The field of Speculative Fiction is like a long-running conversation between writers and readers all around the world. It’s easy for some of the best pieces of this vast conversation to be missed, including contemporary stories that may not have achieved the recognition they deserve or older stories that may have fallen out of the public consciousness.
Thus, the Keener Book Club, where each month I’ll highlight one contemporary novel, one classic novel (generally more than twenty years old) and one piece of short fiction from any time period (and I do mean any).
2015: July August September
Book: Shades of Milk and Honey — by Mary Robinette Kowal
To Purchase: Amazon
What if Jane Austin was alive today and she decided to try her hand at writing fantasy? Well, I suspect she’d write a romantic Regency-era comedy of manners with magic, something very much like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Nebula-nominated first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey.
Jane Ellsworth of Dorchester is a glamourist, a woman who can create genteel illusions, or glamours, by manipulating strands from the Ether. She dreams of earning recognition as a glamourist, something that only men are generally renowned for. In her personal life, unmarried and in her late twenties, she worries that she’ll be left to live life as a lonely spinster, unlike her lovely younger sister, Melody, who has a surfeit of suitors.
Little does Jane realize that a threat to her family lurks closer than she could possibly imagine. And, who is the mysterious Mr. Vincent, the first glamourist she’s met who’s more knowledgeable about magic than herself?
The plot is tight, the dialogue is witty, the romance is cutting and the magic is seamlessly woven into the story. Yes, OK, I know I’ve probably lost most of the guys with this particular recommendation, but it’s still an excellent book and well worth reading if a romantic comedy of manners is something you can appreciate.
It’s also the first book in what has now been labeled the Glamourist Histories series, followed by Glamour In Glass (2013), Without a Summer (2014), Valour and Vanity (2015) and Of Noble Family (2015).
Note: If you decide to buy the trade paperback, make sure you purchase the second edition, which has an excellent cover (the one shown to the right) that matches subsequent novels in the series. The first edition had a truly atrocious cover. Just awful.
Classic: Gateway — by Frederik Pohl
To Purchase: Amazon
Robinette Broadhead has become the richest man in the solar system, but a trauma suffered on his way to fame and fortune has left him with deep psychological problems. As a young man, he won a lottery that plucked him from the poverty and obscurity of life as a food shale miner and gave him the chance to be a prospector on Gateway, the mysterious space station left in the Asteroid Belt by a long-vanished alien race known as the Heechee.
Gateway is the ultimate lottery, an alien transport hub with hundreds of FTL ships, each with numerous programmable destinations. But there’s no way to know whether a destination will result in a discovery worth a fortune or just a lonely death in a far-off place.
What was the trauma that broke Robinette? What is it that gives him nightmares? This Hugo and Nebula winning novel by Frederick Pohl alternates between Robinette’s struggle to repair his shattered psyche and his recollections of his experiences at Gateway leading up to the terrifying trauma he can no longer recall.
Gateway is a true classic of the SF field and I highly recommend it. I particularly liked how it didn’t answer all of the questions about the Heechee.
Because of its success, it was followed by several sequels which, to me, although interesting, don’t pack the same punch as the original and, perhaps, reveal too much of the mystery surrounding the Heechee. If you read the sequels, I’d start with The Heechee Trip, which collects a novelette and some additional content dealing with the Heechee before later revelations. The plotline from Gateway then continues in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Heechee Rendezvous and The Annals of the Heechee. There is also a later connected novel, The Boy Who Would Live Forever.
I consider Gateway to be essential reading for any science fiction fan. If you read nothing else in the series, you should at least read this novel, which stands completely on its own.
Short Fiction: “A Study in Emerald” — by Neil Gaiman
To Purchase: Amazon
What do you get when you mix Sherlock Holmes with the Chthulu Mythos? Well, if you’re Neil Gaiman, you get an enchanting, Hugo award-winning story like “A Study in Emerald.” To say more would inevitably reveal far too much. Just go read it.
The story was originally published in the groundbreaking anthology, Shadows Over Baker Street, a delightful mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes universe and H. P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. The short story can also be found in Neil Gaiman’s story collection, Fragile Things.