Goonhammer Reads Science Fiction: Out of the Black Library

Welcome back! Last time we strapped into the rocket, hit ignition and headed out into the void of Classic Scifi, and now it’s time to put the series to the test – can we actually get you reading some of these incredibly awesome books that are weighing down my shelves and threatening my sanity with their endless whispering?

Let’s start out with what we know: Warhammer 40k. Since the publication of Inquisitor (now better known as Draco) in 1990, the Black Library has opened impossibly wide and the Harlequins have produced near enough 1,000 novels, audiobooks and graphic novels for the 40k Universe. 1,000 of them. Millions, upon millions, of words about the 40k universe from hundreds of authors and contributors ranging from SF stalwarts to fresh ingenues and GW staffers. Unless you’re a voracious and extremely wealthy reader, you could probably start now and never read anything other than Warhammer 40k tie in fiction, forever.

Probably not too good an idea though.

You’d miss this, for example – the excellent art for the SF Masterworks edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Credit: Gollancz/Chris Moore

Black Library fiction is cool and good, like a lot of tie in fiction, but there’s a lot of amazing Scifi out there. If you’re someone who doesn’t read much outside Games Workshop, or Disney, or Paramount, or even Battletech and Gundam, take a step out there.

This week we’re breaking out of the Black Library, and I’ve had a think about some recommendations to build from some of the Black Library’s very, very best.

Underhive and Cyberpunk

Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan. Credit: Gollancz

Vaults of Terra – Chris Wraight

Interrogator Spinoza is new to Terra. You can tell – she still looks healthy, has faith, and loves His Imperium. But this, as they say, is Terra, and nothing survives the grinding poison, the secrets carried in the heart and worse, the knowledge that the Throne is failing…

The Vaults of Terra series dives us deep into the festering heart of the Imperium and comes up steaming, stinking and drenched in gothic horror. It’s a feast of lore, deep-sunk body horror, twisted morality and frenetic combat. You’ve got heroes, villains, the morally ambiguous and more monstrous once-humans floating in a vat than you can shake a stick at. Inquisitor Crowl and Interrogator Spinoza make a great pair, navigating the twisting boundaries and multiple realities of the Terran world-city with diametrically opposed approaches: Speak softly, or carry a very big stick. Wraight has very firmly nailed himself to the top level of Black Library writers with this series, and if you’ve read it you should definitely pick up

Dreaming in Smoke – Tricia Sullivan

Kalypso Deed is a musician, generally chill person and a guide to the cyberspace/innerspace world of the Dream, a massive subconcious processing stack running the AI Ganesh on an insignificant little world with a failing colony. When a rogue Dream crashes the whole system, Kalypso heads out on the cyberpunk journey: take some drugs, listen to some music, try to shoot a guy. Out there in the wilds around the colony though, the world is a much weirder place than once thought.

Dreaming won the ’99 Clarke award, causing a huge shock in cyberspace largely, I think, because the author is a woman and the characters aren’t white. The Clarke award though, unlike the guy himself, is typically pretty progressive, and Dreaming won over MacLeod, Priest and Barnes because it is really, really good. Dreams is all cyber and biopunk nightmares in a magnificently realised and deeply disturbing world, of veteran settlers, syncretic AI and an underhive with matching toxic environment that would put Necromunda to shame. It’s beautifully weird, kalaedoscopically terrifying and filled with alien body horror, investigative dreaming and plain, old fashioned explosions. Layering really interesting gender politics and a unique insight into AI processing on top of a cracking and often unsettling adventure story is a compelling combination. Dreaming in Smoke is a fantastic way to extend the Crowl-and-Spinoza style into the wider, weirder (and faintly jazz themed) scifiscape.

Violence and Non-Violence

Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski. Women’s Press edition, with some of the nicest art in the series. Credit: Women’s Press

Echoes of Eternity – Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Sanguinius stands, surrounded by his Sons, as the last wall against the darkness. Upon him, the fate of the Imperium rests. Upon his love for his sons, and their dedication to their father, the tide of heresy and traitors will break.

Echoes is probably the best Black Library book. It’s got everything you want from the Heresy series, from Space Marines, from military SF full stop, but then love and tenderness and care on top of it. For a book about a war game, it’s really a book about what war does to us – from the effects on the air we breath to our relationships and our futures. It is as close to a repudiation of war and militarism as a Black Library book will, I suspect, ever get. Even with that, it does the economics and politics and violence of war exceptionally well, so those of you who are here for the spine-ripping will love it too.

To go from Sanguinius ripping daemons a new arsehole to a feminist and pacifist masterwork seems like a big jump. But it really isn’t. Because if there’s one thing Echoes is actually about, it’s about being a parent. And the horror and futility of militarism. And Environmentalism. And tenderness, history, love, duty, genetics and weird science. So If you liked it, try out….

Door into Ocean – Joan Slonczewski

The Sharers are a peaceful people. Masters of genetics and bioengineering, they live in the vast world sea of Shora. The Valedon, across the great void sea, are not so peaceful, and war will come to the Sharers when Merwen the Impatient and Usha the Inconsiderate return to their sea with stonecutter Spinel.

Door takes us through war as experienced by the resistance – by nonviolent, creative, impassive resistance to militarism – dwelling in a deeply realised and biologically plausible world. Throw in genetic engineering, biological warfare (and biological resistance) and two so-real-you-could-touch-them social systems clashing, it’s as much anthropology as science fiction. It is, absolutely, fantastic scifi, beautifully written and clearly presented.

It helps that Door into Ocean is an astonishing book. It really helps that it could, almost, if you squint, be about resistance to the Imperium (or to our own hyper-capitalism). Where Sanguinius stands at the Eternity Gate, a monstrous creation of a militarism that has arrived at the only conclusion it ever could, Merwen stands as a masterpiece of nonviolent resistance, equal and opposite. While you’re not going to get someone ripping out a spine in a Slonczewski book (and all the better for it), thematically it’s a surprisingly perfect match for Echoes, as well as being one of the all time great works of feminist SF.

Squad Combat in a Weird War

Life During Wartime, Lucius Shepard. Credit: Gollancz

Gaunt’s Ghosts – Dan Abnett

The Sabbat Crusade grinds ever on, and the Ghosts – stealth specialists, infantry grunts, Tanith, Belladon and Vergastite together – are grist to the endless mill of war. Led by the increasingly preposteriously heroic Gaunt, the Tanith First and Only are shipped from world to world, losing comrades and winning wars in their endless service to the Emperor.

The Ghosts have 17 books to their name now, in addition to a few short stories and novellas. The best ones are the Ghosts as ordinary men and women trapped in a hellish system and exploring weird war scenarios. Traitor General sees Gaunt and the top combat specialists in the regiment infiltrating a warped chaos world. Necropolis embeds them into a hive siege. Blood Pact opposes the Ghosts with a Chaos Kill-team in a gothic metropolis. The Ghosts work best when they’re facing the worst, weirdest and most mind-twisting elements of the 40k universe, and experiencing them as baseline humans with one hell of a job to do and straight silver in their hands.

There’s a lot of small squad based military scifi out there, but to be perfectly honest, a lot of it is shite. You can pick up a hundred shovelware novels with a BIG ALL CAPS TITLE and a future-war soldier on the front, and it’s not going to be anywhere up to the Abnett standard. If you like the Ghosts, pick up Sharpe (that’s where Dan got the idea anyway!), but if you want to see how weird scifi war can get, go outside the box for:

Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard

David Mingolla is an artilleryman, serving out his term in Central America in a proxywar between the USSR and USA that’s teetering on the edge of turning hot. A chance encounter slides Mingolla towards madness, drugs, psychic powers and hallucinatory warfare between superpowers, organised crime and shadow dynasties shaping the course of human evolution. Meanwhile, the jungle – and the marines lost within it – have their own agendas.

If anyone’s done madness-soaked scifi warfare better than Shepard does here, I haven’t read it and I doubt it exists. Life during Wartime mixes late 80s collapse with psychic paranoia, Philip K Dick style visuals and Apocalypse Now to produce a thrilling, hellish and endlessly interesting future war and an alternate – and much, much worse – end to the Cold War. From page one, you’re thrust and then trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic rabbit hole of mind-fucking emotion, war, love and loyalty. Shepard can WRITE, and builds subtly so that he can completely ignore subtlety later on and slam the hammer down on his world and characters. Life During Wartime contains some of the most enduringly weird and beautiful imagery in scifi full stop – the weirdest war isn’t 38,000 years in the future, but 25 in the past.

Next time: Golden Years – Retrorockets, nuclear paranoia, weird worms and solving science problems with a cigarette and a brain, we’re looking at the best Scifi from the 1950s.

Have any Questions or feedback? Have a great idea for an area of SF to look at? Got a book recommendation, or a favourite? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at