My reading: science, fiction and structure.

The trick with reading short stories, I think, is not to rush from one to another without taking a breather between. The best of them should be given time to soak into the thought-stream.

Of course, it’s not always possible to guess in advance whether a new story deserves to be given the kind of attention that implies. When I picked a 2007 anthology of Science Fiction off the dustier of my shelves I had no memory of where it had come from, and I don’t read enough of the genre to recognise even the name of the editor, let alone any of the twelve chosen authors.

My choosing it at that moment was motivated by tidiness. In the last few weeks I’ve built up a sizable heap of discards for the charity shop. Judging by the recent turn-around in my reading to acquiring ratio, there’s a possibility that I might have shelf-room for all of my books, soon. I can’t think when that last happened.

I know, this approach is far from the usual driving spirit for someone in search of entertainment. But, actually, in using this strategy, I’m drawing from a history of good luck, or maybe serendipity. Some of the best films, plays, radio shows and reading experiences I’ve enjoyed, have been due to happenstance, rather than research.

Now you might argue that since The Best of 2007… was on my shelf, I must, at some point, have thought it would be worth reading. Actually, a substantial number of my TBR books have been gifts. I swop a fair few volumes with friends, family and neighbours. Sometimes these are because we know each other’s reading habits and expect them to be entertained, other times because we’ve struggled through them, or even, given up, and would like a second opinion. And then there are the books that have been orphaned. My shelves are, it seems, viewed as a safe place: a book haven.

Please note that word ‘seems’. Despite the evidence of my wall spaces, I can be a ruthless reader. Maybe it’s easier to hand the final disposal of a book over to someone else.

To get back to, Science Fiction: The Best of The Year, 2007, I still don’t know why I had it, but I do have a few thoughts about why it languished on my shelves for several years.

  1. It’s a thickish book, with only twelve stories inside. I thought they’d be long, and was not sure I’d have the stamina for so much science.
  2. I don’t like the cover illustration.
    • It’s predominantly red: not one of my favourite colours.
      • There’s an illustration of a space vehicle, and an astronaut. I always expect ‘hard’ sci-fi when I see a plot that looks like it relies on technology.
        • ‘Hard’ sci-fi is something I’m happy to watch, but too lazy to read. It so often requires the learning of lots of new terms and theories. That might be acceptable in real life, but not for short-fiction.

If only I had opened it earlier. Point number 1, is qualified by the discovery that although there are 372 pages, they’re printed on thicker paper than I expected. The font is a good size, and the lines or print are well spaced.

Point number 2, well I hardly thought about the cover, once I had started the stories, and although there was ‘hard’ science in some, it was not delivered in dense blocks. Rounded characters led me into scenarios that explored themes on a human level. They raised universal questions about how we exist, or interact, and explored the strengths and weaknesses of our natures, without lecturing or grandstanding.

As always, with my reading, I’ve learned something more than I expected. Why should we take a breather, between reading short stories? Because it supplies a space for our minds to pick up all the nuances of a well delivered finish.

A few thoughts on changes to my reading habit

This week I’ve been reading some short sci-fi stories from the 1930s, by John Beynon. If he doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’d recognise him as John Wyndham. Under that name, he wrote seven novels between 1951 and 1968.

I own six. All have the kind of dog-eared covers that might suggest I’ve picked them up cheaply: certainly that they’ve been well-read.

Last year, I included one, The Day of The Triffids, in a course called Reading 1951, partly because I wanted a contrast in tone to my other two novels, by female authors, but also because I knew Wyndham was an easy read. Triffids is around 90,000 words, and a page-turner. I was sure it would make a quick introduction to best-seller genre-fiction.

It did that and more. There were subtleties, for instance in the way it engages with the politics of its publication period, that I’d missed when reading only for entertainment. Sharing ideas brought fresh perspectives to my interpretation, as well as that of the group.

A couple of months later I was offered some unwanted books, and there were two collections of Wyndham’s early short fiction. I couldn’t resist, though I’d no idea when I’d get around to reading them.

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that the last few weeks have been a godsend when it comes to dealing with the less-likely books on my shelves. It’s not just that I’ve more time, or that I’m less focused in the way I consume, it’s perhaps that being so confined, I need to range more widely in my reading.

In the last few days, I’ve been on three trips around our solar system. Since each journey was imagined in the 1930s, some of the science has felt a little dated. Sleepers of Mars, for instance, has Russia and Britain each sending manned rockets to claim Mars, in 1981.

There was a moment where I hesitated, wondering what something so far from accurate could offer. The opening two pages are scene-setting, and includes some soap-boxing.

But, after all, just what is meant by life? It is a pretty piece of vanity for us to assume that it is only something on a carbon basis needing oxygen for its existence. for there were things on the deserts, things in the cities and things moving in the papery bushes which suffered no inconvenience from the thinning of the air.

Then I had a problem with the ‘story hook’.

These two great rockets from Earth were not wanted on Mars, and their departure was being arranged for them. It was not, however the callous Martian intention to drive them at random into space. The decision that they must leave held no animosity, and the activity about the flanges showed that care was being taken that both vessels should have the best possible chance of making the return to Earth safely.

There are Martians! Put that with twenty-first century Mars explorations, and I’m faced with a paradoxical reading situation.

There are stories that have a short shelf-life. Sometimes I read them as ‘period-pieces’, for insight into the writers and readers of the time. That wasn’t the kind of reading I wanted.

As I wavered, murmuring, ‘What about Mars Rover?’ another question overrode it: ‘What could Beynon possibly do with the rockets, other than send them home?’ It didn’t seem much to build a story from.

One of the many good things about short fiction, is that if you don’t like what you’re reading, finishing it doesn’t cost much in energy or time, and you can always abandon the rest of the volume. I read on.

Actually, Sleepers of Mars turned out to be more of a novella. It had nine chapters, which meant plenty of room for character and plot developments. Mars was not simply a dying world, it had a complex history that was gradually revealed in a sub-plot that impacted on the human characters, and, this reader. Yes, I became involved.

Even in his early days, Beynon, it seems, knew how to hold his reader. Science is not the focus of these stories, intrinsic as it is to plot developments. As in his novels, the real story lies in the facets and flaws of human nature, and the vulnerability of an environment to exploitation.

I’m inclined to suggest that what Beynon/Beynon Harris/Wyndham wrote were timeless parables. The other four equally chilling stories, consider the potential exploitations inherent in developing time-travel; weapons of mass-destruction; the impact of big-businesses on our environment, or short-term thinking when exploring.

Each drew me in by focusing on characters placed in jeopardy. All left me thinking about the ways we live, and should live.

I’m happy to call these timeless writing, which is pretty impressive when you think they were published before space travel became reality.