Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXI (Brian W. Aldiss, Michael Swanwick, Anita Mason, Robert C. O’Brien)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. In the Drift, Michael Swanwick (1985)

From the back cover: “The meltdown at Three Mile Island created the death zone known as the Drift, where the sky burned dark blue and pink and where boneseekers destroyed bodies within.

Two-headed monsters, dog-faced boys, mutated vampires and other undesirables were thrown into the Drift.

Now they are coming out…”

Initial Thoughts: I’ve talked to Michael Swanwick on Twitter. I haven’t read his SF…. Time to change that.

2. Hothouse (variant title: The Long Afternoon of Earth), Brian Aldiss (1962)

From the back cover: “THE LAST DAYS OF MAN. Under a dying sun, montrous [sic] sentient plants and carnivorous insects are the predators. Man is the prey…”

Initial Thoughts: This is a repurchase — sort of. Previously, I owned the 1st US edition of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse published under the name The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962). I had resisted reading it as I later realized it was “slightly abridged” from the UK edition. Only after 1976 was the full version released in the US. I am now the owner of the 1984 unabridged edition. More info on the publication history (and early short stories) here. Unfortunately, the copy editor must of been on holiday considering the error on the back cover…

3. The War Against Chaos, Anita Mason (1988)


He had been upwardly mobile on the ladder of Universal Goods when his wife left him and his career in jeopardy. He seemed the ideal, expendable scapegoat in a powerful company official’s much-needed cover-up. And when a trumped-up charge worthy of Kafka, Hare found himself cast into the netherworld of a dreaded population known as the ‘marginals’.

What the authorities never reckoned on was the reawakened cunning and imagination of these outcasts, or the threat to their control that Hare was to discover steeling itself in the bowels of the city.”

Initial Thoughts: According to SF Encyclopedia, Anita Mason, best known for her 1983 novel The Illusionist (Nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Best Novel), spins an “intensely literary” tale of a “near-future city in an unnamed (but very UK-like) Dystopia dominated by Orwellian thought-control and savage divisions between precarious Haves and Goyaesque Have-Nots, who live in a surreal stygian blackness very much like Hell.” Count me intrigued!

4. Z For Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1975)

From the back cover: “Her name was Ann burden, and as far as she knew, she was the last living person on earth. There had been a war and after the phones and the radio and TV went dead, there was no sign that anyone else was alive. Ann thought she was the only survivor until she saw the smoke of a campfire coming closer each day. It had to be a person, someone walking, exploring the countryside as he came. And so it was–a man, called John R. Loomis, wearing what he called a safe-suit, the only one in existence.

Ann was glad to see another human being. It was more than she had hoped for. But was it really a good thing that he had come? What kind of person was John R. Loomis? He seemed pleasant enough. Yet he said odd things in moments of delirium as he recovered from an unexpected attack of radiation sickness. What would his coming mean?”

Initial Thoughts: I’d previously heard of O’Brien’s work as I enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) as a kid. I know this is classified as YA but… I feel that a lot of SF not classified as such does fit into that loosely defined category. Shots fired!

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27 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXI (Brian W. Aldiss, Michael Swanwick, Anita Mason, Robert C. O’Brien)

  1. I think Brian Aldiss’s fiction is what could be described as “hit or miss”. I preferred his earlier “Non-Stop”, which, while far from being awestruck by it, I found it to be much better than “Hothouse”, which I thought was a dull and rambling paraphernalia. I didn’t think much of “Cryptozoic” either, which came later than the more illustrious “Greybeard”.

    • Non-top (variant title: Starship) (1959) is reviewed on my site — I quite enjoyed it. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2010/10/24/a-book-review-non-stop-variant-title-starship-brian-aldiss-1958/

      But yes, many of my reviews of Aldiss’ early-to-mid 60s novels tend towards “this could have been so much more.” The Dark Light-Years (1964), Earthworks (1965), and Bow Down to Nul (variant title: The Interpreter) (1960) — all reviewed on my site — come to mind.

      • Yes, I know you did, I’ve seen your review. I haven’t read any of the other ones you mentioned. The only other novels of his I’ve read, are “The Eighty Minuet Hour”, which I’ve mentioned before, and “Frankenstein Unbound”. I’ve also read his collection “The Canopy of Time” and a few short stories in anthologies, including the one in “Dangerous Visions”, which I remember thinking was quite good at the time.

  2. The Swanwick is his first book and always struck me as very much a freshman novel. Not without its virtues — and singular ones, since this author had his strengths right from when he first started getting published — but also it limps in places.

    I’m a huge fan of Swanwick’s SF — some of his short fiction from the 1990s like ‘Griffin’s Egg,’ ‘Wild Minds,’ ‘Radiant Doors,’ and novels like STATIONS OF THE TIDE and BONES OF THE EARTH. Alas, most of what he writes these days is fantasy and bores the pants off me, when I can force myself to finish it. I gave up halfway through his most recent book.

    The Aldiss is the Aldiss. Yes, it has its longeurs, but in its time it was a semi-classic.

    • Looking through his bibliography, I realize that I’ve probably read Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) now that I think about it… as a teen. I was obsessed with fantasy.

      Of his early novels, I’ll probably acquire Vacuum Flowers at some point as well.

      • VACUUM FLOWERS is good. In that, his second novel, Swanwick really hits his stride and it’s (Solar System-based) space SF that feels somewhat in the same bag as Bruce Sterling’s Mech/Shaper stories from about the same time. So it felt like more of the same breath of fresh air for SF in the 1980s.

        I actually liked THE IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER a lot. The whole thing of Industrial Faerie there was inventive and extended nicely within its ideational constraints. One thing I object to about the ‘fantasy’ genre qua genre is the total absence of any genuine fantasy — genuine imagination and invention a la Flann O’Brian, Bruno Schulz, or Ballard’s THE UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY — in it, and the witless recycling of puerile medievaloid masturbation fantasies about Chosen Ones performing magic.

        Swanwick’s IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER definitely wasn’t that. More like fantasy done SF-style.

  3. I adored Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH when i was about 10. I have exceptionally fond memories of that discovery. I’ve heard of Z for Zachariah, and vaguely recall a BBC tv adaptation from my teens.
    The only Swanwick I’ve read was Stations in the Tide when it was published in the early 90s. Sadly it’s left no imprint upon me apart from the fact of having read it!
    I’m about 3/4 the way through Hothouse at the moment. The novel is remarkably consistent considering its (intentional) fix up nature. There are some slow bits, sure, but overall i find that the story of Gren’s journey through the world benefits from its episodic structure. Still, i’m keen to hit up Aldiss’ short fiction after this foray.

    • I must have been around that age as well when I read it or had my parents read it to me. I thought again about Z for Zachariah as there was a recent(ish) film adaptation (which I don’t plan on watching): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1598642/

      So I’m guessing you disagree with Richard’s characterization (above) of Hothouse as “dull and rambling paraphernalia”?

      • It doesn’t have the same tight narrative focus of Non Stop, but then that’s not Aldiss’ intention in this work. Hothouse operates more like a dying earth travelogue/odyssey. Though really i should hesitate to say anymore before i finish it!

  4. I’ve missed seeing these SO MUCH. I took a break for a while from blogging due to Covid, but I am so happy that when I come back you’re still at it (and a good reminder that I need to get posters of these sometime for my house).

  5. As Mark says, IN THE DRIFT was Swanwick’s first novel, and it shows. (It is still decent work.) I liked both VACUUM FLOWERS and STATIONS OF THE TIDE a good deal more. (Both those I read in the Asimov’s serializations — two of the last novels to be serialized there.) Lots of absolutely brilliant short fiction. I also like his later fantasies — the “Iron Dragon” trilogy and perhaps especially JACK FAUST, a very dark novel. And I enjoy his long Darger and Surplus series, post-Apocalypticish SF with a fantasy feel, quite, er, perhaps droll is the word.

    We’ve discussed HOTHOUSE, right? I like it a lot.

    I have never heard of Anita Mason! Bad me! Looks instriguing.

    And while I read RATS OF NIMH, I never did get to Z FOR ZACHARIAH.

    • We have discussed Hothouse. I think it came up when I posted about Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head a few weeks back.

      I keep on thinking that I’ll love getting back into cyberpunk. I put tons of cyberpunk novels on my to acquire list… like Vacuum Flowers. And then the desire passes and I return to my more common hunting grounds — New Wave SF and weird 50s visions. Maybe the mood will shift!

      As I mentioned to Mark, I’m pretty sure I read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) as a teen. I was obsessed, as you know, with fantasy first and the cover and premise sounds profoundly familiar….

      I’m convinced I had this edition:

      • JB: ‘….I return to my more common hunting grounds — New Wave SF and weird 50s visions.’

        Speaking of New Wave SF and weird 50s visions, this just got reviewed by LOCUS and sounds very much in your — and my — wheelhouse ….

        by Andrew Nette (Editor), Iain McIntyre (Editor)



        ‘…. details, celebrates, and evaluates how science fiction novels and authors depicted, interacted with, and were inspired by these cultural and political movements in America and Great Britain … with progressive authors who rose to prominence in the conservative 1950s, challenging the so-called Golden Age of science fiction and its linear narratives of technological breakthroughs and space-conquering male heroes. The book then moves through the 1960s, when writers, including those in … the New Wave, shattered existing writing conventions and incorporated contemporary themes such as modern mass media culture, corporate control, growing state surveillance, the Vietnam War, and rising currents of counterculture, ecological awareness, feminism, sexual liberation, and Black Power. The 1970s, when the genre reflected the end of various dreams of the long Sixties … is also explored along with the first half of the 1980s, which gave rise to new subgenres, such as cyberpunk.

        ‘… contains over twenty chapters written by contemporary authors and critics, and hundreds of full-color cover images, including thirteen thematically organised cover selections. New perspectives on key novels and authors, such as Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, John Wyndham, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Judith Merril, Barry Malzberg, Joanna Russ, and many others are presented alongside … topics, works, and writers who have been largely forgotten or undeservedly ignored.’

        • Oh, I absolutely know about the volume as the editors asked me to contribute. However, at the time I was finishing my PhD dissertation and could not devote any time to reworking some of my previous writing on Barry N. Malzberg and unfortunately had to decline.

          I have an advanced reader copy although I can’t promise that I’ll write anything up about it. But it looks great and I wish the request had come at a different time so that I could have had an article!

          • JB: ‘I have an advanced reader copy … it looks great’

            An affidavit! I’ll get it. Amazon already had the kindle sample up, so I read the foreword and the first one and a half chapters, and it looks good.

            Though it’s a strange thing. I’ve now lived long enough that scenes and events I was around for in person are getting historical recreations. Some years back, for instance, the David Fincher movie ZODIAC recreated the San Francisco and Bay Area of the Seventies. Well, I lived, and went to high school and SF State, and partied in that era’s San Francisco. And seeing it recreated visually on film by Fincher was funny; it was both right on in some respects and strangely off about details that, firstly, I’d probably have to think about to define, but, secondly, that someone who was actually there — as Fincher was not — wouldn’t have gotten … well, askew, at least.

            To be sure, historical hindsight should take a larger, different view, especially to give a comprehensive overview of a vanished scene to those for whom it’s only history.

            Anyway, I got a bit of the same feeling reading the kindle sample of this book. I bought Moorcock’s NEW WORLDS in its various incarnations at the time whilst living in 1960s-era London; indeed, I read maybe 90 percent of all the SF novels and magazine fiction that the book covers when that material came out.

            And then, too, one’s own memory can provide an inaccurate picture. I look at old photos of London in 1969 and it looks like an entirely different world….

            JB: ‘I was finishing my PhD dissertation.’

            I hope all goes well for you. I hear the horror stories about the neoliberal infestation of modern American universities and the immiseration of adjunct instructors. Also, I was living in Berkeley till the pandemic, and used to get reports from casual acquaintances among the Berkeley UC staff at various levels, tenured and untenured and administrative. I even did some journalism for the school of engineering magazine on a then-new reactor type, I now recall.

            Anyway, US academe sounds like a much more unpleasant place than it used to be if you’re not one of the tenured few.

            • Nothing about academia worked out for me. I successfully defended my dissertation but never found employment after years and years or trying. And could not take on adjunct positions for financial reasons… Alas.

  6. I read Michael Swanwicks “In the Drift” back in high school. I loved the cover art. I think that was one of his early works. I did not enjoy nearly as much as I did Vacuum Flowers which I have read multiple times.

    It hasn’t aged well in there is no Three Mile Island Death Zone or fanciful mutations caused by radiation.

    • Thanks for stopping by! As a historian interested in mapping a moment in time, “not aging well” etc. never bothers me. It’s interesting because of those time-dependent elements in my view.

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