Culling the book herd – deciding what stays and what gets recycled brings back memories

To be releasedWay back at the start of the Twenty-First Century, I decided to take an assignment in Switzerland for a year. I couldn’t take all my stuff with me so it went into storage. Fifteen years later, I’m still in Switzerland but I’ve finally retrieved my stuff from storage. In the centre of the pile was a set of book boxes with the label “150 completely essential Science Fiction Books” which I’ve just started to explore.

I’ve been through the first fifteen, (yes, I know that’s only ten per cent and yes of course I got distracted and read a little of each of them so it took forever) and I’ve decided to release the thirteen above back into the wild.

Four of the books are Gene Wolfe’s “The Book Of The New Sun” quartet. They were all published in the same year, 1982, because Gene Wolfe wouldn’t release the first book “Shadow Of The Torturer” until he’d finished the last one “The Citadel Of The Autarch”.  In the fast-moving Science Fiction market of the eighties, he must have driven his agent and his publisher crazy. Fortunately, they achieved cult status and sold in droves, so the wait was worth it. I read the first one hungrily and the rest because I’d read the first and it didn’t seem right to stop. Now I remember them only dimly as slightly twisted, slightly too violent and dark, elaborate, world-spanning, far-future books with a plot of such Byzantine complexity that it made my head hurt. I won’t be going back to them again.

Two of the books “Journey To The Centre” and “The Empire Of Fear” are by Brian Stableford, an author I always wanted to like. I had to think hard before I decided to let these go. Stableford has wonderful ideas. Each of his books is stuffed with bucket-loads of them. “Journey To The Centre” is a puzzle book set on Asgard an ancient, hollow planet, perhaps constructed, with layer upon layer of chambers to explore, which seems to have been abandoned after some long-ago disaster. Add violent conflict and a race to the truth and you have the makings of a good novel… except that the puzzle was always more important than the characters and that has never worked for me.

“Empire Of Fear” is a book you all would have heard about in the same breathe as “Dune” if only it has been a little better. Here is a world ruled by Vampires who are truly immortal, who drink blood but who go out in the day-time. You’ve heard of some of them: Ghengis Kahn, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, Vlad the Impaler. In this alternative history they are about to clash in a great battle, unless a scientist who knows the secret of their immortality can stop them. This book has castles and battles and pirates and vampires and yet… it all falls rather flat because there isn’t a character worth caring about. Which is why these books are going.

“Battlefield Earth”  by L. Ron. Hubbard is a not-bad space battle saga pot-boiler with evil (although it’s not their fault) aliens, brave humans and damsels in distress that need to be rescued. It long and hectic and reasonably good fun (if you can ignore the maudlin sentimentality and the human-centric view of the world) but the real reason I bought it was to find out how the man who made up Scientology, writes. All I can say is, Scientology must be must better fiction than this.

“Stardance” is a novel based on an award-winning novella and is an excellent example of the idea that less was definitely more.

The rest are all good, competent science fiction books based around an intriguing idea. Yet twenty years after reading them, they’ve slid from my consciousness without leaving a trace. If I came across them today, they wouldn’t make it to my TBR pile.

Two books didSin Of Origin survive the cull and are now in that TBR pile, or should it be a TBRA (To Be Read Again) pile?

“Sin Of Origin” by John Barnes, published in 1988, twist several interesting questions together: what was the origin of life in the universe? Should other life forms be converted to worship the one true God? Is there any practical difference between conversion and conquest? What happens when an apex predator discovers that they have become prey? and so on and so on.

This book makes it my TBRA pile because: the story is told from the perspective of different characters with VERY different world-views that get woven together into an integrated truth that only the reader can see; the action is fast and realistic and the people are more thoughtful than in the books that ended-up being culled.

The second book is “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson, published in 1993. I bought this book because it won a Nebula and because the other books in the Red Marstrilogy (“Green Mars” and “Blue Mars”) won Hugos so it had to be good.

It never made it off my TBR pile. It was just so LONG and so full of technology and had such a long-term view of history that it might as well have had WORTHY printed on the cover.

So why isn’t it being culled? I made the mistake of reading the first chapter. And then the one after that. And it just doesn’t seem like the kind of book I should cull.

Of course I know this doesn’t necessarily turn it into the kind of book I’ll read either, but I’ll wait until I’ve been through the remaining 135 books before I put this one to the cull test again.

Going through these books  is like meeting my younger self and discovering that he sometimes read more from compulsion than for pleasure but he did pick some good books. Now I’m in a “Life Is To Short For Mediocre Books” frame of mind.

I read for purely for the pleasure of it and it seems I no longer get enough pleasure from straight “How will the clever engineer solve this problem?” SF books to spend time on them, especially when I could be reading really fun Urban Fantasy.


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