Due to a number of stars that exploded in its vicinity, the planet Pyrrus is rich with valuable radioactive ores. A fortune can be made by anyone willing and able to exploit this resource - unfortunately, every last living creature on the planet is fanatically dedicated to killing humans. So goes the premise of Deathworld, and by the time the novel opens the human colonists have been fighting a brutal war with the whole ecosystem of Pyrrus for 300 years.
Published in 1960, Deathworld is the first novel by Harry Harrison (1925 - 2012). After a stint in the US Army Air Corps, Harrison worked as an illustrator and comics artist - notably for the controversial and influential EC Comics in the late 1940s. This experience would prepare him for his career as a science fiction author, which he began in earnest in 1951 with his first story sale. Deathworld establishes the style Harrison would become known for, being a fast-paced adventure infused with intriguing themes.
Today, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film version which was made concurrently. The project drew heavily on a short story, “The Sentinel”, which had been published in 1951. That same year, Clarke published a novella called “Earthlight” in the American pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. This, too, was expanded into a novel.
Published in 1955, the novel Earthlight is every bit as engaging as 2001 and can be seen as a significant step in Clarke’s development towards his magnum opus. The two novels are set in fairly similar futures, where spaceflight has become relatively routine and humans are increasing their mastery over the solar system. Where Earthlight differs is in its focus on interplanetary political tensions, in a situation whereby societies on other planets are altered radically by their disconnection from Earth.
Published in 2003, Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days collects two sci-fi novellas by British author Alastair Reynolds. While both are set in his Revelation Space universe, they are only distantly connected with other works by Reynolds, and can be read in isolation. Both "Diamond Dogs" and "Turquoise Days" are set in the 26th century, when humans have spread to numerous planets and in addition to encountering alien races, have also begun to radically alter their own minds and bodies. Separated by enormous distances which only "lighthugger" starships can cross, human worlds develop radically different cultures, while advanced technologies threaten to upend whole civilisations.
I read 49 books in 2019 - just one shy of the 50 I'd aimed to read - more than I'd got through in the previous few years combined. Read on for ten recommendations of books and series that were among the best and most interesting I read in the last 12 months.
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) is the first novel of the legendary author's long-running, galaxy-spanning series. Documenting the gradual fall of the immense Galactic Empire and the rise of new powers in its wake, the Foundation series is one of the most iconic in all science fiction.
Each novel in the original trilogy - which Asimov augmented much later with prequels and sequels - was compiled from previously published, shorter works. Foundation itself collects four short stories that first saw the light of day in 1942 and 1944, completed by a final fifth story written specifically for the novel version.
The over-arching story focuses on an unusual conceit: the scholar Hari Seldon has perfected a new science called "psychohistory". Using its ability to model the mass action of billions of people, Seldon predicts the destruction of the Galactic Empire. In order to shorten the period of barbarism that is sure to follow, Seldon sows the seeds for two new "foundations", at opposite ends of the galaxy, to become the beginnings of a new empire.
British writer Stephen Baxter is best known for his sprawling Xeelee Sequence, which he has been working on intermittently throughout his long career. Released in 1991, Raft is the first of his novels and is only tangentially related to his magnum opus.
Drawing heavily on Baxter's background in physics and on the hard sci-fi tradition, Raft is based on a simple but thoroughly mind-bending idea: how would humans survive in an environment where the force of gravity was a billion times stronger than in our world?
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their SF Masterworks series, in early 2019 Gollancz launched a counterpart dedicated to older classics of science fiction: the Golden Age Masterworks. Of the initial tranche of books, Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of the earliest. A very early example of space opera, the novel was originally serialised in six parts in the pages of Astounding magazine in 1937 and 1938.
A food engineer by trade - with a specialism in doughnut mixes, of all things - E.E. Smith was a fairly prolific author of science fiction. Galactic Patrol forms a part of his Lensman series, which had quite a complicated publishing history, not least because he later retrofitted an existing novel to serve as a prequel to this one.
Prolific author Alastair Reynolds is a major presence in the British science fiction scene, best known for his expansive Revelation Space universe which he has published since 2000. For its part, Slow Bullets is a standalone novella which exists outside Reynolds' various fictional universes - instead focusing on the unfortunate passengers of the "skipship" Caprice.
Formerly a luxury liner, the vessel has been retrofitted as a prison transport in the aftermath of an interstellar conflict between factions of humanity. Outside of a limited number of civilians, the Caprice mainly carries the "dregs" of the now-ended war: military criminals of all kinds, drawn from both the Central and Peripheral sides.