Monday, March 21, 2011

Ballard, Wolfe, and a Sci-Fi question

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Finding my thoughts a bit scattered today, I turn to numbers in hopes of giving them a pretense of order. But since I'm writing about science fiction, let's make it a countdown!

3 For the past year and a half, I've been ever-so-slowly making my way through the 1,200 or so pages of J. G. Ballard's Complete Stories. I'm only about 350 pages in--up to 1962--and the thought that keeps returning to my mind (and that I can't be the first to dsicover) is that Ballard is clearly writing in the tradition of Joseph Conrad: Ballard's scientists, marooned on far-flung outposts throughout the galaxy, are merely Conrad's company agents and traders thrown into the future.

Like Conrad's characters, Ballard's have been nominally put in charge of places that are only barely understood back home--and whose history, culture, traditions, and dangers are almost entirely a secret. Their knowledge is limited where it isn't totally useless; their true dominion extends no farther than the walls of their base camp; and the culture they represent is utterly unwanted, even insignificant when set against against the inescapable age of the universe around them.

Look at the opening of "The Waiting Grounds," for example:
Whether Henry Tallis, my predecessor at Murak Radio Observatory, knew about the Waiting Grounds I can't say. On the whole it seems obvious he must have done, and that the three weeks he spent handing the station over to me--a job which could easily have been done in three days--were merely to give him sufficient time to decide whether or not to tell me about them. Certainly he never did, and the implied judgment against me is one I haven't yet faced up to.
Sounds self-consciously Conradian, no? That passage also signals the other key similarity between the writers: their characters, symbols of power without its substance, ultimately have only their honor to fall back on, and even, eventually, to hold them together.

If you're a Conrad fan who hasn't tried Ballard, you've got a treat in store (and vice-versa).

2 I've also been reading The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Short Fiction, which offers different charms. If Ballard's stories are of a space colonialism, about Western civilization's endless attempts to extend its domain into areas where it's not necessarily wanted or needed, Wolfe's are often about our attempts to exert that sort of control over our own selves and beings here at home. His stories are full of mad doctors operating on humans, psychological experiments that kill, houses of human horrors. Wolfe's world is one of knowledge perverted: it's not surprising that he has a story called "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories." (Though it is surprising that he also has stories called "The Doctor of Death Island" and "Death of the Island Doctor"--both written to answer a dare from Isaac Asimov.)

They make a good pair for reading in alternation, Ballard and Wolfe, the antiseptic, plainspoken loneliness of space set against the gothic nightmares we can produce here at home.

1 Which leads me to a question for you all: what good sci-fi writers am I missing? Ballard and Wolfe I enjoy, Bradbury--for all his occasional sentimentalism--is a long-standing favorite, Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem are as well. I tried Iain M. Banks last year, and he decidedly was not for me; I felt the same about Samuel R. Delaney's Nova, though in his case I'm not sure that I ought to give up on his whole ouevre.

Any suggestions?


  1. I think there is a very good chance that you would like Alfred Bester; he is a considerably gifted stylist, and The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man are terrific novels on every level.

    Liking Lem, you should definitely give the Strugatsky Brothers a try.

  2. Have you tried any China Mieville? And I would be remiss in not suggesting Octavia Butler. I always prefer character-driven sf to the techno sort.

  3. Ian MacDonald (Brasyl, River of Gods)

    Dan Simmons (Hyperion - John Keats is a major character in the 26th century)

    ...and all happen to be in the store right now!

  4. Jo Walton's postings on have been a good source of sff recommendations for me. She writes primarily about books that she likes, some new, some not. She'd doing a series of posts on Hugo nominees by year that might be useful to you.

  5. I recommend Thomas M. Disch's science fiction novels and his non-fictions on the genre. Gregory Benford's novel "Timescape" is an absolute masterpiece; also try Michael Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" and John Crowley's "Engine Summer." Most of the work of John Sladek is valuable, and very funny besides; and "James Tiptree Jr"'s work has been gaining deserved attention recently. R.A. Lafferty is an interesting writer who had a large influence on Wolfe, and who has a large body of work, much of which is unfortunately out of print. James Blish has written much that is of interest, though stay away from his later Star Trek novels, written purely for the money. The three authors you wrote about in your post are my personal favorites in the genre; Gene Wolfe's magnificent "Book of the New Sun" is one of my favorite books, in our out of the genre.

  6. I'm seconding the Thomas M. Disch recommendation--he was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, regardless of genre. Here's a good article that should make the sale:

  7. Anonymous9:58 AM

    Don't give up on SF till you've tried R. A. Laffery. His novels are, maybe, A bit much, but his short stories are among the best written and most original in the field. 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' may be the best of his numerous collections... pretty sure it's out of print but available used. Warning, Lafferty not afraid of extravagant language.

  8. I agree - Disch was absolutely brilliant. The three authors I meant as my favorites were Gene Wolfe, Phil Dick and JG Ballard. Disch knew Dick and Ballard personally (Dick famously reported Disch to the FBI).

  9. Jack Vance has become my go-to science fiction author for his completely immersive settings. Also I agree with Patrick above on Alfred Bester. Great writer.

  10. I would second the earlier recommendation of Bester and add to it Ursula LeGuin. "The Dispossessed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness" are both masterpieces of the genre, well worth your time.

  11. marco4:55 PM

    I strongly fourth the Disch recommendation.
    I've recently drafted a recommended list in answer to a similar request in the Guardian - it was a way of compiling my personal canon for the genre, so I'll simply paste the comment I left there adding a couple of names I did forget.

    One title per author (in some cases I could've mentioned many more) - not everything is sf and fantasy, but the authors are mainly associated with these genres. The books range from the deceivingly simple to the intricately multilayered, and a couple are so weird they are a genre unto themselves. Most are exceptionally good, and therefore didn't find much of an audience in either the F/Sf or the LitFic camp :)

    M John Harrison - The Course of the Heart
    Thomas M. Disch - On Wings of Song
    John Crowley - Little, Big
    J.G. Ballard - The Drowned World
    John Sladek - Tik Tok
    Pamela Zoline - The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories
    Russell Hoban - Riddley Walker
    Alan Moore - Voice of the Fire
    Alan Garner - Red Shift
    David R. Bunch - Moderan
    Gene Wolfe - The Fifth Head of Cerberus
    Stepan Chapman - The Troika
    Karen Joy Fowler - Sarah Canary
    Samuel R. Delany - Nova
    Kelly Link - Magic for Beginners
    James Tiptree Jr. - Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
    Gwyneth Jones - Life
    Maureen McHugh - Nekropolis
    Elizabeth Hand - Saffron and Brimstone
    M. K. Joseph - The Hole in the Zero
    R.A. Lafferty - Nine Hundred Grandmothers
    Joanna Russ - We Who Are About To...
    Fritz Leiber - Selected Stories
    Michael Bishop - Blue Kansas Sky
    Carter Scholz & Glenn Harcourt - Palimpsests

    Further, I've been impressed by some of Lisa Goldstein's short stories, and heard very good things recently about her novel The Dream Years, which I just ordered. From Eastern Europe, other than Lem and Capek worth a mention are the Strugatsky brothers (Monday Begins on Saturday) and Karinthy Frygies' Swiftian satires, Voyage to Faremido and Capillaria, but I have read them in other languages and can't say whether the English translations are to be trusted (on the basis of the English version of the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic, I'd say no).

  12. Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer recommendations. I very much appreciate them all, and I'll be following up on a lot of these.

    In case you're interested, today's post summarizes this exchange, with a bit of commentary.

  13. I also really enjoyed George Alec Effinger and Barry Maltzberg, though he eventually stopped writing sf. One big favorite of minewas David Lindley's Voyage to Arcturus.