Saturday, December 26, 2020

SF Luminaries: Mary Shelley

Richard Rothwell: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1840)

"I write bad articles which help to make me miserable — but I am going to plunge into a novel and hope that its clear water will wash off the mud of the magazines."
- Mary Shelley, Letter to Leigh Hunt

Theodor von Holst: Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831)

There's a section in an 2016 post of mine entitled "Movies about Writers" which includes some remarks on a subgenre I've called "Byron-'n'-Shelley-'n'-Mary-Shelley" films: ones which concentrate on the infamous "haunted summer" of 1816, which she and her husband Percy spent mostly on the shores of Lake Geneva, hob-nobbing with Lord Byron and his hapless companion Dr. Polidori.

Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to charting the influence of that rather disturbing meeting of minds on popular culture: fiction as well as cinema. I mentioned there Brian Aldiss's SF novel Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Liz Lochead's Dreaming Frankenstein (1984), and Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard (1989). (I might also have added Christopher Priest's The Prestige (1995) - though this is far more notable in the novel than in Christopher Nolan's 2006 film version).

There's also (now) Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2009) to be considered, along with Stephanie Hemphill's Hideous Love (2013) and Jon Skovron's Man Made Boy (2015). Michael Sims, editor of Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction (2017), mentions these and various other titles in his own 2018 article "8 Books that wouldn't exist without Mary Shelley's Frankenstein".

Leslie S. Klinger, ed.: The New Annotated Frankenstein (2017)

When it comes to movies and TV shows based on the book, it's hard to know exactly where to begin. There's a reasonably complete filmography in Leslie S. Klinger's New Annotated Frankenstein, which takes you all the way from James Whale's classic Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to that curious film Gods and Monsters (1998), which purports to recreate Whale's own last days.

On the small screen, as well as two series of the UK TV series The Frankenstein Chronicles, there have been three series of that strange amalgam of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, John Logan's Penny Dreadful ...

Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

All of which brings us to the crucial question: what exactly is Frankenstein? I don't mean that perennial confusion about who the title actually refers to: Victor Frankenstein or Frankenstein's monster (the former, of course). I mean, what kind of a book is it?

Peter Fairclough, ed. Three Gothic Novels (1983)

Mario Praz, author of The Romantic Agony (1933), who contributed an introduction to the edition above, is in no doubt. It's a Gothic novel, and offers all of the seductive attributes of that genre. As the article on Gothic fiction on Wikipedia so succinctly puts it:
Gothic fiction tends to place emphasis on both emotion and a pleasurable kind of terror, serving as an extension of the Romantic literary movement ... The most common of these "pleasures" among Gothic readers was the sublime — an indescribable feeling that "takes us beyond ourselves."
"The genre had much success in the 19th century," the article goes on to say, "as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [my emphasis] and the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe ... and in poetry in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

The collection above leaves no doubt what area of the literary firmament they see Mary Shelley as inhabiting: the supernatural and weird.

But there is, of course, a dissentient vein of opinion on this point. It's hard to say who really started this particular hare, but it's certainly strongly associated with Brian Aldiss, a prolific SF author in his own right, and author of the 1973 history of the genre Billion Year Spree (updated in 1986 as Trillion Year Spree). In a speech made at the launch of a new edition of Frankenstein in 2008, he summarised his views as follows:

Brian Aldiss Billion Year Spree (1973)

... when I was attempting to write [Billion Year Spree], I had to begin at the beginning – as one does. At the same time, there were a lot of people who were very eager to find out who was the ‘Father’ of science fiction, and I was very happy to proclaim that Mary Shelley was the Mother of Science Fiction. It caused a lot of bad blood at the time, but happily it’s been spilt and mopped up now.

... In making this claim, which I took care to buttress with examples, I wanted not only to retrieve the book to current attention in a way that my readers might at first resent but would ultimately profit from, but also to retrieve it from the hands of Universal Studios’ horrific Boris Karloff, because I saw that it was so much more than a horror tale. It had mythic quality ...

The fantastical had been in vogue long before Shakespeare. It was eternally in vogue. Aristophanes’ The Birds creates a cloud cuckoo land between earth and heaven ... Then there’s Lucian of Samosata in the first century of our epoch, who describes how the King of the Sun and the King of the Moon go to war over the colonization of – can you guess? – the colonization of Jupiter ...

Christendom was full of angels and lots of fibs about the planets being inhabited. One’s knee deep in these discarded fantasies, but it was Mary Shelley, poised between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, who first wrote of life – that vital spark – being created not by divine intervention as hitherto, but by scientific means; by hard work and by research.

That was new, and in a sense it remains new. The difference is impressive, persuasive, permanent.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man (1826)

In a sense the whole argument comes down to The Last Man. This dystopian futuristic fantasy is the only other significant exhibit to consider when attempting to decide whether to weight the scales towards "Gothic novelist" or "Mother of Science Fiction" for Mary Shelley. Brian Aldiss, once again, is in no doubt:
As if to prove this unsuspected truth in the same way that a scientist doesn’t announce his discovery until he can repeat it, Mary later wrote another futurist novel, The Last Man.

... [In it] we are asked, for instance: “What are we, the inhabitants of this globe, least amongst the many people that inhabit infinite space? Our minds embrace infinity. The visible mechanism of our being is subject to merest accident.”
None of the rest of her seven novels shows any particular elements of speculative fiction: most of them are historical in inspiration, and the others (such as Mathilda, unpublished in her lifetime) tend to be more preoccupied with the complexities of sexual politics.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Jules Verne (1828-1905)

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967)

Science Fiction has certainly been gifted with quite a number of fathers: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback, to name just the usual suspects. I suppose that I would feel happier to embrace Brian Aldiss's hypothesis if it weren't for the hyper-Gothic tone of Frankenstein in both the 1818 and 1831 versions.

H. G. Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

But then, the same could be said of Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau, or - for that matter - almost all of Poe's fictional output.

It it were just a matter of Frankenstein itself, I think I might still see it as a bit exaggerated - but The Last Man, direct ancestor of such novels as Richard Matheson's I am Legend (1954), George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), Susan Ertz's Woman Alive (1935), and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901), does lend potent support to Aldiss's argument.

John Martin: The Last Man (1849)

Admittedly John Clute's magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction complicates the issue somewhat by describing the complex backstory of the idea:
Early treatments, often in verse, include Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's The Last Man: or, Omegarus and Syderia: A Romance in Futurity (1805; trans 1806); Lord Byron's "Darkness" (1816); "The Last Man" (1823), a poem by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) which inspired John Martin's mezzotint "The Last Man" (1826); The Last Man (1826), an operatic scena by William H Callcott (1807-1882); "The Last Man" (1826), a poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845) ...
All of these before even mentioning Mary Shelley's novel!

One thing's for certain, Frankenstein seems fated to remain one of those very few works of fiction which transcends the genre it was written in, which taps into some mythic layer of the collective unconscious. Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - they keep on being revised, revisited, reinvented in a constant cycle of desire. Whatever their authors envisaged for them, it's impossible they could have foreseen such a relentless need for this among all the other products of their pen.

Mary Shelley was undoubtedly a genius. Even given her extraordinary background: daughter of two brilliant and intellectually revolutionary parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; married to another genius, Percy Bysshe Shelley; no-one could really have predicted the heights of renown she would reach.

If SF has to have a single ancestor, why shouldn't it be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley? The extent of her influence on the genre then and now certainly makes her well worthy of the honour.

Leonard Wolf, ed.: The Annotated Frankenstein (1977)

Reginald Easton: Mary Shelley (1857)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


  1. Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.
    • Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole; Vathek, by William Beckford; Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. 1764, 1786, & 1818. Ed. Peter Fairclough. Introduction by Mario Praz. 1968. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
    • The Annotated Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. Leonard Wolf. Art by Marcia Huyette. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1977.
    • The New Annotated Frankenstein: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Rev. ed. 1831. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Introduction by Guillermo del Toro. Afterword by Anne K. Mellor. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2017.
    • Making Humans: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein / H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau: Complete Texts with Introduction. Historical Contexts. Critical Essays. 1818 & 1896. Ed. Judith Wilt. New Riverside Editions. Ed. Alan Richardson. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
  2. Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. London: Printed for G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823.
  3. The Last Man. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1826.
    • The Last Man. 1826. Introduction by Brian Aldiss. Hogarth Fiction. London: the Hogarth Press, 1985.
  4. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830.
  5. Lodore. 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1835.
  6. Falkner. A Novel. 3 vols. London: Saunders and Otley, 1837.
  7. Mathilda. 1819. Ed. Elizabeth Nitchie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

  8. Travel narratives:

  9. [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. London: T. Hookham, Jun.; and C. and J. Ollier, 1817.
  10. Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. 2 vols. London: Edward Moxon, 1844.

  11. Children's books:

  12. [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] Proserpine & Midas. Two unpublished Mythological Dramas by Mary Shelley. 1820. Ed. A. H. Koszul. London: Humphrey Milford, 1922.
  13. Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot. 1820. Ed. Claire Tomalin. 1998. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  14. Journals & Letters:

  15. The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–44. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  16. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 3 vols. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

  17. Secondary:

  18. Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. 1974. London: Quartet Books, 1976.
  19. St Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family. 1989. London: Faber, 1990.
  20. Trelawny, Edward John. Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author. 1878. Ed. David Wright. 1973. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

SF Luminaries: Isaac Asimov

Yousuf Karsh: Isaac Asimov (1985)

So if Robert Heinlein was the 'Dean of Science-Fiction writers' and Arthur C. Clarke was the 'Colossus of Science Fiction', what - in the opinion of paperback blurb-writers, that is - was Dr. Isaac Asimov? He was, it would appear, the 'Grand Master of Science Fiction'.

Isaac Asimov: Forward the Foundation (1994)

Whatever your views on this vital matter, it does seem worth mentioning, if only to introduce the subject of the (so-called) 'Big Three' of Science Fiction from the second half of the twentieth century. Clarke dedicated his 1972 book Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations as follows:
In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer.
To this Asimov riposted as follows:

Then, of course, there are Clarke's three famous laws ("As three laws were enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there"):

To which the good doctor (Asimov was the only one with a PhD among the three of them, a distinction of which he took full advantage) replied:

These rather infantile exchanges give you some idea of the level of much of the two writers' work. There's a cheap-smart cleverness to much of it which appeals to teenagers - it certainly did to me - but can wear off somewhat as one processes into middle age.

So what is there to be said for Isaac Asimov? His popular science writing; his historical surveys of this, that and the other (The Bible, American History, Byzantium and Ancient Rome, among many, many others); his joke-books and other ephemera have all lost currency with the passing years. The ongoing controversy about just how many books he had written (500-odd at final count); the 'why aren't you at home writing?' gag whenever anyone spotted him in a public place - all dust, all gone where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

The answer, then, would have to depend on two things: Robots, and the Foundation Trilogy.

The first of these can be summed up in the following set of laws, formulated in 1942 - long before Clarke's - with the help of Astounding editor John W. Campbell:

These may seem, at first sight, somewhat simplistic, but they proved fruitful territory for a long series of stories and novels over the next half-century. Here's one breakdown of their possible implications:

And here's a list of the principal titles in the series:

Isaac Asimov: I, Robot (1950)

    short story collections:

  1. I, Robot (1950)
  2. The Rest of the Robots (1964)
  3. The Complete Robot (1982)
  4. Robot Dreams (1986)
  5. Robot Visions (1990)

  6. novels:

  7. The Caves of Steel (1954)
  8. The Naked Sun (1957)
  9. The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  10. Robots and Empire (1985)

Alex Proyas, dir. : I, Robot (2004)

There's no denying the influence these stories have had on the whole field of SF. In fact, it's hard to consider the omnipresent 'android theme' at all without taking some position on Asimov's laws.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (1951-53)

However, before waxing too hyperbolic on the subject, it's important to backtrack a little:
In 1966, [Asimov's] Foundation trilogy beat several other science fiction and fantasy series to receive a special Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series". The runners-up for the award were Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Future History series by Robert A. Heinlein, Lensman series by Edward E. Smith and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Mind you, if the vote had been held a few years later, it might well have gone to Frank Herbert's Dune series instead. Or not. Who knows? The point is that Foundation is not only the pinnacle of Asimov's work, but one of the most important sets of stories in SF history.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (1951-53)

Why? What is it about this series of stories (which first appeared in Campbell's Astounding in the late 1940s) which has given them such longevity? I mean, which of the other contenders for 'best all-time series' - with the exception of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - can still be taken seriously at this late date?

It all comes down to Psychohistory. Psychohistory is an impossible idea, but it appealed strongly to readers then (and now). This imaginary science, invented by Asimov alter-ego Hari Selden, purports to be able to analyse long-term trends in society with sufficient accuracy to be able to foresee the future.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (Folio Society, 2016)

At first all goes swimmingly - the rise of the Foundation on the planet Terminus, the fight with the dying Empire, internal squabbles - until the advent of the Mule, a telepathic mutant who manages to upset the apple-cart (almost) entirely.

If you want a plot summary, you'll find a number of them online - or better still, you might feel inspired to read the series yourself. The point is that it was fascinating: not in spite of its pseudo-scientific trappings but because of them. Asimov always had a smooth way with a yarn, but here he outdid himself, wrapping conundrum within conundrum, mystery within mystery.

Isaac Asimov: Foundation's Edge (1982)

Then, some thirty years after publishing the last story in the series, Asimov decided to go back to it. The result, eventually, was two new sequels and two prequels to the original trilogy. These have elicited mixed opinions. Foundation's Edge itself is extremely readable, and certainly equal in merit to Second Foundation. Can the same be said of all the others? Probably not.

They are all interesting, but hardly necessary for the appreciation of the original series. In many ways their main purpose appears to be to accomplish a link-up with Asimov's similarly extended 'Robot' series into a connected history of the cosmos from the near to the far future.

In any case, here they all are, arranged in chronological order for your convenience:

Isaac Asimov: Foundation Series (cover art by Chris Foss, 1976)

    Foundation prequels:

  1. Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  2. Forward the Foundation (1993)

  3. Original Foundation trilogy:

  4. Foundation (1951)
  5. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  6. Second Foundation (1953)

  7. Extended Foundation series:

  8. Foundation's Edge (1982)
  9. Foundation and Earth (1986)

Isaac Asimov: Galactic Empire Series (1951-93)

    Galactic Empire series:

  1. The Currents of Space (1952)
  2. The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  3. Pebble in the Sky (1950)

In between the 'Robot' and the 'Foundation' series come the 'Galactic Empire' novels. These, though entertaining enough, lack the unity of the other two series, but do - in theory at least - bridge part of the gap between them.

What else? Short stories! Tons and tons of short stories, as befits one of those hardy pioneers who spanned the pulp and the hardback era. These are far too many to discuss in detail, though they do include 'Nightfall', which continues to be routinely included on lists of most important or influential SF stories.

What's most notable about them (imho) is the gradual way in which they morph from the hard Science Fiction of his beginnings into the mystery genre. Not being a great connoisseur of detective stories, it's difficult for me to judge his prowess in this form, but they do, collectively, seem to me to represent a bit of a come-down from his earlier work.

It is, however, arguable that Asimov never wrote anything but mysteries - whether set in the future or the present, fairyland or space. Here, in any case, is a list of his main publications in the field, including two novels and the extensive 'Black Widowers' series:

Isaac Asimov: Murder at the ABA (1976)


  1. The Death Dealers (1958)
  2. Murder at the ABA (1976)

  3. Short stories:

  4. Asimov's Mysteries (1968)
  5. Tales of the Black Widowers (1974)
  6. More Tales of the Black Widowers (1976)
  7. The Key Word and Other Mysteries (1977)
  8. Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980)
  9. The Union Club Mysteries (1983)
  10. Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
  11. The Disappearing Man and Other Mysteries (1985)
  12. The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  13. Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
  14. The Return of the Black Widowers (2003)

Isaac Asimov: The Black Widowers series (1974-2003)

There's a certain laborious facetiousness in his work in this form - and in the fantasy genre, which he also ventured into in his later years - despite its undoubted smoothness and readability. The constant roguish and would-be flirtatious references to sex also date them somewhat, and make them increasingly difficult to stomach for a contemporary audience. Each to their taste, I suppose. Like virtually all of his fiction, they seem to have sold quite well, judging by the numbers of copies still to be found in second-hand bookshops.

So how should one sum up the life and work of Dr. Isaac Asimov? He appears to have had a good time, for the most part, and to have brought enjoyment to many, many readers. That's not a bad epitaph for any writer.

It's true that his reputation as a sage has now begun to fade, but it's hard to imagine a future where people will no longer read Foundation or the 'Robot' stories. His twin anthologies The Early Asimov (1972) and Before the Golden Age (1974) combine to give an excellent picture of that far-off era when Science Fiction (or the pulp variety, at any rate) was young.

For the rest, it's hard not to feel his levity became him well - at least he resisted the temptation to become a prophet, unlike his near-contemporaries Heinlein and Herbert, or (for that matter) his nemesis Arthur C. Clarke.

Isaac Asimov (1983)

Isaac Asimov


  1. Pebble in the Sky. 1950 (London: Sphere, 1974)
  2. The Stars, Like Dust. 1951 (London: Panther, 1965)
  3. Foundation. 1951 (London: Panther, 1973)
  4. Foundation and Empire. 1952 (London: Panther, 1976)
  5. The Currents of Space. 1952 (London: Panther, 1971)
  6. Second Foundation. 1953 (London: Panther, 1975)
  7. The Caves of Steel. 1954 (London: Panther, 1973)
  8. The End of Eternity. 1955 (London: Panther, 1972)
  9. The Naked Sun. 1957 (London: Panther, 1973)
  10. A Whiff of Death [as 'The Death Dealers', 1958] (London: Sphere, 1973)
  11. Fantastic Voyage. 1966. SF Collector’s Library (London: Corgi, 1973)
  12. The Gods Themselves. 1972. A Fawcett Crest Book (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1973)
  13. The Heavenly Host (1975)
  14. Murder at the ABA [aka 'Authorised Murder']. 1976. A Fawcett Crest Book (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1976)
  15. Foundation's Edge. 1982. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1983)
  16. The Robots of Dawn. 1983. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1984)
  17. Robots and Empire. 1985. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1985)
  18. Foundation and Earth. 1986. HarperVoyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016)
  19. Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987)
  20. Prelude to Foundation. 1988. HarperVoyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016)
  21. Nemesis (1989)
  22. [with Robert Silverberg] Nightfall (1990)
  23. [with Robert Silverberg] Child of Time [aka 'The Ugly Little Boy'] (1992)
  24. Forward the Foundation. 1993. A Bantam Book (New York: Doubleday, 1994)
  25. [with Robert Silverberg] The Positronic Man (1993)

  26. Short Story Collections:

  27. I, Robot. 1950 (London: Panther, 1971)
  28. The Martian Way and Other Stories. 1955 (London: Panther, 1974)
  29. Earth Is Room Enough: Science Fiction Tales of Our Own Planet. 1957 (London: Panther, 1960)
  30. Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future (1959)
  31. The Rest of the Robots. 1964 (London: Panther, 1970)
  32. Through a Glass, Clearly (1967)
  33. Asimov's Mysteries. 1968 (London: Panther, 1972)
  34. Nightfall and Other Stories. 1969. 2 vols (London: Panther, 1973 / 1976)
  35. The Best New Thing (1971)
  36. The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying. 1972. 3 vols (London: Panther, 1979 / 1974 / 1974)
  37. The Best of Isaac Asimov (London: Sphere, 1973)
  38. Have You Seen These? (1974)
  39. Tales of the Black Widowers. 1974 (London: Panther, 1976)
  40. Buy Jupiter and Other Stories. 1975 (London: Panther, 1977)
  41. The Bicentennial Man. 1976 (London: Panther, 1978)
  42. More Tales of the Black Widowers. 1976. A Panther Book (London: Granada, 1980)
  43. The Key Word and Other Mysteries (1977)
  44. Casebook of the Black Widowers. 1980 (London: Panther, 1983)
  45. The Complete Robot. 1982 (London: Panther, 1983)
  46. The Winds of Change and Other Stories. 1983 (London: Panther, 1984)
  47. The Union Club Mysteries (1983)
  48. Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
  49. The Edge of Tomorrow (1985)
  50. The Disappearing Man and Other Mysteries (1985)
  51. The Alternate Asimovs (1986)
  52. The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  53. The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  54. Robot Dreams (1986)
  55. Azazel. A Foundation Book (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
  56. Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
  57. Robot Visions (1990)
  58. The Complete Stories. Vol. 1 of 2 ['Earth Is Room Enough', 'Nine Tomorrows', & 'Nightfall and Other Stories']. (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990)
  59. The Complete Stories. Vol. 2 of 2 (1992)
  60. Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection (1995)
  61. Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection. 1996. Voyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997)
  62. The Return of the Black Widowers (2003)

  63. Children's Books:

  64. David Starr, Space Ranger. 1952 (London: New English Library, 1970)
  65. Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. 1953 (London: New English Library / Times Mirror, 1980)
  66. Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. 1954 (London: New English Library, 1983)
  67. Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury. 1956 (London: New English Library, 1983)
  68. Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
  69. Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn. 1958 (London: New English Library, 1974)

  70. [with Janet Asimov]:

  71. Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot (1983)
  72. Norby's Other Secret (1984)
  73. Norby and the Lost Princess (1985)
  74. Norby and the Invaders (1985)
  75. Norby and the Queen's Necklace (1986)
  76. Norby Finds a Villain (1987)
  77. Norby Down to Earth (1988)
  78. Norby and Yobo's Great Adventure (1989)
  79. Norby and the Oldest Dragon (1990)
  80. Norby and the Court Jester (1991)

  81. Non-fiction:

  82. Asimov on Science Fiction. 1981 (London: Granada, 1983)

  83. Edited:

  84. Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (New York: Doubleday, 1974)
  85. The Annotated Gulliver's Travels: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. 1726 / 1734 / 1896 (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. / Publishers, 1980)

Isaac Asimov, ed. The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata Launch (7/12/20)

Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata blurb (2020)

With his wife suffering from Alzheimer's, Stephen reluctantly edits her final book, a study of Beethoven's sonatas, even as he still grieves the loss of their son.

Each day he escapes into his own work: a novel about an experimental treatment that reverses ageing. But when he discovers in his wife's papers a clue to an unwelcome secret, Stephen is forced to confront his past and reconsider the truths about his family.

Bryan Walpert's novella is an intimate portrait of marriage, infidelity and the legacies of memory.


Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata (2020)

Here's my launch speech for Bryan Walpert's new, prize-winning novella, at the Open Book bookshop in Ponsonby:

I have to begin by stating an interest. I love novellas. I've written a number of them myself, and I adore the form. It's my belief that novellas are the jewel in the crown of New Zealand fiction - Katherine Mansfield’s The Aloe (1918), Frank Sargeson’s That Summer (1946), and Kirsty Gunn’s Rain (1994), to name just a few of the more obvious examples.

Not that there's anything wrong with novels. It's just that quite often all the real inventiveness and interest comes in the first hundred pages or so, and the rest serves mainly to protract the plotlines. It's in those cases that one suspects that a commercial motivation may have entered into what should have been a purely aesthetic decision.

Academy of NZ Literature: Bryan Walpert

Viva la Novella, then! It's great that Bryan Walpert has won this prize, offered by Australian publisher Brio Books, thus avoiding the curse of the short novel ("Novellas … boy, as far as marketability goes, you in a heap o’ trouble," as Stephen King, himself a distinguished practitioner of the form, so memorably put it).

Bryan's novella is concise, clever, and beautifully paced. His characters have all the depth and complexity to be expected of any fictional creations, great or small, and it's plain that no other form would have permitted him to shape them so well.

Joseph Karl Stieler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Which brings me to Ludwig van Beethoven. Bryan is by no means the first to base a literary work on a musical composition. Anthony Burgess's Napoleon Symphony is probably the most famous example, but they're not hard to find. The point is that it's a sonata he's chosen.

To quote from Wikipedia (we Academics used to tell our students never to do that, but a few of us have given up and started to do it ourselves):
Sonata form ... is a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely since the middle of the 18th century (the early Classical period).
Mozart and Haydn brought the sonata to a technical perfection which seemed almost to preclude further development. Then along came Beethoven. He was, of course, Haydn's pupil for a time, and the two maintained a kind of jealous rivalry as a consequence. But Haydn could never have foreseen - let alone approved of - the passion and imagination Beethoven's enlarged sense of the form brought, in particular, to his late sonatas.

A sonata has three movements. Bryan's novella is in three parts. To return to Wikipedia: "There is little disagreement that on the largest level, the form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation." It sounds like any standard guide on how to construct your screenplay. But Bryan is playing with the conventions of the novella just as much as those of the sonata as he introduces his carefully prepared themes one by one.

And why shouldn't he? His protagonist is a writer, editing a book on musical theory by his own wife, who's been prevented by Alzheimer's from doing it herself. Simultaneously he's writing his own admittedly mostly therapeutic story - "'wish fulfilments,' Talia used to call my books, or once or twice, 'your little redemptions'" [12] - which also forms part of the narrative.

If it sounds a little mechanical and over-plotted, that's the point. It's Stephen, Bryan's spokesman, who's arranging it that way, with the maximum self-consciousness to be expected of a card-carrying fictionista. Of course, it's actually Bryan, since Stephen doesn't exist, but it's a Bryan-filtered-through-Stephen. "Like the God of the creation," Bryan himself can continue to "remain within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails", to quote James Joyce's own Stephen, Stephen Dedalus.

It can sound like a bit of a backhand compliment to call someone a writer's writer. Certainly Joyce was one. Any fiction writers who think they have nothing to learn from his elegant structures are, in my opinion, deluding themselves. Bryan Walpert is certainly a writer's writer. His book is clear and poised, but also passionate and moving. When it comes to savouring the details, though, observing just how nicely he's played his hand, how elegantly - and yet with the appearance of accident - it's all come together, it probably helps to be another, jealous writer.

The two of us work together as Creative Writing teachers at Massey University. His instructions for what I should say in this speech were pretty clear: "Just tell them I walk on water."

As I read my way through his novella, though, I began to think that he really does walk on water. Trust me, this kind of thing is not easy to do. However, as Yeats once put it, "if it does not seem a moment's thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." Don't for a moment think that this kind of apparently casual perfection happens by accident.

There's really not much left for me to say but to exhort you to go off and read Late Sonata. I don't know if it's necessary to have heard the actual piano sonata that inspired it beforehand, but - if so - the organisers of this launch have taken care of that for you, too. All I can say is that I've listened to quite a few different performances of it on Youtube since I first read it, and it's certainly been quite a help to me.

So congratulations again on winning the prize, Bryan, but deeper and more sincere congratulations on the sheer beauty of your novella. Nice one, buddy! Way to put the rest of us in our place ...

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Mike Johnson: Driftdead Launch (Waiheke, 4/12/20)

Mike Johnson: Book Launch (4/12/20)

Here's my launch speech for Mike Johnson's new novel, at the Waiheke Public Library in Oneroa:

"Now that she is out of danger, the librarian starts to shake. 'Damn you to hell,' she says under her breath to the First Person. 'You nearly lost me. What if I'd turned into one of them? What would you have done then?
Of course I can't answer her. It's not my job to intervene. Sometimes she treats me like a deity, the way the reverend thinks of God. I am her First Person, and therefore all-powerful. Of course that is not true. I am not the author of her being. She is. But when she gets frightened she turns on me and accuses me of all kinds of crimes.
She says no more, but I'm not fooled. This issue lies in wait for us further up the plot line. I don't have to be the First Person to see that." [155]

At some point in their careers, most writers dream of attempting the big one: the project to end all projects, the book which will allow them to use everything they've learned so far: in the case of fiction-writers, some version of that mythic entity called the Great New Zealand novel.

Driftdead is certainly Mike Johnson's most ambitious work to date. It's certainly the longest. In it, he distills a lot of his previous thinking about the true nature of small town life, his fears for the future, and - indeed - about the nature of life and death itself.

If I were forced to define it, I guess I would still call it SF: not sci-fi, mind you, but the other sense of that acronym: speculative fiction. It's set in the future - how near or far away is debatable, but certainly some cataclysm or series of catastrophes has taken place, leaving parts of the world desert and erasing much of our machine civilisation.

The setting is New Zealand. The novel doesn't actually say so, mind you, but the name 'Keatown' suggests it very strongly. As do the frequent references to State Highway 6, which - if I'm not mistaken - runs from Blenheim to Westport, then down the West Coast to Haast.

State Highway 6 (New Zealand)
"You can always turn to the mythical First Person Singular and appeal to be released from your lowly third-person subjective status into the generality of the driftdead, the 'they' and the 'them'. The grey murmuring. The mass shuffle." [377]

Nor is this geographic orientation irrelevant to some of the other themes in Mike's novel. The driftdead - 'dead like zombies, but with no interest in eating human flesh, and driven by a force beyond hunger,' as the blurb puts it - come down the coastal highway from the north, and move on through Keatown towards the south. Nothing will stop them: not fences, fires, or guns. Even when pushed into the sea they can still be seen, unbreathing, making their way southwards.

You wouldn't be much of a local if you didn't notice how precisely this reverses the traditional movement of our dead souls northwards, to Cape Reinga and their final leap out into the ocean towards Hawaiki.

The nature of these driftdead occupies much of the novel. I don't want to introduce any avoidable plot-spoilers here, but it's worth nothing that - like zombies - they are physical beings rather than ghosts or shades; also that virtually every one of them is carrying a single object of desire: a mirror, a book, a photograph - something (presumably) whose desirability outlasts all other forms of memory.

That's not to say that there aren't ghosts and other supernatural phenomena in the book - it might as easily be labelled a supernatural thriller as a work of speculative fiction. It's both, in fact. But that's not all it is. There are elements of magical realism in there, too.

Gabriel García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967 / 1970)
"The abrupt cessation of the roar of words leaves her feeling giddy and ill. It's one thing to stop writing, for her Chronicles to hit a wall, but this sensation of walking through her library as through a forest of dead leaves is something else. Perhaps she can bear her own silence, but the silence of the world staggers her. She is too afraid to pick up a book in case all the words have deserted it, and there is nothing but blank pages. a library full of blank pages, all the words gone south.
In which case, she might as well do the same thing.
I have to exercise my right as the First Person and step in. I have managed to keep out of it so far, but now duty calls. There is a solution, reluctant as I am to suggest it. In her darkest hour, I come to her with my solution. That gap, that bleeding gash in the narrative, she could fill with her own invention. She could make it up." [241]

As I read Mike's meticulous inventory of Keatown, its various groups of inhabitants - the drunken mayor, the psycho pump-jockey, the Indian supermarket owner, the crowd of itinerant children (in fact one of my suggestions for the second edition would be a list of characters appended at the back, like the ones in old Russian novels) - I was reminded above all of Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo, the imaginary village at the heart of his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As in Macondo, ghosts wander in and out of the houses as readily as people. And, as in García Márquez's Colombia, the villagers are slaves - mostly without knowing it - to the material interests of the moneymen: the companies and corporations far to the north.

Mike's novel is political, too, make no mistake about that: the politics of colonialism, of dispossession, of Māori and Pākehā history, all carefully recorded by the librarian in her 'Chronicles of Keatown', a very self-conscious attempt at an objective historiography of the region. And she, too, whether she likes it or not, is continuously influenced by genre models:
Her mind flounders around for literary references to which she can cling. The atmosphere is Edgar Allan Poe, the territory is the Twilight Zone. Not bad. The Frights provided by Lovecraft, picked up by Stephen King by way of Charles Dickens. [87]
She's not the only source for the complex backstory of Mike Johnson's narrative, though: there is also her omnipresent imaginary friend, the first person singular:
At the same time, ghostlike, she senses the presence of another first person, the source of all narrative authority. In such moments I am very near her. I can hear her short, shallow breaths. She imagines she can hear mine. She imagines she can feel me in the muted clickety-click of the keyboard. A presence very near yet very far, and hence a riddle. A presence that seems to permeate all points of view. [140]
Is this invisible presence Mike himself? It would be naive to suppose so. So we're forced to suppose at least three levels of narrators to get through before we can reach the bedrock of actual events. Whatever those may be.

Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-59)
"Just as Sirocco talks to his lizard, and Akona will talk to her ancestors, and the baron talks to his Arya Tara, and Annanda will talk to his absent friend Suneal, and Flay will talk to his shotgun, the librarian talks to me, or thinks she does. In her mind I am this shady, sovereign character she calls The First Person." [96]

Driftdead is Mike Johnson's War and Peace. It's a major novel, written by a consummate artist at the top of his form. Or perhaps I should say his Gormenghast, because in many ways the tone of his work is more reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's late, baroque masterpiece.

What does it all mean? Well, I can't really help you with that. You'll have to read all the way to the end even to start to understand the novel's unsettling climax. It still perplexes me, and I find myself going back to it again and again. All I can say is that the game is worth the candle. Mike's vision of the future, our future, is certainly not an optimistic one, but it would be hard to deny its importance.

There's a lot more to say about this book, and perhaps some day soon I'll get a chance to say it. For the moment, though, all I can say that I envy those of you who are about to start reading for the first time the saga of Keatown. And for those of you who've already read it, I'd like to tip you some kind of conspiratorial wink, and an urgent request for your own view of what precisely you think this most baffling of parables denotes - the end of Western hegemony? The return of the Collective Unconscious? Or (in H. G. Wells's famous phrase) the recurrent nightmares of a Mind at the End of its Tether?

Buy it. Read it. Now. Then we can talk.

Mike Johnson: Driftdead (2020)

At the end of the world, Keatown is already struggling for existence. Then come the driftdead! Dead like zombies, but with no interest in eating human flesh, and driven by a force beyond hunger.
"Driftdead is as canny a book about the uncanny as you would want to read. Past and future stream; our catastrophic present is registered with hallucinatory clarity: haunting characters from a small Aotearoan town speak the rhapsodies of their passing from a dreamland where beauty and horror orbit each other in the eye of an incorrigibly domestic storm. It is disturbing and salutary in equal measure; philosophically astute; a slow burn which generates terrific suspense. Mike Johnson has written a classic."
- Martin Edmond.

Launch times & dates (4-8/12/2020)