Author: Mat Paskins
- Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things
An evangelical pastor ministers to the aliens, on a world recently colonised by an omnivorous corporation. Faber subverts and renews the conventions of the novel of religious doubt, in a narrative which is at once unforgiving and strangely merciful. Unforgiving, because no one’s pretensions escape unscathed, and it contains extended sequences of destruction and cruelty which had me whimpering; merciful, because the story and characters are genuinely animated by the question of how we can go on with the things we thought we valued most, when they’ve been transformed and half-corrupted in a new place.
- Peter Dickinson, The Tripods Trilogy
War of the worlds, but the alien tripods won, and control human thought with cranial caps. These books made an incredible impression on me when I was a child. I was particularly moved by the second, in which the protagonists infiltrate an alien city, and the action is choreographed around the masks which they wear to survive the city’s toxic atmosphere.
- Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan
A Hunter S Thompson-esque journalist fights corruption (and a Tony Blair analogue) in a cyberpunk city of the future. Ellis and Robertson’s comic was serialised between 1997 and 2002, and I had the pleasure of reading it month by month. The City in which the story takes place owes a lot to the broad satirical strokes of Judge Dredd’s Megacity One. I thought I understood dystopian fiction and how it worked. Transmetropolitan seemed initially like a self-consciously edgier version of this: it was packed with incidental details like “Ebola Cola”, a domestic nano-machine which is addicted to drugs and a scratty two-headed cat. What I didn’t expect were the lyricism and tenderness which irrupted into the story, especially in the heart-stopping issue 8 “Another Cold Morning”, about a photographer who is revived after being cryogenically frozen. It was the first time that I’d read a science fiction where dystopian satire could open up into something more moving and alive.
- James Tiptree Jr, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”.
An unhappy young woman with pituitary dystrophy is chosen to remotely control the body of a teenage female celebrity. This story has been interpreted as an example of proto-cyberpunk, as a comment on the monstrousness of the beauty myth, and as an analogue to the games of pseudonym and gender which its author played. What interests me most about it is the way that its action runs on an engine of fannish identification which is indistinguishable from desire. And the way that Tiptree Jr. was an expert in miniaturist apocalypses, a story of eight or twenty or forty pages could very precisely detonate the world.
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora
It’s difficult to say much about this novel without giving away its twists; I also find it hard to write about it without starting to cry. A reinvention of the ‘generation ship’ genre, it builds sequences of immense and elegiac power. And also (and importantly) I want very much to argue with it.
- John Crowley, Engine Summer
I read this novel earlier this year, after reading about it in an essay by the historian of science John Christie. It’s a splendid book which carefully controls the role of the reader, and our relationship to the temporalities which the characters experience (if that sounds a bit vague I’m sorry; I couldn’t think of a better way not avoid disclosing its twist).
- Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
My friend Jess Hurley told me to read this book. It was daunting: it’s well over a thousand pages long, and Pynchon appears at times to possess more resources for research than the entirety of History of Science as a professional enterprise (=there’s a lot of maths in it). But in the end I liked it a lot as a kind of skeleton key for what is hidden and barbarically manifest in twentieth century history. Louis Menand, in his review for The New Yorker, describes its virtues much better than I could:
An enormous technological leap occurred in the decades around 1900. This advance was fired by some mixed-up combination of abstract mathematical speculation, capitalist greed, global geopolitical power struggle, and sheer mysticism. We know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes. It turns out (so far) that we can’t. But we did split the atom—an achievement that must once have seemed equally far-fetched. “Against the Day” is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination.
- Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog
It’s arguable that this performance piece (and film! And album, available on Spotify!) isn’t Science Fiction. All I can say is, it does for me everything that SF is meant to do. There are four strands: the life and death of Anderson’s beloved rat-terrier, Lolabelle; the death of a number of Anderson’s friends and family, including her mother and Lou Reed, imagined through the strictures of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; the development of the surveillance state in the wake of 9/11; and what it finally means to ask ‘did you ever really love me’? The piece’s strength, for me, comes from the way its paranoia about everyday militarisation bleeds into its depictions of the natural world, and relationships between humans and animals.
- Louise Osmond, Dark Horse
A film about how a community in a mining village raised a race horse together. It speaks eloquently of the aspiration and brutality embodied in sport (especially when it involves animals) and, I think, helps us to imagine better possibilities for how horse-racing might change in the future. It is also a very sly map of how innovation works in modern Britain. I’ll be blogging more about it soon.
- Gail Simone and various artists, The All New Atom
I wanted one of these entries to reflect my deep love for corporate superhero comics – which are maybe the most compromised, but also one of the most singular and responsive genres of SF out there at the moment. (They’re compromised because they’re created by committee in response to a market which has historically not been very forgiving of new ideas; they’re singular and responsive because no one quite knows how the market works, so they keep trying splendidly odd new things. These new things get cancelled a lot, but you get used to that and there’s a lot of pleasure while they last). My favourite comics writer over the past ten years or so has been Gail Simone, who writes queer-friendly feminist corporate comics with genuine verve. The All New Atom is a great showcase of her skills (though it’s less adventurous than some of her later work); tonally a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twin Peaks.
When we first started the Unsettling Scientific Stories project we all produced a ‘top ten’ list of SF texts that were favourites, inspiration, and the types of works we hoped to look at as part of this project. We came up with some interesting lists that showed our own personal preferences and gave everyone a brilliant reading-watching-listening list that we thought we would share. This also gives us a chance to introduce ourselves informally.