Trapped In The Bargain Basement

How do you follow up a successful crime novel? With sequels, of course. The crime genre naturally lends itself to a series of novels, as there will always be more crimes to solve. This is especially true of detective novels, where new cases are constantly arising. As a reader it is great to find a detective novel that you like, as further adventures are very likely to come into print.

Last year I read and enjoyed The Girl Who Tweeted Wolf by debut author Nick Bryan, and I was similar entertained by the sequel published earlier this year, Rush Jobs, so I was very pleased to discover that a third volume, Trapped In The Bargain Basement, would be coming out in October.

Like its two predecessor ‘Hobson and Choi’ adventures, Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a gritty detective drama with a dash of Bryan's sarcastic humour on top. Bryan is not afraid of tackling serious issues - the previous Hobson and Choi adventure looked at the effect of gentrification of Peckham – and book tackles the problem of London's homeless.

Rising homelessness is a serious problem in London, and Bryan approaches the issues with intelligence and sensitivity. Trapped In The Bargain Basement acknowledges that homelessness does not just mean street sleepers, and that the term also covers those in temporary or insecure accommodation, something which is frequently overlooked in the homelessness debate. In this novel, Hobson and Choi encounter a group of people squatting in the basement car park of an up-market shopping centre – people without secure homes of their own who live in accommodation not fit for human habitation, which is often the reality of homelessness. These people are frequently the victims of abuse or people who have been evicted from private rented accommodation. With the soaring cost of renting in London, this is becoming a growing problem.

The main homeless character in the book is Camille, a French runaway who is hinted at having a history of abuse from a family member and whose job as a cinema usher will not cover renting in London. This is subtle way to explore the realities of homelessness for many people through the medium of a comedy/crime novel.

People like Camille are the unseen side of homelessness. They are hidden away in temporary accommodation or accommodation unfit for human habitation. These are the people we are oblivious to as we go about our lives, but they are frequently the victims of exploitation and crime, as this book explores.

Camille works in the cinema at the trendy East London shopping centre of the EastVillage, which is run by the exploitive manager Allan Ballart. Seasoned detective John Hobson and his teenage work-experience placement Angelina Choi are brought in to investigate a series of muggings that have taken place in the EastVillage. They quickly discover Camille and the community of homeless people living beneath the shopping centre, but when Hobson and Choi start asking too many questions about who really benefits from the crimes taking place, Camille is framed for murder and Hobson and Choi need to discover the real culprit.

The plot of Hobson and Choi's investigation takes twists and turns which keep the novel interesting, and the characters are written in a humorous and compelling way. The reader gets a sense of their lives outside the case which are developed enough to seem realistic. Hobson is having an awkward affair with the receptionist of his building and has newly acquired a dog that he is uncertain how to look after. Choi is taking her first steps in dating, as well as wondering whether she wants to continue with Hobson after her work experience ends. However, as interesting as the plot is, it does lack tension. There is not a great sense of peril for the main characters. The reader grows attached to Camille and we do not want to see her go to prison, but our main focus is on the detectives, who are not in a great deal of danger.

Bryan uses comedy to relieve what could be a very depressing story, whilst the darkly sarcastic nature of Bryan's humour matches the tone of the plot. The frequency of the jokes means that this is a story which does not take itself too seriously, and this makes it easier for the reader to digest the serious points made about homelessness, abuse, exploitation and murder. Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a dark story, but the sarcastic humour keeps it from being unbearably bleak.

The Hobson and Choi books are grounded in the realities of life for most Londoners. As well as the story of the case we get a lot of insights into Hobson’s and Choi's lives outside work. Choi lives on social media, Hobson is suspicious of it. Hobson eats at Subway, whereas Choi prefers a trendy pop-up pizza place in Brixton. The scenes from outside work for both characters are realistic and familiar to reader from our own lives, which is what brings the characters to life. One of the best scenes in the novel is Choi's date with returning Hobson and Choi character Will. Bryan portrays the early stages of a teenage romance without sensation and with his trademark witty sense of humour. We all remember what those early awkward dates were like and recreating these sensations with these characters gives them a life beyond that of the iconic roles of detective and assistant.

Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a very entertaining read and it lives up to the promise of the previous Hobson and Choi adventures. This is my favourite outing for the comedically mismatched pair of detectives, because it has a compelling story, tackles important issues in an intelligent way and has a sense of humour based on everyday life that brings the characters to life. I am glad that the Hobson and Choi series, which started so well, continues to produce great books. I am looking forward to their fourth adventure, Blood Will Stream, next year.

Science fantasy books

Readers often think of science fiction and fantasy as two separate but related genres. They both rely on creating unusual worlds and telling stories that explore them. Sci-fi and fantasy overlap - there are common tropes, archetypes, stories, etc - but most readers divide novels into one genre or the other. However the line between sci-fi and fantasy is blurry and there are some stories that cross over from one genre to the other. These are science fiction fantasy books.

China Miéville is an author whose work exists in this blurred territory. He has written urban fantasy novels like King Rat and science fiction like Embassytown, but some of his books, like The Scar, use both sci-fi and fantasy concepts. The Scar has magic (thaumaturgy in this universe) and vampires as characters, but there are also spaceships and aliens in the novel. Miéville’s writing borrows from the iconography of both genres, and he fits into neither.

In order to find out what exists between the two genres, we should look at the difference between them. The commonly accepted distinction is that science fiction should have some scientific explanation for the imaginative concepts that the author has invented for the story. For example, the novel the Andy Weir's novel The Martian is based on what is scientifically possible now and what might be possible in the future, where as there is no scientific explanation of the origin of the Discworld. These stories are easy to classify as one genre or the other.

Dr Who is a good example of a TV show that is both sci-fi and fantasy. Although a lot of Dr Who is based upon what we know about science, there are a lot of Dr Who stories that do not stand up to scientific analysis. Time travel is probably not possible; neither can a child crying on Christmas Day defeat a homicidal snowman. The Daleks and the Cybermen make sense when looked at from a scientific point of view, as they are imagined along the lines of possible developments in cybernetics, but when Amy wishes the Doctor back from the dead it is not scientific and neither are the means by which the Weeping Angels turn to stone when looked at. These devices can be used to tell emotionally engaging stories, but they do not stand up to scientific scrutiny, so Dr Who sits in the space between sci-fi and fantasy as it has elements of both.

A book can be in both genres not just by borrowing from both: a writer can approach non-scientific concepts in scientific way. For example, the time machine, from HG Wells’s novel, is a realistic (as was considered possible at the time) scientific explanation of what the future will be like told through a non-scientific means, i.e. time travel. Wells's vision of the future and the people in it makes sense but the science of the machine does not.

Rather than sitting across both genres, a story can move from one to the other. Anne McCaffrey's ‘Dragon Flight’ novels start off as fantasy but then become science fiction as the technology and science behind the setting is revealed. From the characters’ point of view it makes sense for them to explain their circumstances - mainly the existence of dragons - as magic based upon what they know, but their understanding changes as the story progresses across several novels.

The characters' perception of what is magic and what is science is key to the stories that sit on the blurred line between the sci-fi and fantasy genres. In some stories, the explanation is deliberately vague, which makes it harder to tell whether it is scientific or not because according to Clarke’s third law ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

In many of the stories the power of technology is shielded in mysticism. In Frank Herbert's novel Dune, the line between science and magic is blurred because of social factors. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the Kwisatz Haderach are mystical and they have strange abilities, such as seeing through time and having ancestral memories, all of which is unscientific. The protagonist Paul's experience of the world of Dune is more like that of a fantasy novel (understanding strange things as magic) because that is how he sees the world. Paul does not seek scientific explanations to the strange things that he encounters, as we would, because of the different society he was raised in. The reader cannot judge if these concepts are scientific or magic because there is no reason for the characters to ask this question. The reader has to put this novel on the blurred line between sci-fi and fantasy because of how the characters see their world.

Characters see the world of Dune differently to our world because it is set in the far future and society has changed a lot in the intermediate millennia. Star Wars is another similar example where mysticism shields concepts such as the Force from scientific analysis and the characters do not question this. The technology behind the Death Star is based on projections from our science, but the Jedi and the Force is more difficult to explain. Like Dune, the characters do not question the unexplained nature of the Force, so the viewer can never know for sure. Star Wars is set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ and Dune is our distant future, so it makes sense that society’s views on what should be questioned and investigated are different.

There is no hard and fast rule about which genre stories fall into and which ones are in between genres. The further the story is removed from our world, the more difficult it is to classify story concepts as magic or science. The Martian is clearly science fiction, but the science behind a lot of the book is not fully explained. There is no scientific explanation as to how they transported something the size of the rovers to Mars so the reader must just accept this for the story to work, much as they must accept magic in a fantasy story. Whilst there is no scientific explanation to the origin of the Discworld, the ways in which magic works in Terry Pratchett’s novels follows set rules like science does and is investigated in a scientific way at Unseen University. Even these books which appear easy to classify as one genre or the other have elements of both.

Across all of literature, the lines between genres are blurring to tell interesting stories, not just sci-fi and fantasy. As the distinction between genres becomes more vague, it will get harder to classify stories into one genre or the other.

Tintin, modernist science fiction and the moon

The Moon is a powerful symbol in science fiction. It constantly looks down on us, reminding us that the universe is larger than this world. It is the only other body in the solar system that people have visited, and it represents the first step in getting off this world and exploring space. Lots of sci-fi works set in the near future have the moon as the first place colonised by humans, and in many visions of the future the moon is a stopping off point for the rest of the system. Alastair Reynold's Blue Remembered Earth is the most recent example of a book I have read which uses the moon in this way.

There was a time, within living memory, when it looked like our world and science fiction were converging and the limits of human exploration were being pushed back. These were the hay days of the US/USSR space race, which led to the first humans landing on the moon in 1969. This race to the moon has inspired many sci-fi stories set on the moon or around the moon – the Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein or Eon by Greg Bear, for example – but there is one sci-fi story which instantly jumps to my mind when thinking about the moon landing and that is the Tintin adventures Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Belgian comic writer Herge first published these comics in Tintin Magazine in 1950, 11 years before Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon in 1961 and 19 before the first landing in 1969.

The Tintin stories are rooted in the modernist age and highlight some of the social and technological changes that modernism was exploring. New technological breakthroughs from colour TV to nuclear power are the focus of Tintin stories, and it is Professor Calculus's nuclear powered rocket which takes Tintin and his friends to the moon. The Tintin comics also focus on political changes, such as the Cold War, which shows concern about direction of events in the modern age. The space race was an important part of the modernist age and by looking at the way we viewed the moon, we can tell a lot about that time. This is especially well summed by looking at Tintin.

One feature of modernism was a sense of optimism about the future and a belief that we could build a better world – this was especially present in modernist architecture. For many people, the space race represented this hope for a future where new frontiers would be opened, and we would live in space or on the moon. The moon landing is the most striking image of an expanding future, as it pushed back the boundaries of where humans had been. Many people thought that within a few years from 1969 we would be living on the moon. Today this sense of optimism has faded, and we are frightened by the future. We have also stopped visiting the moon.

This sense of optimism about the future was fueled by a belief that technology would continue to develop at the rapid pace which it had during the 40s, 50s and 60s. In Tintin, this is represented by Calculus’s nuclear rocket, which makes space travel much easier than it was in real life. In Tintin, a single nuclear-powered ship could make the journey to the moon, return to Earth and be reused. If this had been how technology developed, then space travel would be much easier and we would now have colonies in space.

The nuclear rocket in Tintin is as much a science fiction concept as the Enterprise or a Culture GSV. Nuclear power has not become compact enough or efficient enough safely to power a mission to the moon, certainly not with the ease that is shown in Tintin. In reality, to visit the moon we needed several vehicles, connected together, most of which were destroyed in the process of being used. It is nearly 50 years since the moon landing and we still travel to space the same way, i.e. the majority of our crafts are thrown away. This makes space travel very costly and not something that can be undertaken easily.

Technology has advanced since the moon landings (most mobile phones are more powerful than the computers which the moon missions used), but the huge technological advancements of the modernist age – mass manufacturing, electronics, flight, space travel, nuclear power – did not make space travel as easy as it is shown in Tintin. Today there is a feeling amongst many people that we are going backwards and we have lost hope in the future. We got rid of Concorde, we do not go to the moon anymore, and we are worried about the effects of humans on this planet rather than getting off it. The future is a scary place and we do not want to live there. Tintin is modernist as it shows that the future can be a better than the present, in the future we will be able to go to the moon.

The Moon represents some of the goals of modernism because it is about being optimistic about the future and reaching for more than we have now. However, Modernism was also about questioning the narrative of endless progress. The rockets that took us to the moon were not just symbols of hope but also of terror, as they carried the bombs that could destroy the world. New technological breakthroughs during the Second World War made international travel and space travel easier and possible respectively, but it also made devastation on a huge scale possible. During the war, many people had seen the destruction that new technology could create and were frightened that the prospect of a war between the two global superpowers, the USA and the USSR, would be even worse.

The expansion of conflict into new theatres, especially space-based ones, is a key theme of science fiction. In Tintin, the new conflict of the Cold War is represented by the Bordurian attempt to sabotage the rocket and later by Colonel Jorgen, a Bordurian agent, who stows away on the rocket and attempts to maroon Tintin on the moon. Borduria is an Eastern European Communist state that stands in for the entire Eastern block in many Tintin adventures. The conflict with Colonel Jorgen in Explorers on the Moon shows that for Tintin space is as dangerous as much as it is an opportunity. It also shows how the conflicts of the modern world are expanding to new theatres as the boundaries of humanity are pushed back.

The Tintin adventures, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, are a glorious piece of modernist science fiction, filled with optimism and fear about the future. In the world of Tintin, new adventures such as travelling to the moon are possible, but also new conflicts are expanding in dangerous ways. The Moon remains as far away to us as it was in 1950; the brief age of space exploration is over, and for now humanity is very much stuck on Earth. At the same time, we have lost the modernist desire to build a better world. Maybe hope that the future will be better than the present will return some day and humanity will turn its head upwards and be excited once again about walking on the moon.

Why the Sad Puppies are wrong

Today the winners of the 2015 Hugo awards will be announced, and whatever happens, the outcome will be controversial because of the nominations. This year's Hugo award nominations have been dominated by a few writers who received the backing of a Gamer Gate affiliated internet group known as the Sad Puppies. The Puppies believe that sci-fi awards have become dominated by a liberal elite who are more interested in rewarding women and writers of colour than good science fiction. The Puppies slate is filled with politically Conservative authors, such as John C. Wright - I have written about this before.

The Sad Puppies want to go back to a fictional past when science fiction novels were about explosions, goodies and baddies, battles and adventure, and not tackling weighty issues from our world such as gender and inequality. Science fiction has always explored issues from both a liberal and conservative viewpoint. I believe that this exploration of issues is fundamental to writing great science fiction. I want an inclusive sci-fi which comments on our world and uses political and social issues to enhance the stories being told. A regression to "white dudes in space" will damage the quality of the science fiction writing produced in the future.

To support this argument, I will start by going back to the early days of my love of sci-fi novels. The X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole were my gateway to reading sci-fi. I loved the Star Wars movies and toys, and wanted more from that universe. A series of novels about daring X-Wing pilots fighting the remnants of the Empire was the perfect fix for my hungry Star Wars habit. The X-Wing novels are great space adventures, heroic rebels, evil Imperial agents and lots of excitement. I owe my love of reading and writing sci-fi to these novels.

After reading five X-Wing novels, I started reading other works of science fiction. Dune, Foundation and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep were early favourites. My tastes changed as I went through my teenaged years and discovered other writers. When I went to university, my horizons were broadened and I became more aware of society, politics and history, as well as my own privilege and the importance of diversity. My tastes changed as well to suit this new understanding of the world. When I discovered Iain M. Banks, he quickly became my favourite writer, and this led on to many other social sci-fi novels, such as Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard, and eventually to reading Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, the winner of the Hugo award for best novel in 2014.

These books have more nuanced characters, more complex stories and tackle issues from our world. They take the medium of science fiction beyond space adventure to create stories with emotional resonance and insight into the human condition. At the same time as my taste evolved towards more sophisticated novels, I also expanded from only reading novels written by people like me - straight, middle-class, white, western - to reading books by a wider range of authors. I fully admit that I have a long way to go in this regard; I still mainly read books written by white men, but I am making an effort to read sci-fi written by people of different backgrounds whose experience of the world is different to mine.

I feel this is a natural element of becoming an adult, in much the way that my taste in food has developed. When I was young, I only ate bland British food, but now I love Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mexican food. Over time, our tastes and interests become broader and more sophisticated. The Sad Puppies feel that rewarding more sophisticated and diverse writing is just pandering to political correctness and ignoring books that are entertaining in favour of books which tackle issues. However, they only evaluate a book against one criteria, its entertainment factor, rather than looking at a range of reasons why a book might be worth reading.

Why do I consider it natural for our tastes to develop this way? Let's go back to the start to look at this. The X-Wing novels were entertaining to read but the plot mainly revolved around white men having space adventures, like the Star Wars films themselves. We know that real life stories are a lot more complex than this. Any story taken from our own lives has a diverse range of different people in it. We see diversity around us every day - the majority of people I interact with are not straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered men from the midlands - so when diversity is not represented in the stories we read, they become implausible. Surely the future will be more diverse than the present, and the events of the future are likely to be as complex and nuanced as those of the present.

Take a moment to look at any real life conflict and you will see that there are two sides, two competing arguments - that is unless you approach the world in a very reductive way. The diversity in our world means that real life stories are much more complex than the plot of an X-Wing novel, and the people who populate our world are more nuanced than the characters of the X-Wing novels. The conflict in the X-Wing novels, and Star Wars in general, does not make much sense under scrutiny. One of the reasons why episodes 1-3 are so bad is that they try to explain the politics of the conflict, which is too simple to make sense. Star Wars is a struggle of absolute good against absolute evil, but no real life struggle is that simple.

This is not a criticism of the X-Wing novels being aimed at younger readers. There are plenty of YA novels with a diverse range of nuanced characters and complex conflicts that make sense when examined. The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a good example of this, but there are many others. Aiming your novel at a younger audience does not necessarily mean dumbing it down and is not an excuse for having characters and conflicts which do not make sense in a real world context.

The stories that sci-fi writers tells have to be believable and our reference frame for what is believable is our understanding of our world. Science fiction can have imaginative aliens, theoretical technology, bizarre worlds, strange cultures and anything else that a sci-fi writer can imagine but the characters, their relationships and conflicts must make sense to the reader based on their experience of our world. This means being complex and diverse, as our world is.

Conflicts, cultures, societies and relationships will be different in the future from how they are now, but they will evolve out of the present. The conflicts and characters of a sci-fi story should make sense when translated into our world or else they are too simple. For example, Iain M Banks's novel Consider Phlebas is about a struggle for influence and the clash of ideology between two great military powers, very similar to the cold war from our history. Ancillary Justice is about imperialism and would make as much sense in the context of 17th century European expansion. The characters in these stories and their relationships are similar to what the reader is likely to experience from their own lives. Ancillary Justice maybe about the relationship between an AI governing a spaceship and a lieutenant on that ship, but it is a relationship based around love and respect and is nuanced enough to be believable as a relationship. Conflicts and relationships should be informed by our world to make sense to the reader.

A sci-fi writer's work is based on his or her experience of our world and thus the writing is influenced by his or her privileges and the society she lives in. Authors need to be aware of this when crafting their stories. This is especially true when handling issues of diversity. I have said that sci-fi stories do not make sense without diversity, but when writing about diversity the author's privileges need to be taken into account. This is why I like sci-fi that explores issues, conflicts and relationships in our world through a sci-fi prism because they are informed by our world and thus their fictional world is believable. I also like sci-fi stories when the authors are aware of their own privileges and try to comment on them, or least prevent them from clouding the story.

Doing all this requires a certain amount of complex narrative, nuanced characterisation, detailed world building and issue exploration which you do not get in the white dudes in space, goodies and baddies, novels on the Sad Puppies slate. Depth, complexity and a well-informed comment on the real world are essential to good sci-fi writing, which why novels with these characteristics win awards and shallower novels do not. It is not a conspiracy by liberals, women and people of colour to suppress white men, it is the difference between good and bad writing.

I love books like the X-wing novels as they made me love the adventure side of sci-fi and they led me on to more sophisticated and diverse works. I do believe this is an essential process in order to avoid shallow stories, the author's own privileges and a lack of diversity which make stories unbelievable to the reader. If the Puppies want to go back to this kind of writing then sci-fi will become stale, uniform and filled with authors’ unexamined privileges.

Time is money in The Quantum Thief

One of the reasons why I love science fiction so much is the imagination that its authors show in creating the worlds in which their stories are set. I am frequently blown away by how creative sci-fi authors can be when inventing strange new worlds, bizarre aliens and ways of living. Of all the books that I have read in the last few years, none have been more interesting or unusual than The Quantum Thief, the debut novel by Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. The Quantum Thief surprised me with how outlandish an author’s imagination can be when creating characters, plot and sci-fi concepts to inhabit a fictional world. What I found most fascinating about the novel is that part of it is set in a moving city on Mars, called the Oubliette, where time is their currency. This made me think, how would this work and what economic issues would it bring up?

The first thing to note is that the Oubliette is not a post-scarcity society as are some in science fiction. There is resource scarcity - such as physical space, power, food and luxury items - which means a system of allocating resources amongst the Oubliette's citizens is necessary. Time is the medium through which the Oubliette allocates its scarce resources, as each citizen is given a certain amount of time which ticks away second by second but can be exchanged for goods and services. When a citizen's time expires their personality is download into a machine body known as a Quiet. The Quiet do the majority of the labour in the Oubliette, certainly all the essential jobs including keeping the city moving. A citizen serves time as a Quiet, only maintaining a fraction of their humanity, before being reborn as human and the process begins again.

We are introduced to the Oubliette through the eyes of a visitor, Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief who is looking for memories he hid in the moving city. This is an effective way of showing this strange society to the reader without the need for heavy-handed exposition. We see how time can be exchanged for goods and services, but we do not see how someone amasses additional time to spend. This would presumably be from selling goods or services to other citizens, however no one in the Oubliette appears to work. The majority of the labour is done by the Quiet. The Oubliette's economy is a strange mix of slavery and jury duty.

How would such an economy function in reality? There would probably be a problem with inflation as a citizen's money is constantly losing value. Any banks that exist would have to make the interest they offer on any savings very attractive to counter the effects of inflation. Although the natural rate of inflation built into their economy, i.e. the passage of time, would make investment more attractive than saving. However, investing your time in a new businesses to create economic growth and technological development would be risky. There is no welfare state in the Oubliette and a bad investment would be a quick ticket to the Quiet, thus most investors are likely to be risk-averse, which would hold back rapid economic growth and technological development.

Most normal economic process (such as investment, taxation, government spending, public services, importing and exporting) could not exist in the Oubliette. However, there is clearly a need for some public services as there is crime, namely the Gogol pirates, and thus a police force which must require some resources and its employees some remuneration. The citizens who provide services such as policing, and attempt to apprehend Jean le Flambeur, are presented as hobbyists who do this work out of interest rather than a means of securing an income. Most likely these people are already wealthy and thus do not need payment and therefore taxation and government spending is not necessary either. However, if most public services are provided on a voluntary basis then the Oubliette is one large economic shock away from the complete collapse of its essential services.

The lack of saving, investment, government spending, imports and exports means that the Oubliette is a static economy with a low level of economic growth. This plays into the politics of the society. The Oubliette is a secretly totalitarian society ruled over by a shadowy group known as the cryptarchs. Jean le Flambeur claims that it is a secret prison based on the idea of a panopticon, where every action is visible to those watching over it.

The main social value of the Oubliette is based around the importance of privacy, which discourages the sharing of personal experience of society and thus prevents the collective examination of social structures. In short, a ‘keep yourself to yourself’ mentality does not encourage the challenging of power structures. All of this points towards the Oubliette being a static but wealthy society, which appears to give its citizens a lot of personal freedom but below the surface it is very limiting and controlling.

Despite its static nature, there is inequality in the Oubliette. One character, the millionaire Christian Unruh, is clearly richer than the average citizen. There are also beggars, who are only a few minutes away from being sent to the Quiet, thus the Oubliette has unemployment. There must be a trade economy reassigning time from the bottom of society to the top for inequality to occur. The reader is introduced to shopkeepers, including a chocolate shop owner, which links into the point above about investment in the Oubliette being more attractive than saving due to inflation. All this points to a degree of economic dynamism thriving beneath the surface of the oppressive cryptarch regime.

There are no comparable real world examples of economies that are similar to the Oubliette. The closest example I can think of is Cuba. Cuba is a society which balances personal freedom with an authoritarian government. Cuba's currency, the National Peso, can only be used by its citizens, which prevents imports and exports, much in the same way that time cannot be exported or imported from the Oubliette. This leads to the country remaining static for political reasons. Beneath the surface of this static and controlling economy is a thriving and dynamic unofficial economy where citizens work around the government's restrictions.

The economy of the Oubliette is interesting and raises a lot of questions. Aside from analysing the implications of using time as a currency, The Quantum Thief is a really imaginative book. Its fantastic story is weaved around the setting of the Oubliette and it has interesting characters and a lot of tension. The Oubliette merely provides the backdrop for the drama of the story. The Quantum Thief is an original science fiction novel which shows a lot of creativity and I would recommend it to any fan of the genre.

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

The poor do not deserve to be poor and the rich do not deserve to be rich, this is something I firmly believe in. An individual’s economic situation owes more to chance than to hard work or intelligence. My own middle-class status is because I had middle-class parents. However, those who are wealthy justify the fact that they have more money than others by arguing that they deserve it, which implies that the poor deserve to be poor.

This applies to any oppressed group in society; those who are discriminated against due to race, gender, religion, etc. They do not deserve it, your race or gender is decided by chance, and so no one deserves to be oppressed. However, powerful social groups justify oppression through any means of excuses from pregnancy being a “life style choice” so women can be paid less than men, to it being natural for one ethnicity to dominate another - this comes up with depressingly regularity throughout history.

There are many novels which explore the idea of the undeserving oppressed: for example, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, or Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman. A novel that I recently read which handles this expertly is The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig. Haig’s book makes the point that the disadvantaged are disadvantaged by chance and not their own actions in a powerful, captivating and accessible way.

The Fire Sermon takes place in a dystopian future, after society has been destroyed by “the Blast”. The surviving humans eek out a quasi-medieval life, and – as in medieval times – this life is often brutal and short. One side effect of the Blast is that all pregnancies result in twins: one Alpha twin, strong and healthy, and one Omega twin, weaker and different. Omegas are missing limbs, or have extra limbs, or occasionally possess strange predictive abilities. The difference between Alpha and Omega twins forms the basis of the class division in The Fire Sermon.

Once the Omega twins are a few years old, the Alpha communities who birthed them reject them. Omegas cannot have children so they are forced to leave Alpha society and live on the edge of the Alpha world. Occasionally, Omegas band together into supportive communities, which are frequently oppressed by the Alphas. Omegas are driven to the infertile lands where their medieval subsistence-farming existence is made more brutal and even shorter. The Fire Sermon makes the point that the Omegas in society are not to blame for the situations that they find themselves in, but the Alphas blame the Omegas for their poor quality of life, when in reality they are to blame.

What is most powerful about The Fire Sermon is that the twins are forever linked. If one dies then the other dies at the same time (this is what keeps the Alphas from exterminating the Omegas), if one suffers a great amount of pain then other twin feels it too. This shows that humanity is linked together by a common bond that cannot be broken, however the politically powerful ignore this bond by taking every opportunity enrich themselves at the expense of others.

The Fire Sermon shows how the powerful blame the powerless for being powerless, when it is really the fault of the powerful. A particularly graphic example of this is a section in the novel where an Omega is whipped and the narrator (an Omega) talks about how the Alpha twin will feel the pain of the whip. The narrator comments that rather than blaming a society that whips Omegas with little cause, the Alpha twin will blame the Omega for the pain that they feel by proxy. This shows how social structures direct people’s rage towards oppressed groups instead of the system of oppression. We see this with how the wealthy turn the working poor against the non-working poor, or how rich whites turn poor whites against ethnic minorities.

Another well observed event in The Fire Sermon, frighteningly similar to real life, is when the narrator sees how even those who do not benefit from the social structure, namely poor Alphas, are in favour of it because they can look down on Omegas. The poor Alphas are oppressed by the same social structures and scarcity of resources which oppress the Omegas, but rather than fighting to change the system in solidarity with Omegas, the poor Alphas cling to their small amount of superiority of being Alphas, and look down on the Omegas even more. We see this with race and class a lot in our world. The poor should be natural allies, but they are turned against each other by the social structures that oppress them.

As you can probably tell from this article, I find The Fire Sermon most interesting from a political point of view. The Alphas are the rich and Omegas are the poor; this is both materially true in the novel, and in an allegorical sense. Alphas pretend their greater material wealth is just, when it is obviously not. They claim the Omegas bring their poverty on themselves, when it is clearly because of Alphas excluding Omegas from good jobs and lands from which wealth can be extracted. Despite the Alphas’ policies to impoverish the Omegas, the Omegas are still blamed for being poor. We see this in our world when programs to help the poor, such as state-funded education or Sure Start Centres, are cut and then the poor are blamed for being uncompetitive. How the poor are supposed to be competitive when starting from a position of disadvantage without help is never explained.

What makes the allegory of The Fire Sermon so lasting and powerful is Haig’s knowledge of real life instances of oppression. Before publishing this book, she was an academic studying the Holocaust and has cited Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces as a major influence. Haig has pointed out in talks that the word Holocaust means burnt offering, which is appropriate to The Fire Sermon.

Haig has weaved a sense of sadness and hopelessness throughout The Fire Sermon, which is emblematic of how a lot of people think about the Holocaust. Her knowledge of how the social structures can turn from prejudice into bare-faced oppression shows in how painfully real the social structures of The Fire Sermon are. We see many examples of oppression in The Fire Sermon echoed in our world, and these details bring the book to life and make it believable.

That the poor do not deserve to be poor and the rich do not deserve to be rich is powerful in its simplicity, as is the allegory of The Fire Sermon. The nature of the oppression of the Omegas is similar to events in our world, which gives the novel a painful resonance and makes it a powerful argument for human compassion across social divisions. It is also a stark warning about how dangerous the belief that the oppressed deserve to be oppressed can be.

Blue Remembered Earth

A good novel has an engaging plot, right? As well as relatable characters and an interesting setting, there must be a plot that the reader becomes emotionally invested in, but what makes a plot engaging? A degree of originality? Twists, turns and surprises? Cliffhangers? All these things can encourage the reader to engage in the narrative, but personally, what hooks me into a story is characters striving to achieve a goal.

I enjoy a novel where the characters have a clearly defined goal which they are actively taking steps to achieve, for example trying to complete a mission, catch a criminal, solve a mystery or steal something. This format provides a logical structure for the narrative and a clear line of progress. It is then entertaining to see characters thrown off this line of progress and struggle to get back on it. I relate to characters who are trying to achieve something, rather than passive characters who are the victims of circumstance.

A good example of this type of plot is Alastair Reynolds' novel Blue Remembered Earth, the first of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The plot focuses on brother and sister Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya who are following clues left by their grandmother Eunice to uncover a secret from her past. They are opposed by members of their family who want the secret, whatever it is, to stay buried. Blue Remembered Earth is set in the 2160s, and the fact Eunice was a pioneer of early space exploration means the clues are scattered across the Moon, Mars and Phobos or hidden in trans-Neptunian asteroids.

In Blue Remembered Earth, personal, inter-personal and extra-personal conflict all come from characters trying to achieve the goal of solving the mystery. Personal conflict in that Geoffrey and Sunday begin to doubt how well they knew their grandmother. Inter-personal conflict arises as the quest to find the clues causes a conflict with their cousins who want to keep the secret. Finally, extra-personal or environmental conflict as the clues are hidden in dangerous locations, including abandoned early settlements on Phobos, the Chinese sector of the Moon and an area of Mars given over to violently competitive machine intelligences.

What makes this structure lead to an engaging story is that once the characters and goal have been established, the narrative flows naturally from that point. Personal, inter-personal and extra-personal conflict have the same source, which leads to a well disciplined narrative. The source of conflicts are easily understood by the reader and the motivation of the protagonists, moving towards achieving their goal, is relatable. In Blue Remembered Earth, we become emotionally invested in Geoffrey and Sunday's struggle to solve Eunice’s riddle as the conflict of all types increases. Having an engaging narrative, with characters actively striving to achieve a goal, facilitates this.

This format works well for other books. In Iain M Banks's Against A Dark Background, the protagonist, Sharrow, must find the lost Lazy Gun before she is murdered by a cult. Sharrow is an active protagonist with a defined goal, each choice she makes brings her closer to achieving her goal which leads to an efficient and engaging narrative.

The opposite plot structure to this can be found in many sci-fi books, and that is the character who is passive, a victim of circumstances, usually just focused on trying to survive in a hostile environment. These plots are typically focused on environmental or extra-personal conflict, which is the easiest source of survival drama.

A good example of this is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze. In this novel, Sunday's daughter Chiku is among the first humans to travel to the alien world of Crucible. They are crossing the vast distance between stars in a hollowed out asteroid. However, the world they are heading to is not as safe as they imagined. Meanwhile, a duplicate of Chiku must survive on Earth while a dangerous AI tries to kill her.

The majority of the plot in On The Steel Breeze focuses on the two versions of Chiku trying to survive in difficult circumstances. Like in Blue Remembered Earth, characters take actions to achieve a goal, staying alive, but there is not a specific goal the character is trying to achieve other than continual existence.

On The Steel Breeze has a fast moving and eventful plot, but it is not as engaging as Blue Remembered Earth as there is a not a clear, tangible goal which a character is striving to achieve. The plot does not have the same accessible format. Giving the characters a clear goal would make the novel more engaging.

Another example of a sci-fi book with this type of plot is David Brin's Glory Season. It focuses on characters trying to survive in their home environment. Maia and Leie are vars (variants, as opposed to clones) on the planet Stratos, which means they are second-class citizens. When they reach a certain age, they have to leave their clone family and find their way in a world that is suspicious of and hostile to people who are not clones. Maia and Leie get mixed up in lots of exciting adventures, including conspiracies, pirates and humans from other worlds, but their story does not have a clear focus and drifts from situation to situation without a clear direction.

I find it is less interesting if the characters’ top priority is survival; I am interested in goals characters are willing to risk or sacrifice their lives to achieve. A lot of stories about characters trying to survive in a hostile environment shift to become stories with a clear goal in the third act. For example, in Glory Season, Maia is willing to risk her life to save Renna, the man from the stars she has met. At the end of On The Steel Breeze, Chiku risks her life to make Crucible a safe place for her children to live. Clearly defined character goals make for dramatic climaxes.

Another reason I prefer stories where the protagonist has a defined goal is that it is more interesting to see characters striving to overcome the status quo rather than support it or restore it. Stories around survival often involve character trying to keep the situation as it is, with them alive. A good example of how this change affects characters is the difference in Katniss between the first Hunger Games novel, where she is focused on her survival and maintaining the status quo, and the last one, where she has a goal of overthrowing the oppressive capital.

Having characters only focused on their own survival can lead to a tense story but also means the story can lack purpose and direction. I prefer to read stories where characters are actively striving to achieve a goal and change something about the world they inhabit.

Sad Puppies and the Hugos

Over the last year and a bit, it has been with some sadness that I watched GamerGate tear through the video game community like a hegswarm attacking everything that is not a hegswarm (that’s an Iain M Banks reference – remember it, I’ll be coming back to it later). Now the same madness is coming to the SFF community in the form of the Sad Puppies, the anti-SJW voting block that have pushed a list of their preferred nominees into every category of this year’s Hugo awards.

The Sad Puppies, much like GamerGate, claim to be against the politicising of science fiction literature and in favour of going back to a time when reading books was fun and not a political statement. They claim that a group of politically correct SJWs have dominated the award bodies and given science fiction’s top prizes to writers who share their political beliefs. The Sad Puppies are an anti-political movement, but being anti-political is a political position in itself. Opposing writers who share a certain political belief is a political position.

Sad Puppies are a political group as much as SJWs are, so let’s look at their political beliefs. They oppose the “social justice-minded community elites” as they call them. The SJW’s main goal is to increase the diversity in science fiction, diversity in terms of writers but also in terms of the types of characters and plots in sci-fi stories. If the SWJs are in favour of diversity then the Sad Puppies are in favour of the status quo, the dominance of straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered, British and American men in sci-fi publishing.

The Sad Puppies would argue that they are not against diversity, they are against elitist cliques pushing diversity onto sci-fi against the wishes of the fans. Their solution to a supposed SJW elitist clique is to form an elitist clique. An elitist clique is what the Sad Puppies are, as the establishment in sci-fi publishing is straight, white men. For proof of this, look at this article on the number of women who have won Hugo awards, or this article on racism in sci-fi fandom or go to a sci-fi book event and see how it is mostly made up of straight white men.

So the Sad Puppies are supporters of the sci-fi establishment and in favour of the status quo. They are against cliques suppressing writing that does not conform to certain political views, so they have formed a clique to suppress writing which does not confirm to their political views.

All of this reminds me a lot of the rise of UKIP in the UK. The Sad Puppies, like UKIP, claim to be standing up for the silent majority against the overbearing authoritarian left. Like UKIP, the Sad Puppies are from the establishment and are protecting the establishment - a party with a former public school boy and banker as their leader is not against the establishment, just as opposing diversity in a genre dominated by straight, white men is not against the establishment.

UKIP and the Sad Puppies are a radical pro-establishment reaction to the establishment being threatened. Claiming they are fighting community elites and the authoritarian left is just a way to distract attention from the fact that these groups are made up by the sort of people who are in charge everywhere.

I am not against the means by which the Sad Puppies have gone about achieving their goals, they have not broken any rules and have organised themselves efficiently. I am against their politics and against their claims to be anti-political or above politics. There is nothing more political than a straight, white man claiming that their subjective political opinion is object truth and above the petty squabbling of politics.

Diversity is important in science fiction, which is what the Sad Puppies essentially oppose as these are main goals of the SJWs, lefties and feminists – or the forces of darkness as the GamerGate/Sad Puppies axis think of them. Diversity makes sci-fi fiction stronger, more interesting and more fun as a genre.

Diversity also needs recognition from the sci-fi awards bodies. For too long science fiction has been dominated by straight, white, middle-class cis-gendered, British and American men and I say this as a straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered British man, some of whose favourite books are written by straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered British or American men. All this stuff is great but diversity is equally important and it is something I am bad at myself but I am trying to be better at.

Years of courageous writers, journalists and fans talking about the appalling lack of diversity within sci-fi was just starting to make a difference with some great books receiving recognition recently, such as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. If the Sad Puppies get their way, it will be harder for women, for people from ethnic monitories, for people from the LGBT community, for writers without English as a first language to tell their stories. If the Sad Puppies get their way, authors and fans will be constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure a group of middle class white men are not following them around screaming that they are an oppressive authoritarian clique.

If the Sad Puppies get their way, they will become a hegswarm (hegemonizing swarm), devouring everything that does not look like them. The hegswarms are mentioned in several of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, but feature most prominently in Surface Detail. They are tiny nano-machines that, due to a flaw in their tiny nano-machine brains, will not stop until they convert all matter in the Universe to be exactly like them. If the Sad Puppies get their hegswarm way, I fear they will turn the entire sci-fi genre into an image of themselves and diversity will be dead forever.

Fortunately, in Surface Detail, there are the Restoria, a group whose job is to contain hegswarm outbreaks. We need to be Restoria against the hegswarm by standing up for diversity and calling out reactionary authoritarian groups pretending to be grassroots fan organizations. It is not too late to register for a supporter’s membership for the Hugo awards and vote for the works not on the Sad Puppies list.

We cannot let the Sad Puppies get a foothold in SFF fandom the way GamerGate has in the video game community. We are a diverse group and standing up for diversity was going so well until they came along. The Sad Puppies are not a reflection of SFF fandom and they need to know it.

Top 5 interesting aliens

An original concept is what grabs me when reading a sci-fi novel – something clever, insightful and surprising. After reading a lot of science fiction, genuinely original ideas are becoming harder to find but when I do so, it makes a book a much more enjoyable read. The best way for a novel to engage me with an original idea is with a clever, new variety of alien. With that in mind, what follows are my 5 favourite aliens in sci-fi novels.

Affront – Excession

The Culture, from Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, meddle in the affairs of other races to make them more like the Culture. Usually there is a degree of ambiguity about whether this is wise; for example, in Look To Windward the Chelgrian class system seems unjust but in removing it the Culture create a devastating civil war. In Excession, Banks did away with the moral ambiguity of the Culture and created a civilization so awful that they were crying out for Culture intervention, this is the Affront.

The Affront are Banks's dark imagination at its best, they are unrelentingly awful. The Affront are vile and violent creatures, constantly attacking their neighbours, eating their captives and fighting each other. Perhaps their worst offense is their abuse of genetic engineering technology. The Affront have altered the DNA of all the animals native to their home world so that they have a much heighted sensation of fear and pain, and they then hunt them for entertainment.

The Affront are a sick parody of the Culture: the latter is an utopian anarchistic collective, free from hierarchy, prejudice and resource scarcity, the Affront are bigoted patriarchal and violent. They are sick but imaginative creation, the perfect offset of the Culture.

Ariekei – Embassytown

China Miéville is well known for his impressive imagination and many brilliant creations. One of my favourite is the Ariekei from his novel Embassytown. The Ariekei speak simultaneously with two mouths, the cut and the turn, which makes their language complex. What makes them harder to communicate with is that they can only understand language with thought behind it, no recordings or machines. Only special human ambassadors, consisting of cybernetically linked twins, thinking the same thoughts, and speaking the same words, can communicate with the Ariekei.

The novel develops the strange world of Embassytown and the consequences of being the guests of bizarre aliens. When a new ambassador arrives, one whose thoughts and speech are not quite in-sync, and speaks to the Ariekei it turns out their words are powerful drug capable of bringing the Ariekei to their knees.

Miéville is a linguist as well as a fiction author and he uses his knowledge excellently to bring to life a world that could have been difficult for readers to believe. Speech for aliens in a lot of sci-fi novels tends to be similar to humans (thus allowing dialogue to take place easily and the plot to move forwards) but Miéville shows how creative he can be with something as everyday as language.

Hippae – Grass

The Hippae are introduced slowly in Grass, and so when their full monstrousness is revealed it comes as something of a shock. At first the reader assumes that they are beasts of burden, referred to as ‘mounts’ by the inhabitants of the planet Grass, and ridden for sport by the gentry. However, Sheri S. Tepper slowly builds up how violent and powerful they are. When they first appear, it is revealed they are twice the size of a horse, covered in sharp spines and extremely aggressive. They also have eyes that speak not only of great intelligence but also of murderous hatred.

Tepper plays with how alien aliens in sci-fi can be, the Hippae are difficult to understand and harder to sympathise with. At first they appear to be large animals, they do not have tools or cities or anything else we would associate with intelligent life. However, their cunning and hatred are slowly built up along with the novel’s rising tension and deepening mystery.

As the novel progresses, the power of the Hippae is slowly revealed and how they not only hate humans but have a plan to wipe out humans in the galaxy. The pastoral world of Grass is turned from a gentle planet of leisure to a siege, as the humans cannot venture outside for fear of a Hippae attack. Tepper builds the tension to an explosive climax.

Tines – A Fire Upon The Deep

Vernor Vinge has created a number of interesting aliens for his novels, including the Skroderiders and the Spiders. However, a favourite of mine is the Tines from his novel A Fire Upon the Deep. The Tines are very similar to our wolves but a personality is not contained within an individual Tine but across an entire pack, consisting of several members. Packs can exchange members, which alters their personalities.

Through ultra-high frequency, members communicate and build intelligence, and so two packs cannot get too close together or else their thoughts merge. This makes fighting and sex animalistic, and the rest of their time packs keep their distance. There naming culture is also interesting as each pack member has a name and the name for the entire entity is made out of member names. As pack members change, so to does their name to reflect the new make up.

Vinge takes a familiar idea, the wolf pack, that is clearly established in the reader’s mind and produces a very alien approach to this idea. The interesting thing about the Tines is how familiar they are to us but also how very different.

Zōtl – The Last Legends of Earth

There are few aliens in science fiction that are quite so strange as the Zōtl, a spider-like, technologically advanced alien race who feed on the chemicals created by the brains of intelligent beings who are in pain. They capture humans and other intelligent creatures, and torture them to provide nourishment. The few humans who survive become their slaves.

The Zōtl are the perfect villain for a sci-fi book: strange, scary and violent, with superior technology and no understandable morals. They appear in A. A. Attanasio’s The Last Legends of Earth and torment the humans who are caught as bait in a trap set for the Zōtl but their enemies, the equally powerful Rimstalkers.

What links all these aliens is that they are not similar to other well-known aliens of science fiction or they break the model established by formulaic science fiction novels. The Zōtl are technologically advanced aliens who want to enslave humanity for nourishment, but the means and the specifics of doing so are quite unlike any other science fiction book I have read. This is what makes them brilliant and scary.

Those are my five most creative aliens in science fiction novels. Are there any I have missed off? Add your suggestions below.

Science fiction versus literary fiction

We all know what literary fiction is, and we all know what it is not – but coming up with a robust definition is more difficult. Some readers divide the world into literary fiction and pulp fiction, or literary fiction and genre fiction. Science fiction is definitely not literary fiction, according to these people – the type of reader who claims to be open minded, but will describe the plot of any science fiction novel as ‘stupid’ when it is described to them. These readers divide the word into books with characters in them and books with space ships in them.

However, when you ask these people to codify the difference between literary (worthy) fiction and science (vapid) fiction the best they can come up with is something close to the following definition from the Huffington Post:

‘The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.’

So science fiction or genre fiction is escapism, where literary fiction focuses on illuminating the real world of complex relationships, deep emotions and life experiences. I can think of several science fiction writers who deal with the latter. The work of Philip K Dick derives most of its dramatic tension from character drama, instead of environmental conflict.

Dicks novel Now Wait For Last Year focuses on the relationship between the protagonist, Eric Sweetscent, his wife Kathy (who hates him), and his employer, Gino Molinari, the elected leader of Earth. There is a wider science fiction story about an intergalactic conflict and a drug with strange powers, but these are part of the backdrop, used in the same way as literary novel might use the Russian Revolution or the Second World War as a backdrop. Now Wait For Last Year provides understanding into how relationships function under pressure, how they form and collapse. Human relationships are the substance of this sci-fi novel as much as they are for any literary novel.

This is true of many of Dick’s other novels, as well as other sci-fi works. The Man In The High Castle is another novel by Dick which is primarily focused on character relationships and interpersonal conflict, within a science fiction setting.

Literary novels can be enjoyed as escapism. Ernest Hemingway, one of the great literary writers of the 20th Centaury, can be read as escapism. Novels like For Whom The Bell Tolls and To Have And To Have Not take the reader away from their current existence and allow them to be immersed in the Spanish Civil War or smuggling rings in pre-revolution Cuba. These novels perform the same function for their readers as science fiction novels do for their readers.

From my own research into the difference between literary and genre fiction, and from the books I have read from both camps, I have come up with a list of characteristics which are generally used to separate genre fiction from literary fiction. Literary fiction is character focused with less emphasis on narrative, sometimes leaving it unresolved. The narratives also tend to be non-linear. Literary novels have a stylistic flair to their prose, where as genre novels try to be accessible. Literary fiction is generally considered to be darker, more serious in tone, and slower paced, as well as being part of the on-going academic conversation of literary novels, which is mainly achieved through influences from and references to past novels in the conversation.

Most science fiction novels are considered not to match this definition; they focus on plot over character development, have linear narratives, are fast paced and exist in the on-going conversation of science fiction novels. They do tend to be serious in tone, but most literary fiction readers believe them to not be serious because the plot is focused on aliens or space travel; this is a major point of difference between the fans of both genres.

Dan Simmons’s novel Hyperion is a science fiction novel that meets all the above characteristics of literary fiction. It has a non-linear, character-focused narrative which is very similar in structure to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as the novel is a series of interlinked stories developing the characters and their backgrounds. The narrative is left unresolved, and the tone of the book is dark and serious, often crossing over into horror. Simmon’s prose has flair, and he gives each section its own unique style which relates to the character whose tale is being told. Finally, it contributes to the on-going academic literary conversation through references to the work of John Keats, which are woven into the novel.

However you define literary fiction, some science fiction fits into it. The two are overlapping circles on the Venn diagram of literature, with common ground between them. They are not as separate as some literary fiction readers would have us believe.

Iain Banks is an author whose work firmly sits in the overlapping areas of literary and science fiction. This is especially true of his earlier work, before he had decided to split his writing into Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Walking On Glass, his second novel, has three main plots: the first is a relationship study set when the book is written, the second is ambiguous about whether it is science fiction or not, and the third is set in an alien war in the far future. This was Banks’s attempt to write a novel that spanned both genres.

Banks was more successful in this attempt with his later novel, The Bridge. This follows a man in a coma, but his coma dreams take him to a strange world with many recognisable mythological, fantasy and science fiction elements to the story, most notably the giant endless bridge the novel is set on. This novel is a great accomplishment of both literary and science fiction.

Banks’s novels which are clearly science fiction, such as his Culture novels The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas, are as much about the characters’ inner lives and their development as the dramatic events which they are swept up in. All of Banks’s novels are complex character studies, as well as having explosive external narratives. Banks also has a distinctive literary style, exemplified by the Scottish colloquialisms he uses in The Bridge. His novels, at least his non-‘M.’ novels, are considered part of the on-going academic literary conversation.

Despite his literary credentials, some readers still turn their noses up at Banks’s science fiction. It completely perplexes me why people read the Iain ‘without-the-M’ Banks, but refuse to read Iain M. Banks. A few science fiction classics like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness are grudgingly accepted into the on-going literary conversation, while novels like The Time Machine and 1984 are not considered science fiction so that literary fiction readers are allowed to enjoy them.

Margret Atwood is an example of science fiction writer who shirks the labels of science fiction in particular and genre fiction in general . One assumes this is to preserve her standing in the academic, literary world and not to taint it by associations with less profound genres.

If the difference between literary fiction and science fiction is nothing more than hot air, then why do we not see sci-fi novels nominated for the Man-Booker prize? Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice deserves a nomination for this award, for its detailed exploration of character, serious tone, and literary experimentation (especially in regards to gender pronouns). Ancillary Justice meets the requirements of being sufficiently literary to be nominated for the Man-Booker prize, as well as having more imagination than most books which do get nominated for it, but still a genre stigma persists.

I can see no substantial difference between science fiction and literary fiction, other than an artificial classification used to separate ‘real literature’ from ‘entertainment’. Some works of science fiction fit into the classification of literary fiction, but generally the distinction is artificial and can be snobbish. Readers should be less worried about what genre or style they are reading and more whether it is an imaginative story.

Humanity’s Fire

The legacy of Iain M. Banks runs deep within modern space opera. Many typically ‘Banksian’ concepts appear in a lot of today’s space opera bestsellers: for example, there are key similarities between the Minds which Banks describes in his Culture novels and the ship AIs in Ann Leckie’s multie-award-winning Ancillary Justice.

One of the most Banksian of recent space opera series is Michael Cobley’s ‘Humanity’s Fire’, a trilogy of novels based mainly around the planet Darien, a few centuries in our future: Seeds of Earth, The Orphaned Worlds and The Ascendant Stars. These books all bear a cover endorsement from Iain M. Banks, claiming them to be ‘Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera’.

On the surface, there are many similarities between Michael Cobley and Iain M. Banks: both are Scottish and write modern technologically-inspired ‘galaxy spanning’ space opera. Their novels have similar content: for example, both prominently feature AIs – a central character in Cobley’s Seeds of Earth is a machine intelligence with the personality of Harry Lime from The Third Man – and have characters which are drones, such as Flere-Imsaho in Banks’s novel The Player of Games.

What I find enticing about both writers is their descriptions of aliens, and this is where their imaginations come to life. Banks imagined the Dwellers, a race of anarchic manta-ray like creatures living in gas giants, whereas Cobley wrote about the Knights of the Legion of Aviators, cybernetic invaders from another universe. Both writers are also great at creating aliens that are religious zealots; the main villains in ‘Humanity’s Fire’ are the Sendruka Hegemony, who believe they are superior to other beings – similarly to the Idiran Empire, from Banks’s first Culture novel Consider Phlebas.

Where both writers’ imaginations dazzle the reader is through their description of the strange physics of hyperspace. In ‘Humanity's Fire’, hyperspace consists of layers which get progressively more chaotic and dangerous as you descend. In the Culture novels, there is intra-space and extra-space sandwiched between our universe and younger and older universes respectively. Out of these strange other realities come some very imaginative concepts, such as the Godhead, a recurring villain of ‘Humanity’s Fire’.

The Godhead is a giant ancient being dwelling deep within the layers of hyperspace. Its power is unmatched, as is its desire to dominate our universe. This reminds me of Banks’s Excession, which comes from another universe in the Culture novel of the same name. The Excession abducts the ships which probe it, possibly testing to see if humanity is ready for contact with beings from another universe. Both entities are more powerful than the novels’ protagonists, potentially very dangerous to them, and complete alien. These are brilliantly imaginative concepts, originating from an area of science fiction where authors are allowed to let their imaginations run riot.

One area where Banks and Cobley differ is in their representation of Earth. ‘Humanity’s Fire’ takes place in a universe in which Earth is a distant, but still very present, part of human society. The Culture novels barely mention Earth (apart from the novella, The State of the Art, which is set on Earth in the 1970s). Banks’s other science fiction novels either take place away from Earth or happen on an Earth so radically different from our own that it is barely recognisable.

In terms of story structure, the two writers approach narrative in a similar way. Their novels have many protagonists and multi-threaded stories unfolding in different locations across the galaxy. These stories also take place across real, hyper and virtual space in both authors’ work. The action of the ‘Humanity’s Fire’ novels takes the reader down to the deepest levels of hyperspace where the Godhead lives, where as Banks’s Surface Detail has a story which unfolds simultaneously in a virtual war and in the real world.

One of the most striking differences between the two is in narrative structure. ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is a trilogy with linear narrative, and is meant to be read in a certain order. The Culture novels do not have a connecting story - expect perhaps the story of the Culture’s history, as events in some novels are referenced in others. The difference is that the Culture books form a non-linear progression, over a broad spread of time and can be read in any order.

In terms of a science fiction narrative, the works of both authors are quite similar. The key difference between the two can be found by comparing Iain M. Banks’s novels with his Iain Banks literary novels. The exploration of drugs, sex and political themes, which are in all of Iain (with or without the M.) Banks’s novels, are absent from the works of Michael Cobley.

The way these writers envision the future is very different. This is partly because ‘Humanity's Fire’ is set in the (comparatively) near future, whereas the Culture novels take place at some unspecified point in the far future. However, the future of ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is very similar to ours, with currency, corporations, national boundaries and most people being heteronormative. Banks imagined a radically different future, a future without scarcity, without gender boundaries or even species boundaries – a future where everything was in flux and constantly evolving. One author’s future is recognisably our own world and one is a complete departure.

In terms of the sci-fi genre details, Michael Cobley and Iain M Banks are very similar writers; one is influenced and endorsed by the other, and both are part of a Scottish science fiction subgenre. They are both Banksian, with AI characters, strange aliens and stories taking place in several realities simultaneously. However, in terms of the stories they tell within this genre they are very different.

Comparisons aside, ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is great trilogy of novels in their own right, and I would highly recommend them to any fan of science fiction and especially fans of space opera. They are also great reads for Iain M. Banks fans hungry for more of his distinctive space opera style.