Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CCXX (M. John Harrison + John Christopher + Ian Watson)

1 and 2. As a kid, I read and adored John Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy (1967-1968). Little did I know at the time the quantity of other SF novels—mostly of the post-apocalyptical sort—published over his long career. In 2012 I read,  reviewed, and enjoyed his post-apocalyptical satire The Long Winter (1962). And now, I have both his single most famous “cozy catastrophe” and a lesser known one… with a fantastic cover by Steve Crisp.

3. I now own three of the four volumes in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence (1971-1984)! Here’s volume two. I reviewed and adored The Pastel City (1971).

My other M. John Harrison reviews (he’s a Joachim Boaz favorite):

The Committed Men (1971)

The Centauri Device (1974)

The Machine in Shaft Ten (1975)

4. Ian Watson is a fascinating author. The stories in The Very Slow Time Machine (1979) should be tracked down. I also recommend The Jonah Kit (1975), which I never got around to reviewing…. this acquisition is a lesser known novel in his extensive oeuvre.

Let me know what books/covers intrigue you. Which have you read? Enjoyed? Hated?

~

1. A Wrinkle in the Skin (variant title: The Ragged Edge), John Christopher (1965)

(Steve Crisp’s cover for the 1985 edition)

From the back cover: “WORLD-QUAKE!

There was a hush at the first shock, a silence that rang in the ears. The noise reached him with the second one, a bellowing that sounded as though the world was being torn from its orbit and sent grinding and slithering through space. From that point, the shocks were successive—lurch and roar, in a hideous phased rhythm…

After the earth convulsed, humanity began its slow, inexorable return to barbarism. Amid the eerie, diseased ruins of the cities, across the ravaged countryside, men and women found only pillage, rape, death and nameless cruelty—as they searched for some remnant of the life that had once been.”

2.  The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)

(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

From the back cover: “THE BIG HUNGER…

The Chung-Li virus destroyed all types of grass. Including rice, wheat, oats, barley—all the grain-bearing plants on which the world depended for its basic foodstuffs.

Millions died of starvation. Millions more died in the violent upheavals that this, the ultimate famine, brought in its wake. But there were people caught up in the nightmare who were determined to survive whatever the cost of their civilized values—values which were now as out of place as a dinner jacket in a slaughterhouse in any case…

John Christopher’s classic bestselling novel of a group of men and women fighting their way across a devastated landscape through rape, slaughter and pillage to a grim sanctuary is a relentlessly gripping story of survival against all odds in a world that has become a brutal hell on earth.”

3. A Storm of Wings, M. John Harrison (1980)

(Michael Whelan’s cover for the 1982 edition)

From the back cover: “UNDER THE SIGN OF THE LOCUST…

In the dark hour of the Evening Cultures, Viriconium is plagued with discontent and vice, the Reborn Men roam the streets, and the sects of a new religion—the Sign of the Locust—are at war.

But now the Pastel City faces a more deadly challenge than its own dark battles. Swarms of giant locusts are descending from the clouds, seeking to make the world their home, releasing a cosmic force that transforms the air…

Now Lord Galen Hornwrack must lead a quest to the source of this mysterious evil… a quest that will take him to the very heart of darkness, to a realm beyond sanity and virtue—face to face with a most peculiar reality inside… A STORM OF WINGS.”

4. God’s World, Ian Watson (1979)

(David Jackson’s cover for the 1982 edition)

From the back cover: “IT IS 1997: TIME OF THE MILLENNIUM… Earth has been alerted by messengers of God and summoned to his planet of angels, 82 Eridani. Powered by a mysterious space drive found in the Gobi desert, a crusading space ship is launched through High Space to explore this heavenly world. In fear and wonder, Amy and her companions travel on a hallucinatory, mind-expanding voyage… fighting spectral foes, encountering revelatory visions, in a starship propelled by imagination… Then, in a series of dream contacts searingly, achingly real, Amy discovers the true identity of the alien inhabitants of God’s World… and Ian Watson illuminates his own shimmering new worlds of ideas.”

41 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CCXX (M. John Harrison + John Christopher + Ian Watson)”

  1. That’s the copy of A Wrinkle in the Skin I have. Can’t remember the cover of my first Death of Grass but I definitely have the Penguin Modern Classics edition from a few years back.

    The Death if Grass is a classic though I hate that it has become a stick to beat John Wyndham with.

    For all the brutality Christopher’s protagonists are much more middle class (civil engineers and politicians; there’s no working class Coker figure) and his female protagonists are feeble and just seem to hang around to be raped. Josella from The Day of the Triffids is a much more active figure.

    1. A stick to beat John Wyndham with?

      Did you see my recent review of Coppel’s Dark December (1960)? I think it might fit into the “cozy catastrophe” subgenre — but it’s an American example. I quite enjoyed it (it’s an ultimately positive vision of humankind’s drive to survive)! I suspect if you like the subgenre of post-apocalyptical survival you’ll enjoy Coppel’s novel.

      Have you read Christopher’s The Long Winter? (linked in the review). I get the impression it’s quite different than a lot of Christopher’s other works due to the heavy satirical content.

  2. I’ve read “The Death of Grass”.It’s a bland catastrophe novel.Brian Aldiss’s “Greybeard” was far superior.My favourite catastrophe novels are,”The Drowned World”,”The Drought” and “The Crystal World” by J.G. Ballard and “Ice” by Anna Kavan.I think I prefer those that have a more cerebral or metaphysical edge.

    Of the two Ian Watson novels I’ve read,I thought “Alien Embassy” was quite good,but “The Martian Inca”,despite perhaps having exciting ideas,I think it’s fair to say,it was boring.I couldn’t finish “The Jonah Kit”.

    1. I enjoyed Greybeard as well — although I never ended up reviewing it. I especially loved its focus on older main characters which gave it a very humanist feel… the protagonists weren’t men in their prime.

      Yeah, I think I’m partial to both takes on the subgenre — the more metaphysical and also, examples with a good dose of realism.

      I think it’s humorous that my “read in the lifetime of the site but never reviewed” includes a lot in your list — Greybeard, The Drowned World, and The Drought. Own but haven’t read The Drought.

      Speaking of metaphysical, that description certainly fits Ian Watson!

        1. Greybeard might combine the two — but I don’t think it’s a necessity…. Ice doesn’t “feel” real in any way — especially as the cataclysm, whether or not it’s in his mind, isn’t defined.

  3. Book-bulleted me with the Watson. I read it new, and remember it fondly; those utter rotters at Gateway made a cheap Kindle edition so resistance was futile.

    1. Aren’t the cheap Gateway eBooks books only available in the UK? Glad I inspired you to possibly reread it! (or, at the very least, send a few pennies Watson’s way).

      Read/enjoy any of his other works?

      1. Most of the Gateway series is UK-only on copyright grounds, but some are available here. This one was. sigh

        I read the Inquisition trilogy in the 90s. Jac Draco interested me, but the Warhammer world isn’t viscerally familiar to me as a non-gamer. That, as they say, was that. The story that Spielberg turned into a Major Motion Picture was red-X’d by that adaptation, which I didn’t enjoy.

        1. I recommend some of his 70s stuff — like The Jonah Kit, the stories in The Very Slow Time Machine, and I suspect The Embedding (haven’t read it — but it’s supposedly one of his best).

          As I explore more of the early 80s, the Black Current sequence also seems fascinating: The Book of the River (1984), The Book of the Stars (1984), and The Book of Being (1985).

          SF Encyclopedia describes them as follows: “[they were] his major 1980s effort; in a world divided by a mysterious and apparently sentient river into two utterly opposed halves, one half being dominated by women (Gender), the heroine Yaleen suffers rites of passage, uprootings, rebirths and transcendental awakenings as she becomes more and more deeply involved in a final Cosmological conflict between the river/Worm and the Godmind, the latter’s intentions being deeply inimical to the future of humanity.”

  4. My favourite Watson is definitely The Embedding. I liked The Jonah Kit, but felt it wasn’t as good, and was underwhelmed by The Martian Inca.

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      It’s on my shelf! Along with The Martian Inca and The Gardens of Delight…. what I really want are more of his short stories. The contents of A Very Slow Time Machine were fantastic.

      Maybe I’ll buy a copy of his second collection Sunstroke and Other Stories (1982).

  5. Love that Wrinkle in the Skin Cover… much better than my forgettable Brownstone Books reprint (2000).

    I really enjoyed Death of Grass… cosy catastrophes have their failings as a genre, but I’ll admit I’m partial to them. One of the reasons I like older SF is that it reflects interesting elements of the culture of the time. Cosy catastrophes are an interesting window into the first two decades of post-WWII UK. Just read JT McIntosh’s The Fittest (1955), which reminded me of Christopher. Different catastrophe, same underlying savagery in the collapsing society.

    1. Did you see my review of Coppel’s Dark December? I quite enjoyed it. So much that I’m tempted to do a few month reading series of 50s/60s post-apocalyptic tales.

      What would you argue are their failings? How easy they suggest it it would be to survive in a society without government? Or, how it would reward the paranoid who horded guns and ammunition?

      Would you recommend the McIntosh novel? I ask as I’ve read very critical reviews of his work — how he often suggests the death of millions is a necessary step. For example, in The Million Cities (1963)….

      1. Joachim,
        You might want to add George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides to your post-apocalyptic reading list, though it was published in 1949.

            1. Thanks. I’ll give it a read. I might read the book soon, I might not. I’m a flighty reader — I can’t make plans. I have at least 1k unread SF books and I browse them all before making a choice. Hah.

  6. Well, I’ve read two of these tites but my consumption of Watson has been fairly limited – he made quite a big splash in the UK with his first several books but I only read the 2nd, The Jonah Kit, and haven’t read much since, although I remember being very keen to read The Very Slow Time Machine collectuion…

    I read the Harrison when it came out and found it be be slow going, and I think the author’s said something about the denseness of the prose himself. Unlike others in the series, I’ve not read it since but I’m starting to think I should do a complete Viriconium re-read soon…

    Nothing much to add about the Christopher; I re-read it not that long ago – comments here:
    The Death of Grass - John Christopher
    And browsing to see if I could see an omnibus volume of his Tripods books (there isn’t), I found my way to this cover of one of his other books! (And the final review of the book on Amazon Uk is a classic)

    1. Yeah, that The Little People cover is absolutely atrocious…. I wonder what he thought about it!

      Maybe it was my review of the collection which made you want to read the collection. hah. You should.

      It’s a rather short book, so the “slow going” comment doesn’t inspire. Did you enjoy The Pastel City? (I can’t remember if we’ve talked about it before).

      Let me go take a peek at your Christopher review…

      1. Wonder what the Irish thought about the cover… I have that same copy of The Little People – I pick it up every now and then and contemplate reading it. Then put it down again. I dunno, there IS “carefully laid-on horror,” so…

          1. He co-wrote them with his then editor (I think) Jane Johnson using the pen name Gabriel King. Fantastic Fiction lists them, written about 20 years ago. I know I had the Tag the Cat pair in stock back then but never really considered reading them…

  7. That’s an interesting cover for the M. John Harrison. I have read all the Viriconium books back in the day and remember little (which is possibly good for a re-read). And I have several different versions in different covers which may even have been revised over the years. He’s always interesting…

      1. I can’t think what I base that on – I just have a niggle somewhere that if not the novels, some of the shorter works about Viriconium had variances for a later edition. But I can’t recall where that comes from. I’ll have to have a think and a look at my copies…

  8. THE EMBEDDING, Watson’s first, is his best. Absolutely worth reading, with something of the feeling of Ballard if that worthy had had far more scientific literacy. (Though perhaps the novel has a weak ending.)

    On its basis, I read THE JONAH KIT and THE MARTIAN INCA. Both still interesting, but there was an obvious decline in quality as Watson became professional and turned each book out, and by the time of GOD’S WORLD and THE GARDENS OF DELIGHT I was finding them too sketchy. See what you think.

    Nevertheless, always a quirky ideas man — a bit like a more professional, more literate Barrington Bayley, though Watson is always his own man.

    1. I think I’ve started The Embedding at least twice — but, I’m a flighty reader and probably put them down for no particular reason other than wanting to read something else.

      Too sketchy? Do you mean engaging in metaphysical pyrotechnics but lacking story/character?

  9. Incidentally, re. Mike Harrison, there was a big collection called THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPEN that pulls together all his then-extant short stories, and which was published around 2005 or afterwards when Harrison was hot because of his connection with the New Weird and China Meiville.

    It’s a little rare, but you should absolutely snap it up if you ever get the chance. The book has a few duds, but it has some masterpieces, too, and makes it clear that Harrison is one of the best writers who ever touched this genre.

    1. Things That Never Happen (2002) is not an omnibus edition but rather a very selective cross section of short fiction from the range of his career up that that point. So, I must confess, I’m not interested. I rather track down his older collections and stories in anthologies.

      Why, you might ask…. well, The Machine in Shaft Ten (1975) (review linked above) contains multiple stories that he refused to ever reprint (“Ring of Pain,” “The Orgasm Band,” “Visions of Monad,” etc.) which are quite good. And worth tracking down regardless of what Harrison retrospectively thought of them.

  10. Re. Watson, by sketchy I mean the ideas, character, and prose of later Watson tend to be somewhat less well worked out for my taste.

    Re. THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPEN. Well, alas, one of Harrison’s very best stories, ‘Isobel Avens Returns To Stepney in the Spring,’ is only available in book form there or in some Best-of-Year anthologies. Though also online if you look at the old Infinity Plus site here —
    http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/isobel.htm

    While ‘Suicide Coast,’ which is also top-level, is only available in a Harrison collection, TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS, from 2001.
    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?52225
    Oh, and again some best-of-year collections.

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