For over seven years, Slightly Foxed – The Real Reader’s Quarterly has been reviewing books of all genres: some new, some old, some very much out-of-print. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Slightly Foxed is a magazine of ‘literary enthusiasms’ which never fails to introduce its readers to neglected or forgotten books of the highest merit. What’s more, each issue is elegantly presented on cream paper with black and white illustrations throughout, making it both a delight to handle and a pleasure to behold.
In the latest issue, for spring 2011, there is an article by author and Guardian columnist Eric Brown on the work of Michael G. Coney, a writer who, Brown believes, should be ranked among science fiction’s finest, despite his nineteen novels and collection of short stories never having quite reached the audience they deserve. Coney died in 2005 and since then only two of his novels have been reprinted in small limited editions; the rest remain out of print.
Here is an extract from the Brown’s article, entitled Coney’s Islands, followed by his short guide to science fiction for beginners:
I first came across Coney’s work in 1985 when I read his short story ‘The True Worth of Ruth Villiers’ in John Carnell’s New Writings in SF 17, and a few weeks later ‘Bartholomew & Son (and the Fish-Girl)’ in Issue 27 of the same series. The stories made a big impact on me. The former was set in the near future, in a well-realized southern England coastal locale, and featured a first-person narrator and a single science fiction idea from which Coney had extrapolated a society changed by that idea: that an individual’s worth could be estimated by a harsh points system of social credit. The latter tale was part of a series of futuristic stories and novellas set on the ‘Peninsula’, a strip of land separated from the body of mainland America after a devastating tsunami, featuring artists and their creations, mood-affecting ‘emotion mobiles’.
What I liked about both stories, quite apart from Coney’s expert handling of narrative and plot, was that they were principally about people, and how a few small changes in society had an effect on character. Coney wasn’t so much interested in the science behind the stories, or the mechanics of the technology, but in how science and technology affect individual human beings, and how he could combine new ideas and interesting characters to tell compelling stories full of incident and narrative twists.
Over the next few years I read and reread most of Coney’s novels and all but a handful of his short stories. Among his early novels, Syzygy and Brontomek! stand out – the latter won the British Science Fiction Association award for the best novel of 1976. Both are first-person narratives set in the colony world of Arcadia, featuring a cast of believable, likeable characters. In Brontomek! especially, Coney achieved a total synthesis of character and narrative, producing a fast-paced, entertaining novel about people with whom the reader could identify in a story that gripped and constantly surprised. The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers brought the Peninsula stories together in a skilful mosaic novel that tells the story of Joe Sagar who farms alien creatures, slithes, for their skins, and his dealings with a series of fascinating locals: the spiteful and neurotic holovision-movie star Carioca Jones, the bonded slave girl Joanne, the snobbish and bigoted Miss Marjoribanks.
I came across Coney’s finest novel, Hello Summer, Goodbye, after reading all of his others. I had inadvertently saved the best till last.
Hello Summer, Goodbye, first published in 1975, tells the story of Drove and Pallahaxi-Browneyes on a far-flung alien world. They are not human, but stilk, a humanoid race. In a short prefatory note to the novel Coney explained: ‘I have assumed my aliens to be humanoid and, being humanoid, to be subject to human emotions and frailties. I have assumed their civilization to be at the stage of development approximate to our year 1875 . . .’ The planet undergoes long periods of summer, and a gruelling winter lasting some forty years, and is made real by some brilliant world-building: the tidal effect of the ‘grume’, a spectacular thickening of the sea water; ice-devils who inhabit tidal pools and have the ability to freeze the water when prey enter it; and the lorin, the peace-loving, furry humanoid co-habitees of the planet, with whom the destiny of the stilk is mysteriously bound. To quote Coney’s introduction again: ‘This is a love story, and a war story, and a science-fiction story, and more besides.’ It is also Coney’s finest intermeshing of character, incident and event – a sensitive account of growing up and the experience of first love, with one of the finest endings with a twist in modern science fiction.
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH SF
Science fiction (known among aficionados as SF) is a genre which some people find inaccessible, with its weird scientific nomenclature and confusing acronyms – not to mention some of its staple concepts: aliens, faster than-light starships and time-travel. But the best science fiction, like all literature, is about what it is to be human: the finest SF examines how scientific advances – or disasters, for example alien invasion – can affect society and by extension individuals.
SF became popular after the Second World War: John Wyndham found a mass audience with his ‘cosy catastrophes’ about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. His most famous novel, The Day of the Triffids, had giant man-eating plants savaging humanity. Around the same time, John Christopher was also writing about the breakdown of society; his chilling Death of Grass, about the end of all vegetation, has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic. More recent highly readable, thought provoking works include Chris Beckett’s penetrating novel about the artificial intelligence/human interface, The Holy Machine; Stephen Baxter’s Flood, about rising sea levels and humanity’s belated response; and Keith Brooke’s mind-boggling examination of virtual reality, The Accord.
Slightly Foxed Issue No. 29 ‘An Editorial Peacock’ Spring 2011 – OUT NOW
96 pages, illustrated throughout
Single issue – UK £9, Rest of the World £11
Subscription – UK £36, Europe £44, Rest of the World £48
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