#tobyreads: Operatic Space — Robert Sheckley, Iain M. Banks, and Hannu Rajaniemi Journey to Parts Unknown

The very dapper Iain Banks, aka Iain M. Banks

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.

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