Wasp - Eric Frank Russell

A man chosen by his ability to walk bow-legged is dropped into an alien world. The strange inhabitants are ruled by a dictatorial government, which tightly controls all information. And they are at war with the human race. Mowry’s mission is simple: be as annoying as possible.

Not so easy, when the fearsome secret police are after him, or at least the grassroots terrorist organization he’s fabricated. But Mowry, like a wasp, can cause disproportionate trouble for his size. Mowry makes criminal contacts, steals documents, and etches extremist anti-government slogans on buildings. All the time maintaining his disguise of another species.

In Wasp, you step into Mowry’s shoes and see everything through his eyes. You can’t help but root for him. This is a narrower focus of interplanetary war than most sci-fi I’ve come across, but no less thrilling for it.

Though this book was published in 1957, and the Cold War themes of spies and torture cells are strong, this book seems very relevant to today. Wasp thumbs the nose at censors and security-conscious states. One man wreaking havoc across a country appears ridiculous and the contrast between Mowry and his shadowy opponents, whose administration is crumbling under its own paranoia, is hilarious.

This book is fast paced. When taking breaks I had to exhale and wait for my pulse to stop racing before trying anything that required focus.

Fans of hard sci-fi might be disappointed. There is little very modern technology and at some points it feels like Mowry could have been dropped into Nazi Germany or 50s Soviet Union. There are typewriters. However, the alien phrases and names throughout maintain the feel of the exotic. This is a book not to be missed. - Rosemary Ware

Stormfront - Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is the only Wizard in the Phonebook. Probably more importantly, in Jim Butchers Dresden File series, he is also one of many real Wizards (though the others tend not to advertise it). The series, now more than a dozen books long and starting with Storm Front, tracks his progress as a Private Investigator of the paranormal and a slowly maturing Wizard of some power, though little finesse. Without giving too much away they’re great fun short reads for anyone that enjoys a little Urban Fantasy; the vampires are more interesting than Buffy’s let alone Twilight’s sparkly buggers, the faeries are just hilariously conniving and Harry’s sarcastic, Star Wars quoting, humour manages not to get old despite never really growing up.

Don’t go in expecting too many surprises at the structure though; Harry is going to get beaten up, repeatedly and increasingly severely until he’s an angry walking zombie (not literally, though there are those too) of a man that just wants to get through the trouble, rescue the girl and sleep for a few weeks. Despite this slightly predictable nature, the books always grab me and I find myself sadistically wanting to watch Harry struggle throughwith ever more ridiculous injuries and enjoying the entertaining characters that surround him. Some of these are shamelessly stereotypical, for instance Harry, who it turns out is not highly regarded in Wizarding circles – in part due to his chequered past – himself freely admits to being a bit old-fashioned when it comes to women (but then if you’re a wizard and anathema to all modern technology you’re allowed to be a little unenlightened on some things right?). One of the main recurring characters Karrin Murphy is a diminutive Chicago cop with a black belt and an attitude. Oh, and Harry has a literal faery godmother… which as it turns out isn’t generally a blessing.

Anyway, I’d highly recommend it as something fairly light but massively engaging. - Alex Savell

The Prestige - Christopher Priest

At first glance The Prestige doesn’t seem like a science fiction story. Indeed, most of it isn’t. But the story of two stage magicians battling to out do each other in a lifelong rivalry at the turn of the twentieth century, as turned in to a film by Christopher Nolan in 2006, is awonderful tale of stage magic, illusions, unreliable narrators and Nikola Tesla. Tesla!

Unlike the film, the novel has a section set in contemporary England, with the descendants of the two magicians meeting and trying to piece together the events of a century ago. This serves as a framing device for the story of the magicians, and also provides a climax for the book as a whole. The magicians in question are Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, and their stories are told through the notebook of the former, written many years after most of the events in it, and the diary of the latter, charting his life in a more direct, in-the-moment way. The two accounts of their lives are given one after the other, making you check back to see the first’s account of an incident the second describes, and wonder which version is closer to the truth. Although, of course, the lesson the book tries to teach you is that neither narrator can be trusted fully.

The science fiction in the story is very muted, only appearing near the end. And although it’s something very far away from the realm of possibility, it feels very grounded and real. Knowing the man Tesla was, really would it be too surprising to find out he’d invented a technology we don’t even have today? That said, the final scene of the book in the modern day does go a bit far. The technology Tesla invented is used at the end in a way that makes little sense in the context of the world previously established. And whilst it does lead to a chilling final image, it is rather silly. Overall though, a good read. The style is very believable – theauthor has put thought in to how a notebook and a diary of those sorts would read. Anyone who enjoyed the film will love the book, and at a light 350 (or so) pages, it’s perfect for devouring in a couple of afternoons. - Tom Rivlin

Gardens of the Moon – Stephen Erikson

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Are you a seasoned veteran of the fantasy genre? Do you want to feel really confused even though you’re more than half-way through the book?Do you want more characters than there are equations in your heavily theoretical dissertation? Are you crazy? If the answer to any of these is “yes” then pick up the first book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Gardens of the Moon.

It takes some time to get into Gardens of the Moon, mainly due to Erikson’s way of exposing the story (which is throwing you straight into the deep end and giving you very little help). It was only when I got to part two of the book that I really started to appreciate the characters. There’s Kruppe the consummate idiot who’s simultaneously the smartest guy in the book; there’s Whiskeyjack who just wants a peaceful life away from the fighting; there are the immortal Ascendants with their power games.

Whilst the setting of the book is based far from reality as we know it, and despite the infinitude of sentient species, Gardens of the Moon and the books that follow are really quite human in nature. Strip away the magic and the complexity and what’s left is a story of human suffering, the futility of war and quite a touching story of loyalty and friendship.

The great thing about the Malazan series is that it’s already complete. Unfortunately, it’s ten books long and each book makes War and Peace seem like an easy read. However, if, like me, you get a kick out of overcoming the challenge of reading a series that has more words in it than atoms in the universe, then you’ve picked the right book. - Meera Patel

Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel for adults has already, quite rightly, received a great deal of praise. The book follows a young boy growing up in a large house in the country with his sister and their parents. However, when the suicide of their lodger awakens an ancient and dangerous spirit he must find help from the Hempstock family who live down the lane and are far more than what they appear to be.

While this may seem to be a rather standard and simple premise the novel, as might be expected from Gaiman’s previous work, goes far deeper. Told in first person and drawing heavily from the author’s own memories of growing up this is a highly personal work exploring how children perceive the world around them. Juxtaposed with the simple rural setting is Gaiman’s well known fascination with myths and legends. These more fantastical elements are masterfully used to emphasise both the feelings of wonder and helplessness the protagonist, as all children, feels when faced with the world around him. The author is careful never to explain too much – leaving us with the same feeling of wonder and strangeness. As in most good books we are left with more questions than answers.

This is a very short novel but not a word is wasted. Gaiman is a master of both style and narrative. The prose instantly draws you into the story and envelopes you with a incredible feeling of magical and melancholy nostalgia. This is an amazing book – one that you’ll almost certainly want to read in one sitting. - Maciej Matuszewski

Against A Dark Background

One of Banks’ stand-alone science fiction works, this is a novel of many facets. Set in the isolated but heavily colonised Thrial solar system the book follows Sharrow – an aristocrat and former commander of a military fighter squadron. Faced with a vendetta by a militant religious order known as the Huhsz, she gathers up her former war buddies to find the only artefact that will appease the Hushz’s anger – the deadly and mysterious Lazy Gun.

The first part of the book, as Sharrow and her friends scour the solar system for clues to the location of the Lazy Gun, has a wonderful feel of adventure to it – which has, in recent years, unfortunately become less and less common in science fiction works. The novel’s premise gave Banks full reign to exercise both his imagination and writing skill. As the story progresses we encounter more and more strange and wonderful cultures and settings – such a city built solely on abandoned naval vessels, a planet almost entirely covered with a gigantic plant, or a millennia old castle inhabited by an order of monks forever chained to its walls. However, Banks’ main skill was making all these settings feel believable and fit together into a consistent picture.

Indeed, soon the novel begins to paint a detailed and powerful picture of a complex yet decadent and near stagnant society. At the same, thanks to Banks’ well known mastery of characterisation, we get to explore how this society impacts on our protagonists – and how they impact on it. This interplay between the two leads to the more serious consideration of themes such as loss, the corrupting influence of power and the helpless that even the powerful feel when faced with a massive and complex universe. One could describe this novel almost as a character study – but one in which in which the characters include not only our protagonists but the very setting itself.

This is a unique book – at times light and action filled, at times darker and more thoughtful – but always highly engaging. Even amongst Banks’ many other highly acclaimed novels, this stands out as one of the best._ - Maciej Matuszewski_

Find all of these, as well as 9000 other books, 2000 DVDs and 500 graphic novels, in the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gothic Horror Society’s very own library. Located in the West Basement of the Beit Building it is open every weekday during term time from noon to 2pm, and often in the evenings. Check out icsf.org.uk for more information. We hope to see you there!