Power-Reading: Essential Works For Any SF Fan To Watch Out For!

Starting The New Year With Old Science Fiction Classics!

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“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them” – Ray Bradbury.  

In order to improve your science fiction writing, various how-to books and articles recommend that you do a stint of power-reading: study how some of the master wordsmiths of the SF genre crafted their classics. Having struggled through NaNoWriMo this year, producing far too many drab and uninspiring drafts, some encouragement of some kind was called for.

So, just what is “power-reading”? 

It’s enhanced, focused, critical reading – in this case, of science fiction in the hope of learning how certain authors attained popular – or cult – success with their individual otherworldly visions.

Winter always seemed like my designated period for reading novels; too cold to go out, so would make a tea/hot chocolate; grab some cake/biscuits, snuggle under a duvet and immerse myself somewhere across the galaxy, on an alien world preferably hot and bug-free.

 With the recent revival of my interest in SF, that tradition has made a glorious return. To invigorate my writing, a quite considerable armada of classics was selected to help inspire me to achieve greater literary heights. 

Hopefully, the more we read, so they say, the more we will want to write. 

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“But the peak came with… the first installment of Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith. If I had to pick the moment in my life when my reading experience hit its peak… that was the moment” – Isaac Asimov. 

Well, What Is It?

While researching other Posts, the name: E. E. ‘Doc” Smith would usually prop up, usually listed as a defining influence on later SF authors. It got to the point where research had to turn in his favour – and it was startling what a distinctly awesome contribution this writer offered to the genre.

In order to understand the rudiments of the “space opera,” his Lensman Series stands out. It doesn’t get more pulpy than this; published during the 1930s, although not scaling the same legendary heights as Flash Gordon et al, they nevertheless defined the template for the archetypal space opera, and inspired later works, including a certain space saga currently breaking all box office records yet again…  

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Well, Did U Get It?

For the time being, my pulp-hunger has had to make do with Skylark of Valeron, the third part of Skylark: another SF series produced by Smith around the same time. Quite simply, it is: “essential reading for all who appreciate science fiction in the grand manner.” 

And the cover art was provided by the always-reliable Chris Foss, which helped ensure its purchase. 

Speaking of Asimov… 

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“One of the most staggering achievements in modern SF” – The Times. 

Well, What Is It?

As Doc Smith’s Lensman Series provided one of the main inspirations for Isaac Asimov, this brings us neatly to his classic Foundation series, begun in 1951. Often cited as the most revered SF saga ever published, it is certainly essential reading for anyone who wants to study sci-fi as it should be written. 

As the Galactic Empire crumbles, Hari Seldon and his band of psychohistorians must: “create the Foundation – dedicated to art, science and technology – the nucleus of a new empire.” 

Well, Did U Get It?

My most fortunate acquisitions.

As early as last April, a copy of Foundation’s Edge came into my possession, while the acquisition of Foundation and Empire was made in the following month.

A few weeks ago, however, the original Foundation was found, and now rests on top of the pile, awaiting my eager inspection. 

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“I have learned more than I can say as a writer from his wise, twisty stories…” – Neil Gaiman. 

Well, What Is It?

The Shadow Of The Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe is a science-fantasy novel that has become an obsession of mine ever since first casting startled eyes at its truly mesmerising cover by Bruce Pennington.

This first volume in the tetralogy that has become known as The Book Of The New Sun, is set in a distant future, but looks very medieval in its striking imagery; its protag: Severian – an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers – is banished from the city, and – among other incidents – acquires an awesome sword called Terminus Est, and is dispatched to Thrax: the city of windowless rooms. 

Rightfully regarded as “one of the greatest SF writers of all time,” there is much to to be learned from studying the writing style of Gene Wolfe.

Well, Did U Get It?

No!

Surprisingly, despite his reputation as “one of SF’s greats,” Shadow was the most elusive of all the titles mentioned in this Post. None of the secondhand stores, nor any libraries, have it.

Instead, the nearest compensation to be found came this week in the form of: Shadows of The New Sun: Stories In Honor Of Gene Wolfe (2013), which includes pieces by a formidable assortment of acclaimed authors, such as: Neil Gaiman, Timothy Zahn and David Brin… including a couple of exclusive short stories by Wolfe himself. 

“Hours of reading pleasure” are, apparently, assured. Looking forward to it…

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“The High Crusade was a lively, sharp-witted reversal of science fiction stereotypes, as well as a magnificent adventure… His full-bore mastery of science fiction elements meshes perfectly with the historical details” – Greg Bear. 

Well, What Is It?

Intent on producing my own SF opus about aliens on Earth – in Medieval England, rather than the boring and overused present-day Manhattan – which you are most welcome to peruse here, one of my first areas of preparation involved checking who had used this theme in their work.

A quick search turned up The High Crusade, one of Poul Anderson’s most beloved works. It speculates what would happen if an alien spaceship landed in 14th century England…

Well, Did U Get It?

Yes!

Another surprise. Half-expecting to not find any of his works – his name doesn’t appear to have passed into the lexicon of SF greats – even tracking down just a yellowed, tattered version of this anywhere seemed remote.

However, in 2010, its 50th Anniversary was honoured with a deluxe reprint featuring a set of congratulatory introductions from such esteemed admirers as Greg Bear and Robert Silverberg, so have acquired a copy from the local library. 

Made a start, and already it’s turning out to be fantastic stuff. “huge cylinder, easily two thousand feet long; save for the whistle of wind, it moved noiseless” lands. It dispenses demons: “from the lowest pits of hell, about five feet tall, clad in a tunic of silvery sheen, deep blue skin, [with] a short thick tail.” Naturally, Sir Roger de Tourneville and his merrie marauders slaughter the whole extraterrestrial crew. 

“Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble.” 

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“Dune seems to me unique among SF novels in the depth of its characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates. I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord Of The Rings” – Arthur C. Clarke. 

You may remember in this Post, how Frank Herbert’s Dune: “huge in scope, towering in concept,” was beckoning me to be read. Well, it took until Christmas Eve to finally find a copy – this version (see above) is the same New English Library (Gollancz) design as Children Of Dune (Part 3 of the trilogy) which has been gathering dust on my shelves for countless aeons.

Of course, the original Dune – because it is “the most widely acclaimed SF novel of the 20th century” – had to be started first thing on getting home (the wrapping of far lesser fare could wait).

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LATE NEWS!

Before putting the final touches to this Post, earlier today the second part of the trilogy: Dune Messiah was found!

Have always been impressed with Messiah’s cover art (again produced by Bruce Pennington – methinks a special profile article on this fabulous artist is in order?)and it’s fantastic to welcome this sequel – at last – onto my shelves. To have probably the greatest SF trilogy ever purchased now stacked on the desk beside me invokes a satisfying – yet rare – sense of accomplishment.

Having accumulated all these books, it’s time to log off, disappear into the duvet and escape into those alien worlds!

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“Hopefully, other historians will learn something from this revelation” – Bronso of Ix. 

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“In Thy Future” Challenge: 5 Things That Need To Be Done

Share 5 Things About My Future. Well, Had No Idea Last Week That This Was Going To Happen…

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“Look, I am not stupid you know. They cannot make things like that yet… Are you saying it’s from the future?” – Sarah Connor. 

Having studied/worked as a historian, the past seemed – somehow, comfortingly – more certain, less daunting, yet always reassuring. Reviving my passion for sci-fi through this blog has helped confront that unfathomable and intangible “future”; now comes this challenge (gleefully accepted): 

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Rules for the In Thy Future Challenge:

• Thank the blogger who nominated you.
• Link back to the challenge creator to track progress.
• Share 5 things about your future.  Then one day you can look back and find out how psychic you really are.
• Tag 5 bloggers and put them up to the challenge.

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Danica Piche @ Leading a Beautiful Life – nominated me for this Challenge.  Thank you, Danica!

5 Things About My Future:

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“You should see what he can do” – Rogue.  

1. Get that novel finished. Obviously. And then write some more fiction. 

Yes, yes! This well-meaning intention has been announced/noted several times in this household – during this past year alone – to the point that Mrs. B no longer believes it. But hey, the ideas, enthusiasm and typing sessions generated over these past few weeks through my latest Brother Brad creation, have been fantastic.

Beforehand, there was a SF mega-opus coming along, but far too slowly. This project, on the other hand, is a different, more satisfying prospect – have not felt so good about writing fiction in a long time. Actually, working via WordPress rather than Word Document has actually sparked a more encouraging creative process.

If you are interested in Following this project as it comes to fruition, you can check out this site. Moreover, there are plenty of awesome ideas to stretch this concept into a series.

ETA: Volume 1 in the stores by Christmas!

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“I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. 

2. Visit Rome.

“Yet you have never been there!” as Marcus Aurelius constantly – irritatingly – reminds me. Ciao! Talk about a radical departure from what usually appears on these Posts, this remains a long-standing Thing To Do. 

Finally got the chance to study Ancient Roman History at universityHowever, having no physical connection to the metropolis once considered the centre of the world, it was not easy to get to grips with my studies. After the degree came a great travel option: Europe or Southeast Asia. The latter was selected; my life advanced to a higher, more enjoyable, level, although one part of me wonders what fortune the former option could have presented…

Mi dispiace, goodness knows when this visit will happen.

Cosi e la vita, bebe…

ETA: Who knows? Summer 2016 perhaps, or 2017? 

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“With his fertile imagination, his wit, and his prolific output, Isaac Asimov truly laid the Foundation for all future generations of science fiction writers” – Kevin J. Anderson. 

3. Swot up on some essential science fiction classics.

Compiling my own sci-fi Posts, this would seem like a mandatory pursuit anyway. However, due to the unavailability of such classics – and work commitments, of course – this aim is not as easy as it sounds. 

Honestly, how can you accept me as a sci-fi blogger if some of the greatest literary works in the SF canon have not been thoroughly scrutinised?!

For example, top of the Essential Classics list comes the Foundation series – revered in some quarters as the greatest SF series ever published – created by the grand master himself: Isaac Asimov. Initially a trilogy – Foundation (1951), Foundation And Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) – it now consists of six books; confusingly, Prelude to Foundation – the prequel – was the last book in the series to be published (as late as 1986).

ETA: From this November and on through Christmas (subject to availability). 

Green Arrow Clay Mann

“We have sat waiting like this many times before… At night, I can hear the call of my race. They wait for me. Once I join them, we will be forgotten” – Crow.  

4. Resurrect my archery.

Well, it doesn’t get any more ironic than this. There is a future for this ancient noble art in my life. Brad The Bowman: sounds kinda cool, huh? Not such an idle fantasy as it sounds…

Gawping at Crow, the Elvin bowman (the only highlight of ultra-cheap British fantasy flick: Hawk The Slayer) and the early ’80s Robin Hood TV series both proved to be lasting influences. This led me to sign up for an Archery Group at a fab holiday camp during junior school. Wow, talk about being a natural bowman – it was as if this mild-mannered moppet had been a Merry Man in a former life…

Unfortunately, there’s never been another chance to strap a quiver on me back ever since. My bow-draw-muscles are getting a tad flabby; yet my goatee is ripe and my Green Arrow costume gathers dust in the spare wardrobe.

So, put my name down for the next Archery Contest before my elvin skills set packs up completely; what say you?! 

ETA: The sooner the better…

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“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” – Doc. Emmett Brown.  

Last but not least…

5. Secure a copy of Back To The Future 2 and watch it on October 21 2015.

Aim to have a rollicking laugh at how hopelessly wrong their vision of our future turned out to be! This average sequel should also be regarded as a serious lesson about how futile it is to try and predict such things like the onset of hoverboards. 

It’s best to end on such a relatively simple task, as long as the download technology does not let me down…

ETA: October 21 2015. About teatime.

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“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today” – Phil Connors.  

This may seem like such a daunting challenge, but – trust me – this provides an ideal opp to sort out what you need/want to do. 

So, the delightful nominees are: 

Hope you are up for the challenge – good luck!

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Wouldn’t it be thrilling to visit our future self, look them in the eye and ask: “Well, did you manage it?” 

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Cheers!

Ex Machina: The Most Intelligent SF of 2015?

Just a machine? That’s like saying that you’re just an ape…

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“You just can’t differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans” – Isaac Asimov: I, Robot. 

If a Top 10 list of my most anticipated movies of 2015 was compiled then Ex Machina – described as a sleek and stylish SF thriller – would sit comfortably near the top. Among the latest crop of trailers for big blockbusters, it is comforting to note that small-scale productions like this are still developed. This movie looks like it will offer more cerebral and challenging visual feasts which, almost ironically, is what SF should be all about.

In a week where the new Ant-Man trailer failed to impress, Ex Machina offers some reassurance that 2015 is not all about Avengers and awakenings…

This British production (in collaboration with Film4) marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland – better-known as the screenwriter for The Beach (1999) and several Danny Boyle films including SF thriller Sunshine (2007), and will star only Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson… and Alicia Vikander who looks quite extraordinary in pre-release pics. 

Basically, this is a simple specimen with only three characters, and two of them will be appearing together again in Star Wars VII. So, at the very least, this film can be studied for what to expect from these “new faces” of the SW galaxy come December. 

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“I feel more attached to this film than to anything before” – Alex Garland.  

To see here the tremendous advances in the development of the AI subgenre, considering that during the 19th century, the creation of artificial beings could never be covered in fiction as it was deemed too blasphemous; come the 20th century, it was considered merely dangerous, but ever since Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) introduced the term: ‘robot,’ in R.U.R. (1921), the theme has really taken off, with both friendly and fiendish artificial characters becoming some of the most popular icons of sci-fi heritage.

Just as SF seemed to have lost its affinity with non-violent, intellectual and well-crafted works, this little movie sprang from nowhere… and managed to create the sort of uplifting buzz which that Ant-Man trailer failed to induce at all!

Ex Machina is a psychological thriller in which a reclusive billionaire programmer: Nathan (Isaac) invites one of his employees: Caleb (Gleeson) to come to his hi-tech research facility and conduct a “Turing Test”: when a human interacts with a computer; if it exhibits artificial intelligence, unbeknownst to the human, then it has passed. Caleb is invited to test Ava, possibly the most sophisticated artificial intelligence yet devised.  

Bear in mind that although the trailer for Ex Machina looks intriguing, so did the one for last year’s Automata which garnered an unwanted pile of poor reviews. That SF thriller starring Antonio Banderas had some cool scenes to offer, and the poster, with its intriguing lost-droids-in-wasteland motif, looked promising enough…  

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“The sci-fi films that intrigue me have human questions behind the technology… and I think this is just full of that…” – Domhnall Gleeson.

What is most significant about this upcoming release is what Ex Machina does not offer: violence (no ubiquitous comicbook punch-ups), pointless CGI explosions (with any luck, aforementioned facility should remain intact); clanking, cliched automatons bellowing in deep, ridiculous voices; useless dialogue littered with too many expletives (often a bad sign for any writer), and forgettable starlets shouting annoyingly at each other.

Perhaps, at the very least, this movie will serve as the template from which the Three Laws of AI Movie-Making can be implemented…

There are high hopes in this camp for Ex Machina, but just remember this: if it should fail – with the tremendous rate at which technological advances are being made these days – we’ll be faced with the slightly deflating prospect of having engineered a fully-automated, self-aware human-like droid well before anyone has managed to craft an intelligent and engaging movie about one!

Ex Machina will be released in the UK next week, and will hit US screens in early-April. 

Lastly, it seems only fitting that the concluding thoughts should come from Asimov himself. Rather than prolong banal introspective tales about automatons turning against their creators, he endeavoured to question the attitudes towards artificial beings. If such machines can exhibit some discernible form of calm and collected intelligence, they have earned the right to be counted as good people for it is the capacity to do just deeds in life rather than mere flesh and blood which makes true humanity. 

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The Three Laws of Robotics

  • as first stated by Isaac Asimov in the short story: Runaround (1942)

 

postscript

a-big-thank-you

  • to all the fantastic Followers who gave me 10 Likes and some fabulous Comments for my last Post: Brad’s Guide To The Future – my 1st foray into double figures! This is really encouraging, and inspires me to strive further; this year should see big positive changes to this Blog; notice the video upload here – hopefully the first of many!

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Cheers!