Category Archives: Books

The Horror of Love

This is sick, twisted and superb.

Graphic designer and illustrator, Butcher Billy has come up with a series of book covers that re-imagines famous long songs as Stephen King novels.

The concept is to look at the dark side of love through the lenses of pop culture, bringing twisted aspects of his classic stories to play with the original meanings of the songs – that can be completely subverted or strangely emphasized, while paying tribute to the vintage design of the original book covers.

Click on through to his Behance page to see the full set.

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Critical Mass

Critical Mass Following on from Thursday, I was reminded of the last book I read on the subject of economics. That said, Critical Mass by Philip Ball goes beyond just economics and takes in a whole range of social sciences and delves into why these areas of study so often get things wrong.

Ball, a physicist by training and a former editor for Nature, makes the case that these subjects should focus on the behaviour of systems, rather than trying to extrapolate from individual behaviour as is so often the case. He starts by laying the groundwork and then works through a series of examples in which his approach has been successfully used.

It’s been a fair few years since I read this (my copy has a printing date of 2007) but the core point – that people are random and unpredictable individually, but highly predictable in groups – is one that has stayed with me and still appears to hold true.

I’d recommend it and I’m highly tempted to go back and read it again.

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2014 in books

I noticed today that Goodreads has a nifty feature that allows you to list the books you read in 2014 and I wondered if I could find some way of exporting it onto here. The answer, unless I am missing something obvious, is not easily.

But it’s mildly interesting to look back at what I read, so here is the list. The blockquoted bits are the synopsis, as published on Goodreads. The bits below are my own thoughts, if I have any.

Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Seal of the Worm The Empire stands victorious over its enemies at last. With her chief rival cast into the abyss, Empress Seda now faces the truth of what she has cost the world in order to win the war. The Seal has been shattered, and the Worm stirs towards the light for the first time in a thousand years. Already it is striking at the surface, voraciously consuming everything its questing tendrils touch. Faced with this threat, Seda knows that only the most extreme of solutions can lock the Worm back in the dark once again. But if she will go to such appalling lengths to save the world from the Worm, then who will save the world from her? The last book in the epic critically acclaimed Shadows of the Apt series.

This has been a superb climax to a superb series. There is so much that it’s difficult to talk about this novel without giving away huge spoilers for previous books in the series.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has done a spectacular job of reimagining the fantasy genre and taking it in a wholly new direction. I shall certainly be looking out for what he does next.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

This book melted my brain. On the face of it, this looks like a reasonably straightforward story of betrayal and revenge but there is so much packed into the plot that it really does push you to think about a whole range of issues – the largest and most obvious being the question of identity and what makes us who we are.

It does take a bit of effort to fully appreciate everything that is going on, but it’s effort that is well rewarded.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.

This is a fascinating look at the mental shortcuts we take and the way in which we frequently allow these shortcuts to mislead us. The first few chapters felt, to me, to be covering territory I already knew but the author keeps on diving deeper and deeper into how our cogntive functions actually work.

The results are not always edifying, but the journey is riveting.

Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeffrey R. Forshaw

Why Does E=mc²? The most accessible, entertaining, and enlightening explanation of the best-known physics equation in the world, as rendered by two of today’s leading scientists.

Professor Brian Cox and Professor Jeff Forshaw go on a journey to the frontier of 21st century science to consider the real meaning behind the iconic sequence of symbols that make up Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2. Breaking down the symbols themselves, they pose a series of questions: What is energy? What is mass? What has the speed of light got to do with energy and mass? In answering these questions, they take us to the site of one of the largest scientific experiments ever conducted. Lying beneath the city of Geneva, straddling the Franco-Swiss boarder, is a 27 km particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider. Using this gigantic machine—which can recreate conditions in the early Universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang—Cox and Forshaw will describe the current theory behind the origin of mass.

Alongside questions of energy and mass, they will consider the third, and perhaps, most intriguing element of the equation: ‘c’ – or the speed of light. Why is it that the speed of light is the exchange rate? Answering this question is at the heart of the investigation as the authors demonstrate how, in order to truly understand why E=mc2, we first must understand why we must move forward in time and not backwards and how objects in our 3-dimensional world actually move in 4-dimensional space-time. In other words, how the very fabric of our world is constructed. A collaboration between two of the youngest professors in the UK, Why Does E=mc2? promises to be one of the most exciting and accessible explanations of the theory of relativity in recent years.

A fascinating and clearly written review of Einstein’s theories of relativity and what they mean. It’s so straightforward that even I could understand it.

Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt.

The giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory are extraordinary. But no matter how spectacular it is, travelling the endless rails of the railsea, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life. Even if his philosophy-seeking captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing – ever since it took her arm all those years ago.

When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But the impossible salvage Sham finds in the derelict leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides: by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers.

And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Although I have been seeing praise for China Miéville for some time, this is the first of his novels that I have read. It took me a bit of time to get used to hi0s writing style, but once I did, Railsea turned out to be a hugely fun romp of a story. There aren’t any real surprises in the plot, but what is there is all handled exceptionally well.

From Aberystwyth with Love by Malcolm Pryce

From Aberystwyth with Love It is a sweltering August in Aberystwyth. A man wearing a Soviet museum curator’s uniform walks into Louie Knight’s office and spins a wild and impossible tale of love, death, madness and betrayal. Sure, Louie had heard about Hughesovka, the legendary replica of Aberystwyth built in the Ukraine by some crazy nineteenth-century czar.

Transition by Iain Banks

Transition There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.

Iain Banks wrote some exceptional literary fiction. Iain M. Banks wrote some exceptional science fiction. I didn’t pay enough attention to the missing M in the author’s name when I picked up this novel.

Transition isn’t a bad novel but it does feel like the sort of novel that emerges when an author veers into a genre they don’t fully appreciate.

Iain M. Banks would have written a much better novel.

The Call of Kerberos by Jonathan Oliver

The Call of Kerberos Twilight, a world overshadowed by a vast gas giant, bathing the earth in its otherworldly glow. A world of magic and warriors, zealots and monsters. It is here that the human race cling to a small peninsula, ignorant of what lies beyond the World’s Ridge mountains. But there are those amongst this fledgling race with truly extraordinary powers, heroes who would delve deep into the mysteries of the past and bring new light to Twilight. Twilight of Kerberos is a sword and sorcery series, following the adventures of a group of characters with unique talents. The world changes for Silus – a simple fisherman from Nurn – when a man on the run from the Final Faith tries to persuade him on an extraordinary voyage. Then an ancient evil bursts from the sea and tries to claim Silus as one of their own. To discover the truth about his legacy Silus must take to the forbidding Twilight seas. There, the truth will forever change his world and threaten existence
itself!

I’m in two minds about this book. I do quite like the idea of multiple authors playing in a shared world, but this is not the strongest entry in the series so far. The writing is good enough to keep me with the story up to the end, but I really wasn’t buying into the premise – and I think this may turn out to be a problem with the series as a whole.

Coyote by Allen Steele

Coyote The national bestselling story of Earth’s first interstellar colonists-and the mysterious planet that becomes their home.

Allen Steele has thrown a lot of ideas into Coyote, but never really stopped to develop any of them. The end result is both superficial and disjointed.

This, I realise, is quite a damning criticism of a hard-sf novel in itself. But the problem is compounded by the characters – they are one-dimensional, often inconsistent and uniformly uninteresting. I realy couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them.

I had heard many good things about Coyote before I read it but the book has proved to be a disappointment. It wasn’t bad enough to abandon, but I did come close several times.

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Old Man’s War

Old Man's War e-book Here’s a bit of a confession. Although I have been aware of John Scalzi, the author, for several years and, although his reputation suggests that I would enjoy his output, I have never found the time to actually read any of his novels. Until now.

I picked up Old Man’s War as part of last year’s Humble E-Book Bundle and finally got around to opening it earlier this month. It really is a cracking read. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce–and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Yep. It’s military science fiction in which the elderly take on the bug-eyed monsters. If you think Heinlein with a better sense of humour and without he preachiness you won’t be far wrong.

Old Man’s War is not a classic, but Scalzi knows his tropes and plays with them well. The result is very readable and a great piece of pulpy fun with a few thoughtful moments that will stay with you.

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Quote of the Day: A big bright bold boisterous light

But in his science fiction he achieved something more: something, I think, that the genre rarely manages to do. He was intensely political, and he infused his science fiction with a conviction that a future was possible in which people could live better — he brought to the task an an angry, compassionate, humane voice that single-handedly drowned out the privileged nerd chorus of the technocrat/libertarian fringe and in doing so managed to write a far-future space operatic universe that sane human beings would actually want to live in (if only it existed).

– Charlie Stross on Iain Banks, who died on Sunday.

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25 essential SF novels

Earlier this year, AbeBooks.com published a list of 50 Essential Science Fiction Books. They have a good selection on their list and it inspired SF author Ian Sales, along with Jared Shurin and James Smythe, to compile their own lists – all of which were split into two parts (Ian Sales: One Two; Jared Shurin: One Two; James Smythe: One Two) and then Ian posted an analysis of the three lists.

I heard about this via The Antihippy whose list of 27 Essential SF Books started me thinking about what I put into such a list.

Compiling the list proved to be surprisingly easy although I did impose a few restrictions on myself to prevent things from getting out of hand. Firstly, I only allowed myself one book per author, this to keep me from compiling a list of everything by $AUTHOR or all books in $SERIES. Secondly, I limited myself to novels, so short story collections are excluded. And finally, I have tried to remain strictly withing the SF genre. There are some superb genre novels out there but, unless I can honestly say that I think of the novel as science fiction (an entirely subjective judgement, I know), it isn’t going to make it onto this list.

I should also add a disclaimer to note that this is a list of books that I wold recommend based on what I have read and, as such, reflects my own preferences, prejudices and blind spots. The list is not definitive and plenty of other opinions are available.

So, with those caveats out of the way here is the list (in alphabetical order):

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. This is dystopian SF at it’s most horrific, in which a class of teenagers are forced to fight – against each other – for their survival. The novel is relentless, powerful and one that leaves you picking at its themes long after you have turned the final page.

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

Time travel, historical fiction and an exploration of how far we will go to protect our beliefs. What more could you want?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

George Orwell (who is also in this list) feared an authoritarian state that would beat us all into submission. But I can’t help feel that it was Aldous Huxley who more accurately foresaw the modern world. To steal a quote from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

John Wyndam’s novels in general, and The Day of the Triffids in particular, have been accused of being “cosy catastrophes” in which the world ends apart from a handful of (primarily) middle-class survivors who jolly well start to sort things out. It’s not an entirely unfair criticism but I do feel that it is one that misses the point somewhat. The real core of the book is a discussion on how British society might reorganise itself if the slate were to be wiped clean in – for example – a nuclear war.

Science fiction, as has been often observed, is less about the future than it is about talking about how we got to where we are now and, in this, Wyndam excels.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Another apocalypse but this one is entirely ecological. In The Death of Grass, John Christopher considers what would happen if a virus started killing off the grass. All grasses, including wheat and rice. The results are not pretty – many of our staple foods are gone and most of livestock can no longer be sustained.

The Death of Grass presents a frighteningly plausible end of the world scenario and then questions just how long we would manage to cling to civilisation if it came about.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

There was a time when steampunk was a new and interesting sub-genre, rather than the cod-Victoriana we are so often presented with nowadays. The high point of this was The Difference Engine (which also allows me to sneak two excellent authors into this list for the price of one).

The novel is a cracking piece of alternate history that speculates about what sort of Victorian information society would have emerged if Charles Babbage had managed to build his Difference Engine.

Dune by Frank Herbert

For a long time, this was my favourite SF novel of all time. Dune represents world-building at its finest and is probably one of the first truly immersive SF novels.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns) is not, as is often asserted, a book about censorship. It is, like Brave New World, a novel that looks towards a future in which censorship is no longer needed. Books aren’t burned because governments fear their contents, but because the clueless masses don’t want to feel stupid when compare to a literate elite.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is, for want of a better word, a tricksy novelist. His novels often have the feel of elaborately constructed puzzles that require close attention for you to fully appreciate them. All of this comes together superbly in this collection of three interrelated stories.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

You can’t really claim to have a list of essential SF if Isaac Asimov doesn’t make an appearance. I have to admit, though, that the robots novels I have read feel a bit dated now. His Foundation trilogy, however, is a galaxy-spanning space-opera that explores how the social sciences would work if they were actually sciences. In Foundation and Empire, the second novel in the trilogy, we are presented with the very real limitations of these.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly

Arguably the first modern science fiction novel – and certainly one of the first, Frankenstein is a novel that, like Fahrenheit 451, is quoted more than it is read. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

As with The Death of Grass, the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is frighteningly plausible. Ian Sales says it better than I could:

The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

High Rise by JG Ballard

While most apocalyptic fiction tends to focus on global social collapse, High Rise condenses all of this into a single tower block. As with other novels of this type, Ballard’s book explores the extent to which our civilisation is dependent on the technologies upon which we rely, and questions how quickly we would descend into barbarism if these technologies failed.

By containing the events in a single location, Ballard gives the story a much greater impact and also prompts us to consider the extent to which the rest of us are able to ignore the events happening (figuratively) right next door.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Literate, witty, intelligent, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny. Douglas Adams’ tale of a man’s search for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything (and a decent cup of tea) is not so much a novel as a cultural phenomenon. There is even an annual day dedicated to the life and work of the author – there’s not many people in SF about which you can say that.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

This is probably an obvious choice but it is often the case that obvious choices have good reason to be obvious.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

Iain M Banks has written many Culture novels and they all stand out from the pack for the fact that Banks has clearly put some thought into the economic and social ramifications of a galaxy-spanning civilisation. This is most apparent in The Player of Games, which works on multiple levels from a discussion of the comparative strength of an open society compared to an authoritarian one, to a blisteringly good story.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

I do like a but of space opera but have to admit that much of it is so implausible that it is often no more than fantasy with spaceships. Not that this is a bad thing, in itself, but does make Alastair Reynolds’ hard-SF space opera feel like a breath of fresh air in an often moribund genre. There are no faster than light spaceships in this universe and the ramifications of near light speed travel are part of the narrative. Revelation Space is both plausible and epic – a rare feat indeed.

Ronin by Frank Miller

Back in the 1980s, Frank Miller was one of the people leading the way with intelligent and inspired graphical storytelling. Ronin, which is strongly influenced by both Japanese and European comic styles, is probably his best work. Inspired by the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series, Ronin takes the idea of a masterless samurai and transports it into a dystopian New York to come up with a story that is both powerful and original.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I was tempted to type: “Free will is an illusion and we all die in the end. So it goes.” But I didn’t, because such a glib one-liner undersells Slaughterhouse Five to the point of being actively misleading. The problem is, I don’t think there’s any way I can summarise this novel without underselling it to the point of being misleading.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M Kornbluth

This one felt like a bit of a cheat when I started compiling this list as I slightly less than two thirds through this book at the time. That said, Pohl and Kornbluth’s wonderfully biting satire of hyper-consumerism is so effective and so relevant – possibly even more so today than it was in 1952 – that I couldn’t see it letting me down in the final stretch and, I’m rather rather glad to be able to say that it didn’t.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

It’s arguable whether Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein’s strongest novel, but it’s certainly not the weakest. It is, however, the Heinlein novel that has enjoyed the greatest cultural impact. It’s also a very ambitious novel which inverts the common trope of placing an Earthman on an alien world in order to challenge some of the social conventions to which we have become accustomed.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

When people talk of Alan Moore, Watchmen is generally the first title to spring to mind. While Watchmen probably represents a pinnacle of graphical storytelling, I think that V for Vendetta represents the moment when comics started to be taken seriously. Strongly influenced by the political climate of 1980s Britain, V for Vendetta is the result of Alan Moore consciously thinking about where the extreme poles of politics really were.

Moore never loses sight of the need to tell a good story, however, and V for Vendetta is a powerful, tale for which the dense narrative has much to say. Not only is this a book worth reading, it’s a book worth reading on a regular basis.

V for Vendetta is also the only one of Alan Moore’s works that was ever made into a halfway decent film.

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

HG Wells is another author from which I could easily select any of a number of novels but, ultimately, this tale of Martians stomping all over Surrey is irrresistable. There is, of course, much more going on here than just an alien invasion story, not least of which was Wells’ decision to put the then dominant global power on the receiving end of an aggressively imperialist invasion.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Before 1984, before Brave New World, there was We – possibly the original dystopian novel. Written in 1921 and set in the savagely egalitarian panopticon of the One State, the novel was written in response to both the Russian revolution and the industrial efficiency ideas that were popular at the time. George Orwell explicitly cited We as a model for 1984 but the influence of Zamyatin’s novel can be seen much more widely.

Not surprisingly, it was also the first novel that the Soviets saw fit to ban.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As long as there are people getting things badly wrong on large scales, writers of dystopian fiction will have plenty of fodder. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, for example looks at a future in which global warming has been allowed to run unchecked until the fuel runs out. Biotechnology has become the dominant industry and food production is controlled by an oligopoly of global corporations. The Windup Girl is a compelling and though-provoking novel that packs a lot into a very small space. It’s well worth reading, as are Bacigalupi’s many short stories.

Some observations

Looking back over this list, a couple of thoughts have struck me.

The first one is that, while I have always thought of myself as being a fan of space opera, it is the dystopian fiction that have proved to have achieved the most lasting impact.

Also, I really should read some more women SF writers. I am aware that there are some very good ones out there, some of whom I have encountered in short stories. I am now thinking that there are a number of novels that I need to add to my reading list.

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