Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels didn’t make much of an impact. Released in 1966 and 1967, they kicked off her acclaimed Hainish cycle but generated little notice at the time. The same certainly isn’t true of her next works. In 1968 Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea, which began her excellent Earthsea fantasy series. Then, in 1969, Ace Books released the hugely acclaimed SF novel with which Le Guin is most associated: The Left Hand of Darkness.
Now having sold over a million copies in English alone, The Left Hand of Darkness is regularly cited as one of the most important science fiction novels of all time. It won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel, appears prominently in numerous best-of lists, and has generated a great deal of academic attention. In many ways, this enduring success was surprising - at least to the author herself. In 2017, she wrote:
“Left Hand looked to me like a natural flop. Its style is not the journalistic one that was then standard in science fiction, its structure is complex, it moves slowly, and even if everybody in it is called he, it is not about men. That's a big dose of "hard lit," heresy, and chutzpah, for a genre novel by a nobody in 1968.”
Here, Le Guin alludes to the most famous aspect of the book - its contribution to feminism and the discussion of gender in science fiction. This is a fascinating part of The Left Hand of Darkness, but Le Guin’s books can never be reduced to just one theme. The story covers ideas about cultural difference, loyalty, political conflict, and religion. It’s a highly recommended read in and of itself for anyone interested in SF, but also rewards some prior awareness of the wider Hainish series. As Charlie Jane Anders has written, “when read and considered as a whole, Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle feels like an even more impressive accomplishment than its stellar individual works.”
Created by Michael Moorcock in 1961 with the story “The Dreaming City”, Elric of Melniboné is one of the definitive characters in British fantasy fiction. A albino sorcerer and warrior with milk-white skin and hair, Elric is a magnetic antihero - cursed with a black sword which feeds on souls and bound to serve the capricious chaos deity, Arioch. In writing the Elric stories, Moorcock consciously worked to avoid repeating the high fantasy style of Tolkien - and in so doing inspired numerous subsequent imitators of his own.
While Elric is well-known to fans of fantasy, the character might even be a household name if the series were more approachable to read. Until relatively recently, the eight main novels in the sequence could be difficult to get hold of, and while the reissues by the publisher Gollancz are very welcome, they also leave something to be desired.
The Michael Moorcock Collection is a mammoth undertaking, as it comprises no less than 28 volumes, most of them containing multiple novels. Gollancz and the mastermind of the project, John Davey, deserve a great deal of credit for making Moorcock’s work more available. Unfortunately, in the case of the Elric books very little indication is given as to reading order, or the circumstances in which the stories were originally published. Stories are inserted into odd places, and a lot of frankly extraneous material is inserted - presumably to bulk up the thinner volumes.
Because the Elric stories were written out of sequence over a period of decades, and have been republished several times, there was already a high potential for confusion. Split into two parts, this introductory guide to the books lists and introduces them in order of their internal chronology. First, though, an introduction to the Pale Emperor himself.
A network of space stations that span from Earth to deep space; rival factions in open and covert conflict; and a population of aliens and civilians caught in between. These elements and more feature in the epic 1981 sci-fi novel Downbelow Station.
Carolyn Janice Cherry published her first novels in 1976. She began using her initials to disguise her gender, as other women in science fiction commonly did at the time. In a more unusual twist, she appended an “h” onto the end of her name, in response to suggestions that the surname “Cherry” made her sound like a romance novelist. Both of the novels she published in that first year, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, are loosely connected to Cherryh’s grand SF setting, the Alliance-Union universe.
The setting is an intimidating prospect. Between 1976 and 2019, Cherryh published 27 novels in the series, split across no less than nine sub-series, and with more underway. The books cover a wide span of time, from the 21st century out into the far future. While the books are very varied, they broadly focus on the affairs of humankind in deep space, the conflicts between various human factions including the titular Alliance and Union, and encounters with a number of alien races. To read them all would be a major undertaking - at least, as Cherryh has explained, they can almost all be read in any order.
Luckily, that means that Downbelow Station is more accessible than it otherwise might be. Published in 1981, the book is one of Cherryh’s most acclaimed - notably, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is one of the cornerstones of the wider Alliance-Union setting, but is definitely a satisfying read in its own right. This will be particularly true for fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5, as Downbelow Station is a classic, and complex, space station story.
The nostalgia for the golden era of first-person shooters started almost as soon as that era had come to an end. As early as 2001, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and particularly Serious Sam contained elements that were conscious throwbacks to earlier times. Recent years have seen a glut of retro FPS games that display their 1990s influences openly. Lately, the term “boomer shooter” has come to describe these games.
The glory days of the traditional FPS - with all its secret areas, rapid movement, minimal story, and emphasis on straightforward action - were around 25 years ago. The generation that grew up with games like Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, and Unreal aren’t quite boomers exactly, but are of an age that might make them vulnerable to a nostalgia cycle. However, any suspicions that the retro revival is merely a blip should be dispelled by Realms Deep 2020.
Ursula K. LeGuin passed away on January 22, 2018. It was a tremendous loss. During a writing career that began in 1959, LeGuin published over 20 novels, over a dozen collections of short stories, and several books of poetry. She was an icon of both science fiction and fantasy, producing a hugely acclaimed cycle of novels in each genre. The Earthsea cycle is LeGuin’s primary contribution to fantasy, a set of five novels and a collection of short stories published between 1968 and 2001. She made an enormous impact on SF with the books in what others have called her “Hainish cycle”. LeGuin’s most acclaimed books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) form a part of this loose cycle.
All too often, discussion of LeGuin’s work begins and ends with these well-known and influential books. However, the three novels which preceded them, and which begin the Hainish cycle, are absolutely worthy of reading and examination in their own right. They are undoubtedly minor works compared to the books which made LeGuin’s name, but they introduce many of the concepts and themes which underpin the books written later.
In Seminyak, on the Indonesian island of Bali, there are numerous luxury hotels that cater to wealthy tourists from abroad. Westerners go there to enjoy “wellness” activities, or to drink cocktails on the beach. Very few of them realise that in 1965, people were brought to this same beach at night to be killed on the basis of their real or perceived political views. In all, around 5% of the population of Bali were killed by the military during the Indonesian massacres of 1965 to 1966. This was an appalling episode in the Cold War, but one which few people in the West are aware of. This silence is carefully maintained. At a museum in Santiago, Chile, an exhibit states that the Indonesian government “abolished the law that would establish their truth commission.”
This information comes from The Jakarta Method, a superb and unsettling book by Vincent Bevins. An American journalist who has spent time living in Indonesia and Brazil, Bevins has written an urgent, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly humane book. While the text makes clear the scale and horror of the atrocities that took place in Indonesia and other countries during the Cold War, Bevins does not dwell on the specifics of the killings. He focuses instead on setting the Indonesian massacre into a broader context. The book explains how the atrocities flowed from the rising tide of fanatical anticommunism that was spreading around the world; an international form of McCarthyism which suppressed almost any attempt at breaking away from the orthodox capitalist model.
For many boardgamers, King of Tokyo needs no introduction. Richard Garfield’s monster-themed dice rolling game first appeared in 2011, hopped up on gamma radiation and spoiling for a fight. Since then, everything done to try to stop its rampage has only made it stronger. Now, King of Tokyo towers over lesser gateway games, roaring in triumph as it continues to secure new fans. Like the special effects in a Godzilla movie, it’s not particularly sophisticated but it never fails to get the job done.
As the boardgame boom continues, many thousands of new games have been released even since the second edition of King of Tokyo hit the shelves in 2016. However, the game continues to hold a special appeal. Refreshed by a number of expansions and the continual influx of new converts to the gaming hobby - for whom the game serves as an ideal introduction - its reign goes on. But what are the special ingredients that help this humble dice game mutate into such a resilient beast?
In 1966, American film director Richard Brooks needed a hit. He had recently made Lord Jim, an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel which had opened to poor reviews and a worse box-office return. His plan to get back on top surprised Hollywood insiders: he would adapt A Mule for the Marquesa, a recent Western novel by Frank O’Rourke. Released under the title The Professionals, Brooks’ new film would go on to become one of the most profitable Westerns of the 1960s, taking $9 million in the US alone.
Today, The Professionals is often overshadowed by other classic American Westerns of the 1960s, not to mention the best of the Italian Westerns that came to prominence at that time. It is sometimes described as a merely “crowd-pleasing”, or “undemanding” film - one that delivers excitement but asks little of its audience. In fact, The Professionals is more than just box-office dynamite - it’s a gripping but also thoughtful movie, with a terrific script that reflects Brooks’ ideas about life, death, loyalty, and revolution. It’s this combination of action, humour, solid craft, and big ideas that make the movie an unmissable Western.
There’s another world, parallel to our own - one made up of hidden or decayed places, built by people but used only by a few or abandoned altogether. We are separated from it by a few metres of concrete when we walk the streets or use a subway; it’s just above or below us in the mechanical floors of hospitals and universities; we can see it in the empty industrial buildings visible from canals or from moving trains. These kinds of spaces are all around us, and yet rarely seen. Some, like steam tunnels, are the blood vessels that keep towns and cities alive. Others, like the ruined factories of Detroit, are the parts of the urban landscape abandoned by people and capital and left to fall apart.
These eerie locales have a grip on the imagination of many people, not least the urban explorers who venture into and photograph them. They also have a powerful hold on fiction, which often imagines a life driven out of the light by some catastrophe and into the dark places, often underground. This trend has been particularly strong in videogames, where the hidden and decaying areas of cities provide a venue for post-apocalyptic struggles. Numerous games have mined this territory, but few have done so as effectively as the 2010 survival first-person shooter Metro 2033.
Hostile Waters has both an unusual premise and unusual gameplay. It is a war game set in an utopian world that has abolished war altogether; and it is a strategy game in which the player is not limited to giving orders, but can actually directly control units on the battlefield. In both its story and its gameplay, Hostile Waters requires players to re-learn war.
Like Populous: The Beginning, Hostile Waters was the product of a veteran British games developer entering its final years. The similarities don’t end there - Hostile Waters also failed to receive the recognition it deserved upon release in March 2001 - at least from consumers - and sold poorly. One likely reason is the lack of multiplayer, which was to be added in a patch which never saw release. While not much discussed even today, Hostile Waters has been called “one of the best games you’ve never played”. This minor cult reputation is built on the satisfying combination of those two key elements - the game’s unusual story, and novel gameplay.