Favourite SF books — Paul Collins

Yesterday I wrote about favourite science fiction books. Authors Michael Pryor and Simon Haynes got to put their two cents worth in. (see “Favourite SF books – Pryor & Haynes“) Today I am joined by author Paul Collins, who will be telling us about his favourite science fiction book.

Paul is no stranger to science fiction. He’s written lots of it, including the Earthborn Wars trilogy and his latest series, The Maximus Black Files. The first in the series, Mole Hunt, was published last year and got a slew of rave reviews. This year saw the publication of book two, Dyson’s Drop, which has also proven to be a runaway success. Fans are now eagerly awaiting the third in the series, Il Kedra, which will be out next year.

But what is Paul’s favourite science fiction book?

Asked to talk about my favourite book I’d have an argument with myself. Artemis Fowl or Tom Natsworthy? So the winner turns out to be Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines.

Most of the cities in England are hungrily trundling across the landscape, eating up smaller cities and towns for old tech and spare parts. The citizens of these fallen cities are either killed or enslaved.

Lowly third class apprentice Tom Natsworthy is unceremoniously thrown off London town – down a waste chute, no less – after having the misfortune to meet would-be assassin Hester Shaw. Together they must find their way back to London, each of course for different reasons. Much like Arthur Dent hitchhiking aboard a spacecraft, Tom and Hester climb aboard Tunbridge Wheels, only to find it’s a pirate town run by one Chrysler Peavey, whose daughter is called Cortina, of course!

There’s a strong cast of protagonists. Among my favourites are the hideously disfigured Hester Shaw and an Oriental aviatrix called Miss Anna Fang, both of whom remind me of another favourite character from years gone by, Modesty Blaise. The latter faced many villains as Reeve’s characters do. Foremost of these are the Stalkers, seven feet tall with metal armour; once human but now transformed into the living dead (think Terminator). Reeve delights in sudden gusts of humour at the least expected moments. Introducing his Stalkers he says in part: “Its round glass eye gave it a startled look, as if it had never got over the horrible surprise of what had happened to it”. In another scene, a Stalker called Shrike meets his comeuppance: “Is it . . . dead?” asks Tom Natsworthy, to which Hester replies: “A town just ran over him. I shouldn’t think he’s very well . . .”

A secret energy weapon called MEDUSA (from the Sixty Minute War) has been discovered by archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hester’s mother, actually, but Valentine killed her to obtain it), and now London is roaring across the Hunting Ground to take on the static enclaves of the Anti-Traction League in Shan Guo (not everyone it seems wants to uproot their homes and live the life of gypsies).

Reeve does commit a cardinal sin so far as this reader is concerned. He kills the dog, or the equivalent of one. I always think that’s a cheap trick to gain reader sympathy, used most notably in fantasy novels.

Originality, humour, action, adventure, greed, clashing civilisations, betrayal, murder, pirates ─ it’s got it all. (Not to be restricted to teenagers!)

It might be a town-eat-town world, but I’m glad Reeve kept it rolling to a quartet. Three more to go for me!

Mortal Engines has been on my must-read-someday pile for ages. After reading Paul’s comments I may have to move it to the top of the pile. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

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Series book covers

I’m still on the topic of book covers. This time, I thought I’d look at some covers for books that are part of a series. With a series, it’s really important for covers to be recognisably part of a set, and yet still have enough individuality to not be mistaken for another of the books in the series. It’s a tricky balance.

One of my all time favourite Australian authors is Terry Dowling. He has written four collections of science fiction short stories about a character named Tom Tyson, who travels the deserts of a future Australia abroad his sand ship Rynosseros. The four books have been published many years apart and by different publishers… but they have all had the award-winning artist, Nick Stathopoulos, illustrating the covers, maintaining the stylish look that he established with the first book back in 1990.

Another of my favourite Australian authors is Carole Wilkinson, who writes the marvellous Dragonkeeper series of children’s novels. The first editions of the first three novels had gorgeous covers. I love the combination of photography with illustration, and the use of colour.

With the release of the fourth book, all the book covers were given a make-over. Although the new covers are still good, my preference is for the originals.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight novels (whimsical, children’s steampunk) have all been illustrated by David Wyatt. Although the paperback versions show more of Wyatt’s lovely illustrations, it is the hardcovers that I like best. The illustrations are contained in ovals in the centre of the covers, creating a very stylish look, and the different colours make each one instantly recognisable.

The first two books in the new YA steampunk trilogy by Scott Westerfeld have been very eye catching, indeed. Nice and shiny and embossed, the covers for Leviathan and Behemoth do indeed do justice to the fabulous stories within.

That brings me to the end of my display of favourite covers. There are, of course, lots of other covers that I love — enough to fill many, many blog posts. But I figure I should do more than just endlessly post covers. So… Tune in next time for a more personal view of the subject, as I chat about the covers of my books.

Catch ya later,  George

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The first sentence

A writer needs to get the attention of his/her readers as soon as possible — to make them want to read further, to make them not put the book back onto the bookshop shelf in favour of another book. There are many ways to do this and it can take anywhere from a single word to an entire chapter. But what I want to write about today is that all-important first sentence.

A book’s first sentence can be long or short, descriptive or elusive, intriguing or demanding, full of purple prose or stated matter-of-factly — but its purpose is to begin the story and hook the reader. Some writers do this better than others.

Today, I simply want to share with you some of my favourite opening sentences — some with comments, other without. These are not necessarily my favourite books, these are just sentences that I found had grabbed my attention and made me remember them. I am presenting them in splendid isolation from the remainder of the text to which they belong. Have a read and see if you can guess from which books I have extracted them — I’ve listed the books at the end of the post.

1. I’m going to start with my all-time favourite — a truly memorable and intriguing sentence that sets up reader expectations. It’s a very recognisable sentence and also a rather long one — far longer than is fashionable to write in this day and age.

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

2. Another absolute classic:

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

3. A little gruesome, but memorable.

“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”

4. “I heard a story once about a little kid who came home from school and found his mother dead on the kitchen floor.”

5. “I keep thinking that I have a tunnel in my chest.”

6. What I love about this sentence is the way ‘dæmon’ is written with such everyday matter-of-factsness.

“Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

7. “I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion . . . no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials . . . no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes—no income tax.”

8. “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”

9. Okay, okay — this is one sentence plus one extra word. But that one extra word makes all the difference.

“It wasn’t even five o’clock and Milo had already murdered Mrs Appleby. Twice.”

10. “Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead.”

11. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

12. “All children, except one, grow up.”

13. “Later, while I was facing the Potter Moth, or fleeing for my life from the First Ones, or helping man a cannon aboard Jack Havock’s brig Sophronia, I would often think back to the way my life used to be, and to that last afternoon at Larklight, before all our misfortunes began.”

14. “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”

15. “Something eerie came over European civilization in the early twentieth century and led to a madness which was called ‘the Great War’.”

So there you have it — some of my favourite opening sentences. They probably say more about me than the books they come from. There are probably other ones out there that I may like better… but either I haven’t read them yet, or I read them so long ago that I can’t remember them, or I was simply unable to get my hands onto a copy of the relevant book to check the quote.

But what about all you people out there in the blogosphere? What are your favs? Leave and comment and share an opening sentence.

And tune in next time for some random quotes.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Here are the books:

1. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, 1898.

2. Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984.

3. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown, 2000.

4. The Inner Circle, Gary Crew, 1986.

5. After the First Death, Robert Cormier, 1979.

6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, 1995.

7. Glory Road, Robert Heinlein, 1963.

8. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, 2000.

9. The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler, Paul Collins, 2009.

10. Blaze of Glory, Michael Pryor, 2006.

11. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dauglas Adams, 1979.

12. Peter Pan, JM Barrie, 1911.

13. Larklight, Philip Reeve, 2006.

14. Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terrance Dicks, 1977.

15. The First A.I.F.: A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, LL Robson, 1970.


Today, ladies and gentlemen, we enter a world of manners, polite society and dark secrets; a world of amazing steam-driven contraptions; a world in which Victoria sits on the throne and we all daily sing along to God Save the Queen; a world in which class divisions are nearing breaking-point and but we all pretend they are not. Welcome, dear reader, to the world of steampunk.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction. It encompasses quite a lot of diverse fiction, but is usually characterised by society in an age of steam-driven machinery, often fantastical in nature. It is Victorian-esque and is often set in 19th century England. This sub-genre has been around for quite a while but has been gaining in popularity of late.

LarklightThe first book I read which made me sit up and take notice of the sub-genre was Philip Reeve’s Larklight. Set in an alternate 1851, where the British Empire extends from Mercury to Jupiter, this charming and whimsical kids’ novel has been referred to by some as steampunk-lite. But I think that it and its sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm, are a terrific read and a jolly-good intro to steampunk. I reviewed them a while back for the Australian Spec Fic in Focus website.

WorldshakerMost recently, Scott Westefield’s Leviathan has been getting rave reviews. And last year, Richard Harland’s YA novel Worldshaker hit the shelves. Leviathan is sitting on my must-read-soon pile, but I did read and review Worldshaker when it came out (check out the review). It is, without a doubt, my favourite book of 2009. So I’m extremely pleased that Richard was able to drop by and answer a couple of steampunk questions.

Why do you like reading steampunk and what attracted you to write in that sub-genre?

I didn’t plan to write a steampunk novel, that’s for sure! When I had the ideas for Worldshaker, over 15 years ago, steampunk was only a small and little-noticed sub-genre of SF. My first idea was for a great gothic castle, but – since I didn’t just want to imitate Mervyn Peake – I built my ‘castle’ out of metal and put it on rollers. From then on, the mechanical side grew more and more important as I kept on developing the world and narrative.

I couldn’t see any chance of getting the story published for a very long while, since no Australian publisher was looking at that kind of fantasy back then. So I bided my time and kept on with the developing – and in the end, steampunk/Victoriana fiction started to catch on. I started the actual writing of the novel 5 years ago, and now it’s come out right in the middle of a huge steampunk wave in the US, and an ever-spreading wave in Australia.

I think it was the novel I always had in me to write. When I look back, steampunky elements had already crept into many of my previous novels. The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade are both set in Victorian-type worlds. There’s a metal world in The Dark Edge, industrial scenery in the Humen Camp episodes of the Ferren trilogy, and quirky bits of machinery in (again) the Ferren books and The Black Crusade. I’m just lucky that the world finally wanted to read what I particularly wanted to write.

For me, the appeal of steampunk is that it’s a whole new realm of fantasy. I still enjoy post-Tolkien and medieval-type fantasies, but there are so many of them. Most very competent, many very emotionally involving—but there’s a limit to their originality. All the obvious things that can be done with that kind of world have already been done. Whereas steampunk worlds still have so many possibilities—including alternative technologies and political scenarios that can hardly appear in medieval-type fantasy.

Plus I love the atmospheric possibilities of the 19th-century-that-never-existed: claustrophobic back-alleys, grime and smokestacks, fog and gloom. The Dickensian imagination!

What’s your favourite steampunk novel/story?

Let me say first of all that I haven’t yet read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, which I’m saving up to take with me when I start the overseas tours for Worldshaker. Since I have great admiration for Scott as a writer, it’s almost certain to join my list of favourites. (Ironically, Leviathan was my original title for the novel that became Worldshaker!)

I love Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold.  (A love/hate relationship originally, because when Mortal Engines appeared, I was horrified by its overall similarities to my own as-yet-unwritten steampunk story. But I’ve got over that since Worldshaker has managed to make its own very successful way in the world.)

Of the early classics in the genre, my favourite is Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates; I admire more than love Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

I’ve just finished reading Jay Lake’s Mainspring, which has a truly marvellous central concept.

Perdido Street StationSome of my very favourites are steampunk-ish rather than middle-of-the-genre steampunk. For example, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo books.

And did I mention Michael Pryor’s The Laws of Magic series? So much of the good steampunk stuff is coming out as YA.

To find out more about Richard and his writing, check out his website. My thanks to Richard for dropping by. And a good thing that he mentioned Michael Pryor…

Tune in next time for some more steampunk adventures along with Michael Pryor, author of The Laws of Magic.

Catch ya later,  George