On the Bestseller Trail

One interesting thing about last year's Booker Prize, quite apart from the unprecedented publicity given to this mere literary award, was the number of SF-related books among the finalists. As Brian Aldiss observed with tongue partly in cheek, 'Doris Lessing's The Sirian Experiments is definitely galactic empire stuff, if not a patch on Doc Smith; D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel opens with a poem, integral to the novel, which was published in New Worlds ... even the winner, Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children, is about Wyndhamesque telepathic kids.' The Rushdie and Thomas books later became worthy bestsellers; one book which didn't – having been eliminated in the Booker semi-finals, as it were – was Christopher Priest's The Affirmation (Faber £6.25). In a year of less competition this might have won and started down the bestseller trail itself: the finest book yet by a fine writer best known for his more overtly SF work. Buy a copy and restore some justice to this wretched world (advt).

It's good that work with SF elements can still make the big time; the latest such reassurance comes from the successful new novel of ex-Booker Prize judge Brian Aldiss. Helliconia Spring is SF without reservations, set on the far-off planet Helliconia whose sun swings in a gigantic ellipse around a second and much hotter star,taking a 'Great Year' of 2,592 Earth years to complete each cycle. Here the planet emerges from its harsh 500-year winter into a 900-year spring; further ahead lie centuries of summer hot enough to set the equator alight.

So, hardened SF readers may ask, what? Elaborate celestial mechanics is nothing new, and the average mindboggling set-up is generally good for one and a half plot twists plus a few smothered yawns. Less familiar is Aldiss's careful combination of the big picture with a story about real people. The lens of his imagination is set to the widest angle, showing an immense panorama of seasonal change; at the same time the lens quality is such as to pick up the tiniest details of selected human lives, the lives of people cruelly shaped by forces too huge for them to understand. Helliconia itself is not so much the hero of the drama (as it would be in a standard SF 'novel of ideas') as an impersonal fate pushing round the still more interesting people, both humans and the Minotaur-like phagors who share the world and rule the winter. 'First, fate moulds our character; then character moulds our fate,' says one of the humans ... again and again we see the process happening.

Helliconia is a lived-in world. It has its own long history, remembered better by the phagors and the angry (mythical?) spirits of the dead than by shortlived people. Its ecology is seen crumbling and adapting in strange ways as the season changes at last; people and phagors, it emerges, are important to one another in a mysterious symbiosis mediated by disease. Language, legend, geography, mysticism (e.g. the ley-like 'land-octaves' and 'air-octaves', important to the phagors and the dead) ... Aldiss has worked hard in every sphere to present a world real enough to burst off the page like Tlön in Jorge Luis Borges's story.

To cover the details of his panorama without having to filter them through a few characters' eyes, Aldiss includes an orbital observation station relaying the continuing epic back to Earth – deliberately reminiscent, perhaps, of his Report on Probability A. The voice of the omniscient author is also heard, like the voice-over in some vast documentary: this works surprisingly well, and only rarely does it irritate with heavily proleptic lines of the 'Had he but known ...' variety. The man is a stylist, and his language sings when the amazing spring blossoms at last.

Slow-moving overall, though with much incidental action and excitement, Helliconia Spring may well be the first volume of Aldiss's best work yet. It has the widescreen appeal of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men or Star Maker, and also – what Stapledon chose to avoid – a warm and intense involvement with actual individual people. To follow are Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter. If only he can keep it up.

Moving to another fat book ... Stephen Donaldson is established as a best-selling fantasy author, and the context of his The One Tree is now familiar after the first Thomas Covenant trilogy plus The Wounded Land, to which this is the sequel. Donaldson's success is rather encouraging, since despite his flaws he deals in problems more complex than the routine fantasy business of a long quest at the end of which Evil is done over with a broadsword.

The underlying problem of Donaldson's first trilogy is that the leper Covenant dares not accept the 'Land' as quite real – he may only be sinking into an insane wish-fulfilment fantasy. But a position of utter disbelief won't let him function either (why bother? why not simply lie down and ignore everything?). The balance he needs to reach is one of willing suspension of disbelief, the same attitude the SF/fantasy author must conjure up in his or her readers to succeed.

In this second trilogy, Covenant and his allies have a new problem. He's achieved his balance and now wields power – too much power, enough to wreck the Land if his control slips. Tolkien's hobbits escaped this predicament by destroying the Ring; Covenant, though terrified of what he might do, and aware that power is mastering him, has no such option. Escapism is balanced by the fantasy world's own harsh rules of power and corruption. It makes for interesting reading; and in addition to this overall problem The One Tree is perhaps the most inventive Donaldson book yet. We have adventures at sea (in a granite ship!), an interlude among quasi-elves who are disturbingly 'fair but perilous' in the way Tolkien's promised to be but never quite were, problems with a devious magician who wants the power for himself, and finally a completed quest to the 'One Tree' itself – with mixed results.

The One Tree also scores fairly well for characterization – almost too well, to the point where people's foibles stick out grotesquely like a moral equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles. There's nothing here quite as offputting as Covenant's colossal self-pity in Lord Foul's Bane ... but his new quest partner, lady doctor Linden Avery (whose own moral agonies come to centre-stage here) reveals a past of unbelievable trauma and melodrama associated with the separate deaths of both her parents, and it does get a bit much. At the same time this is refreshing: fantasy protagonists who are so vital and so untraditionally flawed deserve some praise even when their qualities are overdone.

Another source of irritation is Donaldson's occasional outbreaks of swollen vocabulary (OEDema, as we call it in the trade), reaching into the murky recesses of the complete Oxford English Dictionary for words like sapid, clinquant, surquedry, fulvous, caducity, lucubrium ... Even after long dictionary-searching I still can't unravel the simile 'like the fury of a bayamo'. It's interesting to contrast Brian Aldiss's way with words. Aldiss invents his own terms and slips them cunningly past your guard, until by the end of Helliconia Spring it seems perfectly natural that people should ride hoxneys or yelk. Donaldson tends to place his obscure but genuine words exactly where you will trip over them, unable to grab hold of any context. It's just one symptom of a clumsiness with language which, though visibly decreasing, is Donaldson's major defect.

Such annoyances apart, The One Tree is a good read, pleasing because the author avoids so many easy options. At one point, for example, various characters are chained in a dungeon, being gloated over by the evil wizard; the dimmest reader can imagine half a dozen routine ways for them to escape. What actually does happen at that climax jerked me upright in my chair with surprise and appreciation. Try it for yourself; but read The Wounded Land first.

Raymond Briggs is another best-selling author/artist who isn't afraid to be unexpected and alarming. His first major cartoon book, the witty and erudite Fungus the Bogeyman, was hugely refreshing for being (among other things) the exact antithesis of nice, hygienic children's stories; his Gentleman Jim ended with the pathetic Walter Mittyish hero making the best of life in prison. When the Wind Blows goes yet further over the top and will doubtless offend many: it features a dear little old dimwitted couple making a laughable hash of the directions for what to do inthe event of nuclear alert. Not Aldiss's exuberant primitives, nor Donaldson's huger-than-life melodrama actors: merely drab folk who never quite understand that World War III is different from the Blitz.

The humour and the drawings become steadily darker when, in defiance of all the unwritten rules for a 'children's' book, the Bomb falls. The old couple carry on making a laughable hash of their survival instructions, boiling water to purify it of fallout and so on, just as so many people might. Without a word of preaching – and moral smugness is the great flaw in many an anti-nuclear tract – the consequences are made perfectly clear. This one is going to cause offence simply because it is so effective: the cartoon-book format comes over with an impact which in prose versions of the same story has been softened by too much familiarity. It deserves inspection while it's still arguably SF.

According to SF/fantasy folklore, most fans have literary ambitions of their own: this column's repetition of the word 'bestseller' must be like a red rag to a herd of bulls. The SF Writers of America book Writing and Selling Science Fiction does what it can to point the way. 'In the beginning, take a void sheet of paper. Let there be light. Now divide the light from the darkness, and –' Or, in other words, such books can only suggest how to use a writing talent: though the ability isn't particularly rare, it can't be learnt from books.

What a guide like this can teach is what to do before you write, what to avoid as you write, and the disposal of the result when it's written. There's considerable repetition in the 11 essays here, but useful tips emerge: read omnivorously to stock your mind, discipline yourself to write x hours each day, give your characters a history and a family even if these never appear in the story, read plays for hints on using dialogue, and so on. Gardner Dozois is particularly good on common errors in creating a future world, and likewise George R.R. Martin on aliens. Some subjects are heavily covered – three essays on imagining the world of the future – while others, like designing plausible pseudoscience, are skimped.

The stuff on the basics of money is most disappointing, because it's badly dated (the book's copyright date is 1976) and also parochial. Market rates are antiquated and quoted in dollars only; two of the cited short-story markets are long dead (Galaxy, Fantastic), while of course there's no mention of Asimov's, Omni, Twilight Zone or any British magazine whatever; the anthology market has collapsed almost completely since the optimistic comments here; and so on. Similarly, hints for writing economies refer to American '20 pound' paper (writers over here should use 70/80 g.s.m. white bond, A4 size – buy it in bulk as suggested here), mid-70s US prices, and US tax law. One suggestion could eventually land you in Capital Gains Tax trouble if tried over here.

The book's main strength is in what it tells you not to do. You won't learn how to write a saleable story, but you may well save postage on submitting some of your unsaleable ones. The book's weakness is that it seems to be a collection of 'all the essays we could get' rather than a balanced or comprehensive guide. As for the tempting bestseller market out there ... not even the people who write the things really know why such-and-such of their books should do so implausibly well.