Recent Reads #1: Great science-fiction

Featuring Andy Weir, Ursula Le Guin, George R. R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle

In addition to my yearly roundup of favourite reads, I’d like to write semi-regular reading posts like this one when I’ve read a handful of books I’d like to talk about.

Originally, this was an excessively long post covering 10 books. But I’ve dropped discussing The Right to Sex here because I’ve already reviewed it, and I’ve chopped up the other nine across three posts.

For the first three, I’ve decided to group all the science-fiction novels I read together…

The Martian paperback cover with Matt Damon

The Martian
Andy Weir

When a book is described as “hard sci-fi”, I’m immediately put off. Stories with compelling characters are what draw me in, and a plot heavily reliant on talking about real science sounded like a snoozefest to me. But I had been assured that The Martian was a different kind of hard sci-fi, and I’m delighted to say those who recommended the book weren’t wrong. I loved this novel.

The protagonist Mark Watney is a funny, loveable guy with an infectious pragmatic optimism. When we first meet him, he’s alone and stranded on Mars. From the outset, his situation seems impossible to survive and it only gets worse. Describing something as a page-turner is such a tired cliché, but Weir does tension so well that I found myself speeding through the book because I was so eager to see how Watney survived the latest disaster.

I also loved the book from a craft perspective. We get Watney’s first-person POV via the logs that make up most of the book. But we also get a broader view of the narrative thanks to third-person perspectives from the Ares 3 crew and the people at NASA. It’s a style I’m keen to attempt in my own fiction writing.

How The Martian came to be is also an interesting story. From giving chapters away for free via his website to serialising the novel on Amazon to eventually signing a book deal and making the bestsellers list.

I’m making no commitments, but serialising a novel is on my checklist of things to do.

The Word for World is Forest sci-fi masterworks paperback cover

The Word for World is Forest
Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m ashamed that it has taken me this long to get around to Ursula Le Guin. But I am now very eager to read more of her work. This very short book is brutal but excellent.

Set on the peaceful world of the Athsheans, the native race is forced into slavery by the invading humans. They lose land that belongs to them, and the “yumens” steal their wood. Eventually, the Athsheans must put aside their natural pacifism and rebel against the merciless settlers.

Le Guin’s prose is easy to read. The content of her work, however, is anything but easy.

In fact, the very first chapter is told from the perspective of Captain Davidson — one of the most contemptible characters I’ve ever met in a work of fiction. And whilst the viewpoint of the oppressed Athsheans takes centre stage, it’s no accident that a human military man is the first eyes we borrow. Davidson is, after all, the archetypal hero of this kind of story we’d expect to meet in the opening chapter. Le Guin turns this trope on its head by making him the primary antagonist.

Growing ever more aware of the horrific crimes committed in the name of British and US imperialism, harrowing fictional narratives like this are necessary. But I think this assessment from Ken McLeod in his introduction surpasses anything further I could say:

The author’s sympathy is entirely with the enemy. The invaders from Earth are indisputably the bad guys and the rebellious natives are entirely in the right. But the novel’s revolutionary defeatism doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticising the revolt of the oppressed. The Athsheans are changed by the very act of fighting, new and strange to them; the world they win back is not the same as the world that was taken from them; and their fight is not fair, or discriminating, or by the rules. It is dirty and brutal and shocking.

Windhaven paperback cover

George R. R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

Set on a world where tiny islands are separated by vast oceans, Windhaven’s society is dependent on an elite class of flyers to deliver communications across vast distances. The story begins with Maris, a landbound girl who learns to fly. But when laws of inheritance threaten to strip her of her wings, she seeks to uproot tradition to keep them. Little does she realise that getting what she wants sparks a revolution.

It’s no secret that George R. R. Martin is my favourite author, and I’m slowly making my way through the novels and short stories he wrote before penning the bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series. Windhaven was Martin’s second novel and Lisa Tuttle’s debut. Their collaboration has resulted in a feminist novel that I adored from start-to-finish with strong anti-traditionalist and anti-inheritance messages.

Structurally, the novel is made up of three novellas. Each one presents a new challenge to the privileged class of flyers. As is true of Martin’s other work, the characters are morally complex and not even Maris is always in the right. In fact, sometimes the person with an ideological viewpoint I support has a rotten personality. And it’s these kinds of contradictions that make Windhaven a joy to read.

Furthermore, considering this book was written by two writers, it never shows. There’s no disconnect or any sign that two different voices are competing for the page. There’s a real harmony in Martin’s and Tuttle’s style.

You can read more about how they worked together on Martin’s website. There’s a great essay by Lisa Tuttle on how the two wrote the first novella that eventually evolved into this fix-up novel.