet before passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he replies to an ad and becomes a research subject in an experiment conducted by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. After “scientists” download hifalutin humanities disciplines into their brains, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs start debating the works of Foucault and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. The enhanced taxidermist, who once aspired to be an artist, returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his work and revive his failed marriage. As Romie tracks down specimens for his elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he develops an Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog that has been terrorizing Hampton County. Cruising hog-hunting websites, he learns that this lab-spawned monster possesses peculiar traits. Pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists, Romie becomes entangled in the enigma of Hogzilla’s origins.
Exploring the interplay between nature and culture, biology and technology, reality and art, The New and Improved Romie Futch probes the mysteries of memory and consciousness, offering a darkly comic yet heartfelt take on the contemporary human predicament.

Why it’s awesome:

Julia ElliottA glorious postmodern tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

Julia Elliot’s prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

Tin House is one of my favorite smaller independent publishers in the business today. In addition to publishing ten or so terrific books each year, they also run the Tin House literary magazine, which recently published a new all time favorite story by Julia Elliott in their Candy issue.

Read the full Heradas review of The New and Improved Romie Futch

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

Consider PhlebasIn my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another. In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives. It went way over my head the first time I read it. I think I didn’t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was. Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me. It’s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it. Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.

The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his “honor”. It’s a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.

After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre: a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures. However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes. Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a much more nuanced story. The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a “picaroon” (rogue or untrustworthy anti-hero) rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives. By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics. When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in a more literary minded, left leaning, progressive direction. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F. Hamilton continued the change forward from there. There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition.

Iain BanksHistorically, space opera has been a simplistic genre. In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term “space opera” was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama. Think: soap opera. Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader. In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively-in-the-wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade-esqe holy war against the Culture, a post-scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds. The Culture are arguable the “good guys”. For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it “Special Circumstances” goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture’s way of thinking. Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can’t help but adopt them as their own. Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for. He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past. He doesn’t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on “the side of life”. The enemy of his enemy is his friend.

“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you (319-321).”
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre. There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book. The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S. Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation. The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran/Culture war. I’ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months. They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary. Excellent sources for these between-the-lines details are Simone Caroti’s “The Culture series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction” as well as Paul Kincaid’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks”. These are books I’ll be recommending frequently. Both Caroti’s and Kincaid’s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.

Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series. The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from the more interesting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means. It handles a huge amount of world-building, and is multilayered and complex. It’s one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits. It isn’t the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.

Personally, I think it’s a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it. It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building ~80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood. I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it’s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.

My favorite sections of the book are the short “state of play” interlude chapters, with the character Fal ‘Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture. Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from the more adventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative. Fal ‘Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles. She’s able to comment on the story as it’s happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels. She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book. She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself. She’s able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza’s perspective. She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they’re watertight.

“We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short-sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas… “

“…We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused. And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran.”

The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks’ style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing. He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos. This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it’s large and exciting.

The Player of GamesAll that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series. If you’re not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point. Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you’ve read some others without missing anything particularly crucial. However, if you’re a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it’s better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.

 

Up next: The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we’ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture: Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc… and of course the empire and game of Azad.


Culture Essay Index:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre


Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

The Player of GamesI often find it difficult to pick favorites, but when it comes to novelists it’s easy: Iain Banks, hands down, is my favorite. It’s hard to overstate the impact his writing has had on me, the Culture novels in particular. Reading The Player of Games rewired the way I think about class and economics. Use of Weapons forced me to confront difficult philosophical and ethical questions, both highly personal and utilitarian in scope. Its story also destroyed me emotionally for weeks, more on that to come. Inversions made me reconsider what sort of intervention policies might be most functional. Look to Windward intimately addressed mental health, PTSD, and the far reaching impact of warfare on the personal and cultural psyche of humanity.

Iain BanksThe Culture series, published from 1987 to 2012, comprises nine standalone science fiction novels, one novella, and two short stories set in a shared universe. It is often described as utopian fiction, but I find it not so easily reducible to just that. The majority of the stories take place on the periphery of The Culture’s post-scarcity, godlike AI run utopia, not in the Culture proper. But even inside that flawed paradise, things are often a little more complicated than they seem. I don’t mean that this is one of those utopias which is (dun dun duuun!) secretly a dystopia or anything narratively cliche like that. The society of the Culture is a true utopia, but the narratives in Culture novels usually deal with questions of meaning within conceptual utopia. What do you need when you lack for nothing? How do you construct purpose and value when your society is generally materialist?

“The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.”

– Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

Every Culture novel is brimming with these philosophical, ethical, moral, and existential ideas while somehow also being entertaining, heartbreaking, darkly humorous, disturbing and exquisitely written. His writing is like a virus that gets in your brain and codes for self-reproduction. It’s not too often that a fun science fiction romp might also literally change the way you think. I just cannot recommend these books enough.

Use of WeaponsI’ve written a handful of Culture reviews in the past, but I’ve been longing to reread the novels and properly write up my thoughts. Last February when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon Studios was adapting the Culture novels for television, I thought, what the hell, it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, this is a great time to dig back in. So here I am, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, going round once more.

Over the next few (or several, or dozen, or who knows how many) months I’ll be publishing thoughts and ramblings on Iain Banks, the Culture novels and their related works. I tend to take a mostly spoiler-free approach when writing about fiction, opting instead to focus more on theme, style, prose, narrative structure, and characterization while keeping recaps to a minimum. There is no shortage of excellent recap and synopsis writing available elsewhere, but I’m much more interested in introducing these books to readers in a way that doesn’t ruin the potential enjoyment of discovery. That being said, in order to discuss certain aspects of Culture novels, I may have to bend my usual rules slightly, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to keep spoilers to a minimum and mark them where applicable.

So, let’s begin with Banks himself:

 

Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Banks was a highly prolific writer, publishing a total of thirty books over twenty-nine years. He considered himself a science fiction writer, but his creative output was wide, covering also the spectrum of mainstream literary fiction, memoir/travelogue, and a posthumous collection of poetry — his own bundled together with those of his lifelong friend and fellow Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. As a fierce, outspoken leftist, socialist, and atheist with a quick sardonic wit, Banks was often in the news regarding UK and world politics, particularly regarding Britain’s participation in the West’s post 9/11 involvement in Iraq.

The Wasp FactoryIn his home country of Scotland and the rest of the UK he may be best known for his highly polarizing 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory. A book which famously printed alternating positive and negative blurbs from various publications on its dust jacket and subsequent paperback editions. A brilliant piece of marketing if you ask me. Or possibly it’s his 1992 novel The Crow Road that he’s best known for. It’s an enrapturing and mysterious portrait of a large intertwined familial Scottish community that began with the unforgettable first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Although his novels have been critically lauded worldwide, none of his mainstream literary fiction, what he referred to as his “hampstead novels”, achieved much measurable popularity in the United States. Here, he’s best known for his Culture series of science fiction novels, and even that work is relatively unknown. Something that is hopefully about to change with the upcoming Amazon Studios adaptation of Consider Phlebas.

As an American, I regret that Iain Banks wasn’t properly on my radar until he died of gallbladder cancer in 2013, just two months after announcing to the world that he was “officially very poorly”. Since stumbling upon his work I have devoured all but one of his science fiction novels (published under the quite obvious pseudonym of Iain M. Banks) and a handful of his mainstream novels (published without the M).

There is a certain thread of macabre humor and fascination with the dark corners of human nature that binds most of his work together. He also had a unique internal dialogue of opposing ideas encapsulated in his novels. While doing some research in preparation for this essay, I stumbled upon the concept of antisyzygy, and more specifically what is referred to as Caledonian antisyzygy, or in other words, the Scottish variety.

The term was first used in 1919 by George Gregory Smith, a Scottish literary critic, in his book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence. He described it as “..a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered.”

The Mighty ScotI found this fascinating, mainly because I have never come across a more perfect description of how Banks explores philosophies and ideas in his writing. In her book The Mighty Scot, Maureen M. Martin further elaborates: “Writings by Scots on their country’s national psyche and literature often point to what has been called a ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ —a conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression..” The revelation that this duality is common not only among Scottish writers, but the Scottish people in general lends credence to the idea that something about the historical, political, religious and social aspects of Scottish life creates this internalized way of dealing with conflict.

I find that Caledonian antisyzygy is deeply entwined in everything Iain Banks wrote. In all of his fiction he spends quite a lot of time chipping away at his own arguments as if they were opposing views, patching and refining them over the course of each book. He does this frequently, and most effectively in his Culture novels, and he’s very, very good at it. As a reader you find yourself unsure of your own opinions by the end of a Banks novel. Instead of an end all solution to whatever question has been posited by the story, you’re left in the wake of the dissonance created by the question itself, with a variety of possible solutions to consider. In 1990, in conversation with the British science fiction writer Michael Cobley he discussed his approach toward writing: “..in fiction the trick is to give people a choice of potential answers so they can disagree with what you’re saying, or what they think you’re saying.”

Offering that option to the reader, to be free to disagree with the message, and still enjoy the book on some level, creates a well rounded experience and speaks to his mastery of the craft. It also gives each story the possibility to resonate on different levels for different readers, not to mention enabling tremendous reread value, and lending towards several different possible interpretations by the same reader when read at different points in their life.

Another aspect of his writing that’s worth noting, is just how fully he explores the societies or ideas in opposition to his main social ideals as represented by the Culture. He isn’t merely setting up straw men to be easily overcome. This approach reminds me of the Principle of Charity, which states that when in argument with an opponent, argue against the most charitable version of their view. Mainly, assume they’ve come to their argument rationally, and have valid reasons for believing as they do. Only then can you have a meaningful dialogue with someone holding an opposing view to your own.

Consider PhlebasI’ll be back in the coming weeks to discuss Consider Phlebas, his first published Culture novel, and in my opinion, one of his least understood and most divisive. If you haven’t yet read any Iain Banks, it’s a fantastic time to start. This weekend pick up a Banks novel, preferably a Culture book and spend a little time celebrating his life by getting to know one of the most unique writers of our modern time. The series of books share almost no continuity with one another, so feel free to dig in anywhere. I highly recommend The Player of Games as an easy entry point as well as one of the best in the series.


Culture Essay Index:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre


Burning Chrome, by William Gibson: Cyberpunk as an Alternate Now

Burning Chrome, William GibsonWilliam Gibson blew the Science Fiction world wide open in the mid eighties with his cyberpunk novels, particularly the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick award winning Neuromancer. Ridley Scott gave us the visual aesthetic with Blade Runner, but Gibson firmly established Cyberpunk as a literary movement. As a genre it would go on to live a fairly short life, plateauing in the late eighties, followed by a handful of peak post-cyberpunk moments in the nineties (Snow Crash, Ghost in the Shell) culminating in The Matrix and then almost immediately fading into relative obscurity.

Burning Chrome collects Gibson’s short fiction, mostly published in OMNI magazine in the early eighties. Unlike a lot of short fiction collections, this one isn’t a totally mixed bag, most of the stories ranging from “good” to “great”. Three of them, (Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome) are set in the same universe as Gibson’s Sprawl series (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), with some of their characters and events mentioned or referenced in the main novels.

William GibsonAs a rambling aside, I was born in 1984, making me much too young to have experienced cyberpunk when it was new and revolutionary. When I read cyberpunk now, nearing the third decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a form of retrofuturism. The technological tropes of the genre were one possible direction for things to head. In reality, they didn’t. Instead of the cumbersome and clunky virtual reality user interfaces, and “jacking in”, we went with the more boring, economical methods: a little white search box on a screen, and fingers on keys or key analogs. Just as space opera was written back before anybody knew the realities of space travel, cyberpunk was written before anyone knew the realities of the internet. All we knew was that it was going to change everything, no one knew how exactly.

There are of course still giant multinational evil corporations, another trope of the genre, but instead of inspiring monolithic dread, they have friendly, marketable faces. We all know that Amazon is terrible to their employees, and drives small businesses into the ground, but it’s just so.. convenient. We all know that our devices are made by slaves, but those new animated emoji are just so cute. In the twenty-first century we adore the giant evil corporation. We buy their devices to put in our homes and listen to our conversations, so it’ll be easier to order things with our voices. Convenience kills us, slowly but assuredly.

“It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.”

This current drowning-in-technology age has brought with it a sort of resurgence in, not specifically cyberpunk, but a more modern interpretation of its core theme: alienation among ubiquities connection. Being alone together. Television shows like Black Mirror embody this better than anything else currently around. There has also been a cyberpunk resurgence in pop culture, specifically music, visible primarily in the retrowave / synthwave / “outrun” genre of electronic music. Retrowave is a Baudrillardian simulacra of eighties electronic music usually created by those too young to have first-hand experience of eighties culture. It’s created with postmodern sensibilities, as an idea of what eighties culture could’ve been, not what it actually was. A sort of copy of a copy of some collective idea that never existed, except in the imaginings of its purveyors. Highly influenced by multimedia created in the eighties, specifically science fiction and horror films and books, it’s dark and menacing, and accompanies with it a mental image of dystopic science fictional landscapes. It’s the aural version of cyberpunk.

I say all of this because I think right now, with all of these elements converging, is the perfect time to read cyberpunk literature. Our temporal distance from its inception gives us the perspective to appreciate it as retrofuturism, and the relational closeness of the technological and emotional aspects of our lives to its themes, creates this nebulous landscape that makes it highly relatable to our modern moment. Our technology makes us chrome and neon and dark inside, but externally we’re living it up on social media while we collectively experience a sort of soul-death alone behind our screens, our modern day mirrorshades.

It’s a weird ass world, and these stories give us a glimpse into a stranger one that could’ve been, had just a few things played out differently. Cyberpunk is an alternate now.

High points: The Hinterlands, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome

Low Points: Johnny Mnemonic, Red Star, Winter Orbit

Johnny MnemonicJohnny Mnemonic: 2/5
I find Gibson’s writing very difficult to digest here. The structure of the writing is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I think it’s safe to say that no one quite saw the world the was that he did. Weird concepts, weird execution. Set in the Sprawl universe. This was adapted into the not-so-great Keanu Reeves film in the mid nineties.

The Gernsback Continuum: 4/5
A man gets stuck in an idea of a future 1980s that never was. Built out of the retrofuturism of 1930s design. Great little paranoid Philip K. Dickian story.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose: 3/5
A melancholy take on lost love and being out of place in the world. The ASP tech is a cool idea, and it seems to be the analogue of reading someone’s journal, in a sense.

The Belonging Kind: 3/5
Nice analog for social anxiety, it was fun but nothing special.

The Hinterlands: 5/5
This is a new personal favorite. It’s written in exquisitely beautiful prose, and has such a unique story, like nothing I’ve ever read. I actually read it twice in a row, because I was initially confused by the first few sections. It all became much clearer with the accompanying context of the rest of the story. A great little tale about loss, alien contact, and psychology. I loved it.

Red Star, Winter Orbit: 1/5
Very difficult to follow, kind of boring.

New Rose HotelNew Rose Hotel: 5/5
A great corporate espionage noir. For me, this is the definitive high-tech low-life story. It was adapted into the eponymous Christopher Walken/Willem Dafoe film by Abel Ferrara in 1998. Set in the Sprawl universe.

The Winter Market: 4/5
Entertainment in an age where we’ve moved beyond the audiovisual form, and into something much stranger. I enjoyed the existentialism.

Dogfight: 3/5
A drifter on the way to Florida picks up a competitive VR game, and befriends a college student.

Burning Chrome: 4/5
The most ‘Cyberpunk’ story in the collection. Set in the Sprawl universe.