And some weeks, after reading works about known places, you feel the need to move beyond. In this case, science fiction — and science fiction on a scale that spans worlds, realities, and even the metaphysical.
I’m in a couple of book groups — this will probably not come as a shock — and read Robert Sheckley’s collection Store of the Worlds for one of them. In their introduction, Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem make the case for Sheckley as a writer whose imagination both allowed for some fantastic (in both senses of the word) short stories and as a sharp chronicler of the era in which these stories were written. Most of the work in this book dates from the 1950s, and there’s a fair amount of subversion going on — both of expectations and of societal norms. Like NYRB’s John Collier collection, there are a couple here that end on a bit of a punchline, but overall, I was impressed. While a few of these pieces feel a touch dated, most still retain their power — whether looking at a near future where targeted assassination games have replaced wars or examining the ethics of a totally alien society.
More than a few of Sheckley’s stories fell into the space opera camp, and that in turn made me crave more from this genre. As it happened, I had a copy of Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail on my to-be-read shelf (shelves would be more accurate). Its plot is ornate, and the less I reveal the better. Within the confines of his Culture series, he’s exploring what might happen when consciousness becomes effectively immortal — and what happens when societies decide to enact their own afterlives. It’s that notion that fuels the novel — wars fought in reality and in less physically real spaces, and throughout, Banks raises interesting notions about the self, consciousness, and perception. Throw in a genuinely loathsome villain and more than a few exciting sequences, and the end result is a book that both thrills and provokes debate.
After Surface Detail, I decided to read another novel about which I’d heard good things: Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. The opening sequence, in which the narrator (or at least one aspect of him) is rescued from a limbo-like prison, suggested that Rajaniemi was a fan of both Banks’s Surface novels and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. All of which is great, but I found myself eager to see whether the book would continue in this unlikely territory or swerve somewhere unexpected. I was pleasantly surprised. From that beginning, the novel segues to a pair of investigations on a far-future Mars, suffering the aftereffects of a traumatic revolution. Rajaniemi has some terrific ideas here, riffing on notions of privacy levels and external memory storage and extrapolating them hundreds of years into the future — and then he wraps a gripping heist plot around them. (One of his characters’ names appears to be a nod to Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Bob le Flambeur.) As the familiar fell away, I found myself hooked — and very eager to read Rajaniemi’s follow-up.