Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem



Numerous are the stories in science fiction in which populations have been brainwashed to believe an ideal, most often the opposite of what we hold dear.  A sub-genre in itself, advertisements have been used (The Space Merchants), narcotics (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), propaganda (We), technology (Brave New World), emotions (The Giver), totalitarian control (The Telling) and on and on go the tools used to twist society’s collective mind into a new dimension of reality.  Lesser known than the majority of these works, Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 The Futurological Congress is fully imaginative story deserving of mention in the same breath.

Ijon Tichy is a recurring character in the tales of Stanislaw Lem, and in The Futurological Congress the cosmonaut finds himself on Earth—Costa Rica to be exact, attending the Eighth Futurological Congress.  Though arcane science is his main interest, Tichy notices that things become a little too peculiar when getting a drink from tap in the hotel.  The walls going funny and his emotional state taking an unexplainable swing, he pops a pill and brushes it off in order to attend the lectures.  The news full of rebellions and riots in the world at large, the Congress’ attendees pay no heed to the violence outside, that is, until the fight is brought to the hotel itself.  Bombs going off and strange chemicals suddenly in the air, Tichy heads to the canals beneath the hotel to escape.  Eventually finding a manhole to open air, he discovers his troubles are only beginning.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review of The Gallery of His Dreams by Kristine Kathryn Rusch



Civil war photography would seem a most disparate concept to imbue with fantastic overtones.  Yet in The Gallery of His Dreams it clicks—and firmly into place.  A gratifying semi-autobiographical overview of one man’s vision, the 1991 novella from Kristine Kathryn Rusch is strong example of why the genre is much more than just dragons and spells.

For those who haven’t guessed, The Gallery of His Dreams is based on the life of Mathew Brady, the most famous of Civil War photographers.  Beginning with his youth and on through to old age, Rusch dips into the life of the man, expositing the salient moments of his life in fleeting detail.  From meeting his wife to intense battles, trying to make a living as a photographer on the battlefield to the despair of bankruptcy, she clues in on the key moments which helped shape and form Brady, as well as present the man biographies say he was.

Review of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Marukami



There is an episode of Seinfeld (“The Visa”) wherein an Asian-American woman falls in love with Jerry because she thinks he is ‘dark and disturbed’.  The show’s writers playing off a stereotype of East Asian personality, there remain, however, moments it rings true.  One is Haruki Marukami’s 1987 Norwegian Wood.  A gloomy, unsettled experience, the novel looks at suicide, the possibility/impossibility of love, escape, death, sexuality, misanthropy, melancholy, and a variety of other post-modern concerns through the eyes of a university student in Japan.  A straight-forward, character driven read, Murakami adds some depth to the stereotype, but achieves a mainstream novel.

The majority set in Tokyo in the 1960s, Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru Watanabe, a young man from the outskirts of Japan who comes to the big city to study Western drama.  Lacking passion for his studies, Toru gets his entertainment from the variety of people living in his student dormitory instead, from his rigid roommate (dubbed the Storm Trooper) to the older, wiser, and more experienced Nagasawa, a man who eventually ‘educates’ Toru in his own way.  But it is running into an old friend, Naoko, from his hometown that occupies most of Toru’s thoughts.  Having drifted apart after the suicide of a common friend, the two have difficulty re-forming their friendship, the past hanging overhead like a cloud.  Naoka having her own unspoken agenda, and Toru his, their relationship becomes ever more complicated by the comings and goings of various other characters in their lives.  More questions than answers appearing, they lives go where they know not.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Review of Wireless by Charles Stross



I have come to think of Charles Stross as sci-fi cocaine; for sheer effervescence of imagination, there may be no writer in the field these days who can apply such a jolt.  Lines chopped and cut on a mirror, the stories collected in his 2009 Wireless­—virtually a best of covering works from first decade of the 21 st centurysend the brain reeling into genre candyland.  Freedom inherent to the title, insect overlords, time travel, Lovecraftian aliens, zombies, alternate worlds, pirate internets, f-f-f-f-f-f-f-far future, dwarf mammoths, the occult, spies, sexbots, weed smoking dogs, insane asylums, outer space spam, and much, much more are open to the mix—not always to deep purpose, but at least zing the brain stem for a moment.

Wireless is bookended by two strong novellas.  Missile Gap opens the collection and will appeal to fans of the abstract side of Stross’ Cthulu-minded imagination.  The story begins with humanity realizing that Earth, in either virtual or real form, has been ‘peeled like a grape’ and transferred/transposed onto a disc somewhere in space.  Instead of being globular in shape, the geography of Earth is now laid out like a 2D map. Due to the physics of the disc and lack of proximity, the US and USSR give up the Cold War and look to expand into the unknown territories at the either edge of known reality.  The reason behind the disc, however, is as cheesy as can be. (See here for a longer review.)  Continuing with Cthulu-shaded tensions between the USA and USSR, “The Colder War” focuses on the Iran Contra Scandal.  Likewise a fragmented story, things remain in standard Earth format, however.  Bizarre alien bodies excavated from Antarctic ice in parallel to escalating arms tension in the Middle East, Stross openly attributes the story to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.  (Where Stross has such a large number of stories uncollected, it was a bit surprising to see “The Colder War” in Wireless as it was already included in Toast, his first and only other collection.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review of Salt by Adam Roberts



Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a landmark novel in science fiction.  Not only for being one of, if not the best description of a functioning anarchy, the message it delivers—emphasized by the transcendent conclusion—remains relevant to this day due to the political circumstances which have perpetuated.  Grabbing the anarchist-authoritarian dichotomy in Le Guin’s tale and running with it, Adam Robert’s Salt (2000) is likewise an engaging thought experiment on how an anarchist society might exist and the reaction it could draw from the political ideologies opposed to it.  Containing its share of action as well, the novel is well-balanced across nearly all aspects of science fiction, making it a debut novel which gives hope for more quality material to come.

Salt opens on a generation starship—if a necklace of modules towed by a comet through space can be called as such.  Like the Mayflower, the inhabitants of each node are escaping religious persecution on Earth, that is, except one.  Having no other options, the anarchists of the Als module claimed religious affiliation to catch a ride, but in fact seek a new home where they can practice their political ideal in peace.  Coming to the planet Nebel 2, thereafter dubbed Salt due to the high concentration of the sodium crystal on the surface, the people of Als, nominally led by Petja Szerelem, find that the enmity they encountered on Earth translates to other planets, as well.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review of Palimpsest by Charles Stross



Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, along with being one of the author’s few enduring works, dealt with the paradoxes of time travel and the long term meaning of time to humanity.  An openly admitted adaptation, Charles Stross’ 2009 novella Palimpsest spins the idea of Platonic Guardians of humanity’s future into a unique story loaded with imagination, cohering into a mature thought regarding the fundamentals of human existence.  Phenomenal.

Palimpsest is the story of Pierce, an agent-to-be in the Stasis.  The Stasis governing and guiding mankind’s cycles of evolution by accessing wormholes of time, Pierce is trained to observe, and if necessary, intervene to ensure humanity survives, even if it means decimating thousands or millions of people.  Part of a botched mission in which mysterious assailants suddenly appear on the Medieval scene with weapons far more capable, Pierce, while convalescing, is introduced to Xiri, a student from real-time who has received permission to make his life the subject of her doctoral thesis.  His recovery scheduled to take some time, the young man falls in love.  But it is when fully recovered that things with the Stasis begin to fall apart.  And it all starts with the Library at the End of Time.  Not finding what he expected, Pierce’s mission in life takes an unexpected turn.

Review of The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov



H.G. Wells The Time Machine is the landmark time travel novel.  At its most fundamental an adventure imbued with social commentary, Wells did not play with any paradoxes that might result from such an invention, e.g. killing your grandfather to see whether you are erased from existence, or meeting yourself in the past or future to see what happens.  Fast-forward half a century to Isaac Asimov and his logically minded brain.  Grasping a potential of the concept, he set about writing a novel that would not only highlight certain other paradoxes, but tell an adventurous story of his own—one that zigged and zagged through non-temporal space to the tune of human evolution. 

The End of Eternity (1955) is not set in any time or place we are familiar with.  Located outside the four dimensions in a place called Eternity, mankind has discovered the ability to surpass time, and set up an organization and infrastructure to govern and balance social and technological evolution for the safety of all.  Altruistic guardians of time, they travel between the centuries in a device called the kettle.  Able to move upwhen and downwhen to any point, they engage in trade, tweak events to prevent mass loss of life, and generally ensure that the human race survives through the millennia.  But peculiarly enough, the kettle has no access between the 70,000 th and 150,000 th centuries, and what lies beyond nobody knows.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology ed. by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel



Bruce Sterling’s 1986 Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology was an anthology explicitly quantifying the science fiction movement, as much as William Gibson’s Neuromancer made its existence implicitly clear.  A portfolio of sorts, Sterling approached cyberpunk as one does an art movement, couching its emergence more in artistic than literary terms.  An intentionally varied mix (not all of its stories fit the stereotype of a net-running, noir sub-culture), some spoke to ideological import, while others stylistics or attitude.  Fast forward to 2007.  Editors John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, looking to take stock of cyberpunk in the twenty intervening years since Sterling’s anthology, perused the field and collected stories they felt remained representative.  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is the result.

The surface: where Mirrorshades contained twelve stories, Rewired expands itself, incorporating sixteen in all (only four of the original authors make repeat appearances).  Appearing between 1996 and 2006, the stories are organized in order of publishing date.  Copying its predecessor’s format, Kessel and Kelly likewise introduce each story with notes aiming at locating the author/story within the field, as well as identifying which elements uphold the sub-genre’s tenets.  Rewired increases gender representation.  Where only one story in Mirrorshades was written by a woman, there are four in Rewired.  But, the most interesting item is the inclusion of correspondence between Kessel and Sterling circa the mid-80s.  Appearing at the end of each story, excerpts from the two’s letters (yes, letters!) discuss the future of cyberpunk while questioning the qualities of its existence.  Neither knowing their words would someday be included in an anthology, the candid thoughts prove informative.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hugo 2014! Hugo 2014! Read All About It!



Extra, extra!  The farce that is the Hugo Awards rolls over into 2014!  Right-wing extremist coup attempt on nominations!  Award process offers no defense!  

I have previously pointed out the, ahem, gaps in the Hugo award process.  But I know I am just a lone, weak voice in the crowd.  I run a backalley, East Podunk, beyond the black stump blog where opinion matters naught in the face of the mighty Hugo.  Guess I’ll just have to leave it to the award to shoot itself in the foot… Wait!!  In 2014, thanks to the Sad Puppy campaign, it has!

Emergency room appraises wounds! Hugo in critical condition!

When Hugo nominations opened for 2014, Larry Correia, science fiction/fantasy author of, ahem, ‘midlist detective stories’ (some of which are set in a world subtly named ‘Grimnoir’), posted a list of authors and works that his fans could/should nominate.  The campaign successful, five of the eight categories feature Correia’s suggestions.  These names include: Brad Torgersen and the redoubtable Vox Day (Theodore Beale) for best novelette, and Correia himself for best novel.  With the appearance of this group of authors on the ballot and alllllllll the ideological baggage they bring in tow, the Hugo process, and by default the organizers which oversee the process, have been caught with their pants hanging—at the ankles in a stiff breeze.

Speculiction sprouts legs - at least for a moment...

The venerable Joachim Boaz, though masquerading as a cartography merchant, is in fact an archeologist of literary dimension.  Digging through the dusty back list of science fiction, he unearths treasures abandoned by the zeitgeist of the genre and describes his findings on the wonderful Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  Starting a series of posts on Michael Bishop in an effort to revive awareness to one of the science fiction's great writers before he fades from genre memory, he asked this humble blog progenitor to submit a guest post, which I gladly did.  Death and Designation among the Asadi read, written about, and passed along, the review can be found here.

Review of Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg



There is a significant amount of words and books published regarding Eduard Said’s idea of Otherness.  One such perspective is that the grass is always greener on the other side, e.g. the American Dream as perceived by arrivees to Ellis Island, or the common Polish perception that Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are fun loving, sun-drenched countries where everyday is a glass of wine and relaxing on the beach.  Said using the Orient has his prime example, one sub-set of the idea is that Easterners are culturally better prepared for death.  With strong mythic overtones, it’s precisely this area that Robert Silverberg explores in his 1974 novella Born with the Dead.

The world taking on different shades and hues when the technology to rekindle the dead comes available, Jorge Klein wants nothing more than to see his ‘dead’ wife Sybille one last time after having been taken from the living in an unfortunate accident.  Tracking her and her dead friends’ reanimated bodies to the island of Zanzibar, he confronts the largest of them, Zacharius, begging to have one last glimpse, one last chat, one last moment with Sybille, her death too much to bear.  Denied the moment, Klein abandons his life as a professor and devotes his time to gaining it, tracking the woman and her friends the lengths of the Earth.  He achieves the moment, but not in a way he expected.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review of "Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford



(Please note, this review is for the novelette “Empire of Ice Cream”, not Ford's collection of the same name.)

Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is one of the great pieces of literature.  Like a mobile, it is an artistic presentation of how ideas which superficially seem distant can, in fact, be interlinked at some level.  Synesthesia a neurological condition that manifests such seeming impossible juxtapositions in reality, it is not strange to find vanilla and powder blue bedfellows.  Jeffrey Ford’s 2003 novelette “The Empire of Ice Cream” is precisely this kind of story.

The novelette is the first person recollection of William, a young man born a synesthete.  The era unaware of the condition, little William, an only child, is shuttled by his parents to therapists and psycholigists in an attempt to cure him of what they, and everyone else, believe to be hallucinations.  Growing up sheltered, William is misanthropic save for one aspect of his life: music, and he composes with crayons.  Eventually freed from his parent’s ignorance, his new found freedom takes him to places, literally and figuratively, he’d never imagined.  But it’s the girl he sees when eating coffee ice cream that attracts him the most and demands an explanation.

Review of Fortitude by Andy Duncan



George Patton is a name that used to be household.  A gruff persona who was able to lead American forces to victory in both world wars, it’s only in the past few decades, as survivors of those eras pass on, that the General’s name has begun to slip from public memory.  Part proud cowboy and part bulldog, his was, in many ways, the face of the American war front in Europe—a fact glorified in the 1970 film titled simply Patton.  Beyond the biographical and deep into the personal, Andy Duncan’s 1999 novella Fortitude is a hallucinatory, prognostic, and poignant look beyond the unyielding façade of the general. 

‘Fortitude’ defined as “mental strength and courage that allows someone to face danger, pain, etc.” according to Merriam-Webster’s Online, ‘bull-headed’ is a less formal way of stating George Patton’s worldview.  Angry and ashamed of cowardly behavior, he led armies standing in the van, empowering them with simple speeches that appealed to their base emotions.  An idealized war hero perhaps only in presentation, the man’s thoughts remain something of a mystery—something which Duncan, who obviously did his homework before writing Fortitude, attempts to speculate upon.  The result is appealing biographical material in non-pedantic form.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review of Greg Egan by Karen Burnham



It’s very typical that university programs are divided between science and the humanities.  Seemingly disparate areas of study, the approach, methodology, often even the personalities of the students are different.  In our day and age, however, the applications of science have been integrated with nearly every facet of life and the pursuit of science permeates our cultural and social behavior.  The idea has become the overriding paradigm of Western existence and is infiltrating developing areas apace.  So intricately interwoven, in fact, eliminating science would drastically change the direction our lives are moving.  Hard science fiction the strongest artistic link binding these two traditionally insular areas together, Karen Burnham’s author study, called simply Greg Egan (2014, University of Illinois Press), attempts to make a case for the author being the best literary example of the association: science as humanism.

Burnham approaches Egan with the methodology of a standard author study.  Her own doctoral work in science utilized, evident are the knowledge and ability to contextualize and present the subject matter, attention to detail and history, and the importance of working from a structure that shapes the whole—a predication, as it were.  The body of the text therefore parses Egan’s fiction into four distinct areas: ethics (as exhibited in character, gender, lgbt aspects, transhumanism, uneven distribution of wealth, money and politics in scientific research, etc.), identity (including neurochemical consciousness and consciousness as information), “hard core math and physics” (including subjective cosmology, figuring out the rules of physics, how science works in the fictional societies and cultures, and alternate physics and cosmologies), and the relationship between the worldview presented in Egan’s fiction and contemporary society (including religion, post-modernism, and science as giving purpose and meaning). 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny



Creation myths are among the most powerful stories mankind has created.  From the fertile, varied mix of Australian Aborigines to the Jewish Yahweh, the Greek Titans to the coalescence of the heavens in Daoism, each culture, and eventually human, knows and relates to stories which explain how the world, or some aspect of it, came into being.  An open tribute to Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny’s 1971 Jack of Shadows is one such story.

Never named, Jack of Shadows takes place on a planet stuck in rotation.  The sun only ever striking one side, the other half lies in perpetual twilight, the stars lighting one’s path.  But night and day are not the only aspects separating the two halves.  Mortality in the form of souls and science thrive on the day side, while magic and immortality cohabit on the dark side.  A precursor to Changeling and Madwand (from a premise point of view), the novel tells of the eponymous Jack and the adventures he has on both sides of a globe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review of The Wedding Album by David Marusek



Of the multitude of ideas contained within William Gibson’s Sprawl series, one is the idea of transferring existence from the real world into a virtual world.  Only one of many shining facets to the books, Neal Stephenson grabbed the idea and took a tiny step forward with it, Snow Crash depicting a plausible second life scenario.  But it took Greg Egan to get both hands around the idea and wrestle it humanist shape; nearly the entirety of Permutation City focuses on virtual life and virtual copies of humans in a virtual world.  But even upon turning the last page of his novel, the reader is still left with the feeling there’s a lot of room left for exploration.  Save the conclusion, Egan’s world of multiplying copies of an individual remains too under control, too civilized.  One would expect a higher degree of intra- and interpersonal chaos.  Probing the private, emotional side of virtual existence, David Marusek’s 1999 novella The Wedding Album takes the concept further along these lines.

The Wedding Album is the story of Ann and Benjamin, ostensibly a newly married couple.  The time frame late 23rd century, each have been creating virtual copies of themselves at various points in their lives, and now that they are married, make these replications available to one another, the copies they created on their wedding day forming the intersecting point.  The variety of virtual selves covering a span of evolved technology, some pass sentience tests while others do not, each only half-certain of the difference between the virtual world they live in and the actual happenings in the original’s life since the last time they were copied or reset.  A splintered overview of life the result, Ann and Benjamin’s personal lives collide in virtual reality to the point their lives in reality are affected, and chaos results.

Review of "The Custodians" by Richard Cowper



Despite the thread of pessimism cunningly interwoven the length of the story, Richard Cowper’s 1976 “The Custodians” is a gem of a novelette.  Written in crisp, interest-building prose, it brings to light the free will vs. determinism debate in subtle, fantastical terms.

Set in the early 20th century, “The Custodians” is the story of Marcus Spindrift, a young man interested in the arcane works of Meister Sternwärts.  Knowing that the monastery of Hautaire holds the majority of the man’s recorded works, it’s there he requests an audience, and after receiving an invitation, is warmly welcomed by Friar Rodrigo, a man who, strangely enough, knew he was coming.  Spindrift’s world turned upside in the aftermath of his visit to the monastery, it is what he decides to do with the esoteric knowledge he gains there, however, that makes all the difference.

Developed and presented in plausible enough terms, “The Custodians” is indeed a story of precognition, and through it Cowper explores humanity’s role in determining the future and if, indeed, it plays any role at all.  Intrigue snowballing into gotta-know proportion, Cowper should, along with presenting an engaging idea, be commended for his smooth, direct syntax.  Though sharing a sci-fi device in common with Philip K. Dick—the precog master, “The Custodian” is a much better written piece style-wise and comes recommended for anyone looking for a little thought candy on free will and the direction society is headed. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review of Worlds Enough & Time by Dan Simmons



If there is anything to be said of Dan Simmons as a person, it’s he’s not shy expressing his opinion.  Equipped with better than average tools for this expression, reading the story introductions to his 2002 collection Worlds Enough & Time one realizes the confidence with which he goes about his craft is well founded.  A blessing and a curse, it allows for effectively focused prose and sustained plotting, much to the technical benefit of his stories.  At the same time, it does not allow for much second guessing, leading to ideas that shoot off on questionable tangents—straight, cogent tangents, but questionable nonetheless.

World Enough and Time, Simmons’ third collection, contains five selections (two novellas and three novelettes) which, as a whole, exemplify this polarization: two are standout, while the three remaining are mediocre to less than.  An extremely varied mix from the point of view of premise, it’s nigh on impossible to identify common threads save generalities like fantasy, science fiction, etc.  Published between 1995 and 2002, there is an Earth-bound alien adventure of mountainous heights, an examination of the history and purpose of the space program, a teacher’s surreal self-realization, one mini space opera in the Hyperion setting, and another in the Ilium/Olympos setting. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review of Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie



Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterpiece of world literature.  Portraying the history of Columbia via a mode of writing the world had seen very little of at the time, the fantastical dimension of story achieved has effect to this day, and certainly will for years to come.  Though borrowing the premise (presenting history via a fictional family who represent actual people) and style (magic realist), Salman Rushdie’s 1980 Midnight’s Children is no less an achievement and a watershed event in Indian publishing in the Western world.

On August 15, 1947 at midnight, India gained its independence from the British throne.  Not as glorious a moment as one would imagine given the age of the country and the country’s desire for autonomy, the civil and social strife which preceded India’s right to self-government is no less dramatic than that which has followed.  Civil war, secession, assassinations, cultural divides, and strong religious enmity throwing the nation into chaos, from government officials to conscientious objectors, the rich to the destitute, few have gone unaffected.  Midnight’s Children, while most often presented in obtuse, indirectly satirical terms, recounts this window in India and our world’s history.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review of The Complete Works of Tao Yuanming



If Li Bai and Du Fu are the fathers of Chinese poetry, than Tao Yuanming is the cosmos in which their writing took shape.  Writing verse of such personal, spiritual, and mythic depth, it’s difficult to read the poet without an ache in your heart, a longing for something you know not what, and an eye for the horizon—perhaps more behind than ahead.  Possessing every ounce of the bittersweet beauty that makes life part lament and joy, Hunan People’s Publishing House’s Library of Chinese Classics’ collection of all the master’s works in a single volume is a welcome addition to any poetry reader’s library.  (Interestingly, though this book was published in China, it is available online in the US.)

A Daoist at heart, much of Tao Yuanming’s poetry echoes distant gongs of the philosophy.  Acutely observing the passage of life—an eye to the simple joys all the while, his children, his garden, and his wine (an undoubted influence on Li Bai), Tao is the ultimate hermit aesthete.  And his verse reflects this.  From changes in the weather ("The Pending Clouds"), the coming gray in his hair ("Admonishing My Sons"), the bliss in solitude ("Drinking Alone in Rainy Days"), the delight in time with friends ("To Magistrate Liu of Chaisang"), and the sorrow of time away from them ("Parting with Secretary Yin of Jin'an"), Tao touches upon everything that makes us human, individually and spiritually.  Not possessing the social conscience of Du Fu or the dominance of mystic wonder of Li Bai, Tao’s verse is mostly focused on domestic life and the mortal realm.  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review of The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 by Arthur C. Clarke



His first short-story appearing 15 years before his first novel, much of Arthur C. Clarke’s oeuvre is to be found in short fiction.  In fact, despite the success of the novels that were to come—Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and The City & the Stars among them, Clarke produced as much short fiction in the middle and end of his career as the beginning.  Thinking he had reached the point so many other successful writers do, i.e that which the author has honed their skills to the point they can focus on novel-length works, in 1973 Sphere decided to publish Clarke’s best-of short fiction.  Little did they know he would nearly double the number of short stories that would come.  The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 must therefore be taken with a caveat: everything hereafter is in reference to the first half of Clarke’s writing career.

From the first story Clarke ever had published to his most recent novella as of 1971, The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 is a retrospective that loosely covers Clarke’s evolution as a writer. There are some gaps.  From the ridiculously simplistic to the more complex, the collection also reveals the transition of the genre.  The six pages of “Travel by Wire!” is a brief, minimalistic glimpse of transferring matter via electrical cable while A Meeting with Medusa is a hard-science adventure of the first manned flight in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  Several of Clarke’s other collections more organic in form (i.e. collections resulting from the natural rather than forced accumulation of material), The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 may not be the best place to jump in, but does contain a handful of quality stories.

Review of A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke



If there is any stranglehold on literature that speculative fiction has, it’s the lack of limitations answering the question: what if?  Fantasy a complete expression of this facet, it is science fiction which tugs lightly on the reins lest the imagination escape reality entirely.  Jupiter that reality, in 1972 Arthur C. Clarke penned the novella A Meeting with Medusa for anyone who ever wondered what being in the gas giant’s atmosphere may be like.  Awash with vivid visuals, it is only the fantastic elements which threaten to run away with the story.

Howard Falcon is a top dirigible pilot, and at the outset of the story is found captaining the world’s largest Queen Elizabeth IV above the Grand Canyon.  At 1,500 feet in length, piloting the massive, multi-chambered blimp is no easy task.  It is thus when scientists plan the first manned trip to into Jupiter’s atmosphere, Falcon is their choice for pilot.  A significant percentage of the unmanned probes having disappeared exploring the planet, Falcon is aware of the risk but is willing to take it for the glory of being the first human in Jovian skies.  His planetary entry successful, what he discovers thereafter belongs truly to speculative fiction.

Review of Elemental by Geoffrey Landis



Geoffrey Landis is an author who has built an oeuvre one novel shy of being entirely short fiction.  Operating predominantly in retro mode, his stories are conventional adventures and thrillers reminiscent of the Golden and Silver Age with a hard sci-fi idea or two thrown to found the mix.  His first ever published work, 1984’s “Elemental”, is a cheap opening act.  Eminently quotable for all the wrong reasons, this bit of pulp is best left in the bargain bin.

For those with low expectations, the novelette is easy to engage with; Landis makes no assumptions on reader intelligence (i.e. everything is spoon fed, right down to the speech tags), nor does he attempt a story with any sort of relevancy.  Check the following explanation of the magic/science system.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review of The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang



Ted Chiang’s 2008 “Exhalation” is simply one of the greatest science fiction short stories ever written.  Human to the core, it probes the meaning of life in profound, yet relevant terms.  Taking two years to recharge his creative batteries, 2010’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the author’s return to publishing, and it is in fine form.  A look at AI 1.0 in a virtual environment, and eventually the real world, Chiang once again injects humanity into a story that is fully sci-fi.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the story of Ana and Derek and the digients—virtual AI pets—they come to raise.  Both employed at a start up called Blue Gamma, at first everything goes well for the company.  The digient product is a huge success.  Many consumers buy one of the impressionable pets to have in Data Earth, the virtual environment in which most everyone has a second life. The digients a product of both ‘nature’ and nurture, each turns out with a different personality and learns at varying rates, depending on how they are cared for.  Adding to the success, accessories are produced, including battery operated automatons into which the digients can upload for periods of time to experience the real world.  But, like all commercial products, there eventually comes a decline in the market.  Platforms are enhanced, newer, more advanced products by other firms are marketed, and the technological environment evolves, leaving Jax, Lolly, Marco, and Polo and the other digients in a fight for virtual place.  What ultimately becomes of their burgeoning intelligences is as moving as the real world.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review of Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes by Peter Watts



Like many science fiction writers, Peter Watts pays the bills working as a real scientist, and in his free time, taps away at a keyboard, penning stories of his true imaginative interests.  Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, the 2001 collection which collates the first nine short stories Watts published, bucks the scientist-as-writer stereotype in one significant way: Watts is interested in style and voice as much as ideas. Unlike many of his contemporaries—Alastair Reynolds, Geoffrey Landis, Vernor Vinge, etc.—Watts can actually write. His prose a strong point, the ideas embedded, and the stories as a whole are all the more successful for it.

Dense, minimalist, and openly in admiration of one of the genre’s most superb stylists, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, though an early effort, shows ever sign of the spit and polish of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome.  Watts heads in a different direction from a character, setting, and method point of view, but for the sharp-edged, visceral sense of mood and style, there is some resemblance. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of The Thing in the Stone by Clifford Simak



One of the primary differences between the naturalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau is the manner in which they present the idea of God in their writing.  The former attributing the glories of nature to the Christian deity in doctrinal fashion, the latter veers toward a universal model of spirituality that most often transcends monotheism.  The story of a man recovering from a serious accident in the countryside, Clifford Simak’s 1970 novella The Thing in the Stone slides into the middle of the two.

Wallace Daniels is a man whose wife and daughter died in a car crash. Alive but still suffering from the bang he took to the head, Daniels has moved to the wilds of Wisconsin to recover.  Living like a hermit, he raises farm animals and tends a garden, taking relaxing walks through the hills and valleys that surround his rural home to heal.  Neighbors not the friendliest, they are, however, the least of his concerns: strange things appear on his walks and in the twilight hours—pterodactyls and saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and ancient ferns, and other extinct life forms.  Investigating a cave one day, the reason behind his hallucinations begins to take shape.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review of Missile Gap by Charles Stross



Reading Charles Stross is like trying to stand on top of a beach ball.  Quickly shifting and counter-shifting left, right, and forward, a person cannot stop even for the briefest of moments to question what they are doing, or they will lose their balance.  The author’s stories appreciable by those who don’t mind tagging along to mimic the changes in direction, any deeper examination distracts a person to the point of falling off; you just have to accept it for what it is.  After all, what is the point of trying to stand on a beach ball?

Stross’s 2005 novella Missile Gap is a good example of his work.  Repainting reality, it tells the story of government officials in 1971 trying to figure out what has happened to the Earth. No longer a sphere, our world has been transposed onto a massive disk hundreds of thousands of years in the far future.  The disk so huge in fact, moving east and west beyond the limits of our world’s map reveals new continents and lands, not all of which are readily explainable.  The Cold War put on hold for numerous reasons, not the least of which related to the inability of nuclear ICBM missiles to traverse the Arctic on their way to Russia or the US, each seeks to take advantage of the new found situation and lands.  Discoveries made one at a time, the secret behind what has brought Earth to its flat Earth scenario is shocking.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review of The Silent Eyes of Time by Algis Budrys



Time travel is one of the most well-known, worn motifs in science fiction.  Ripe with potential for interesting paradoxes, clever entertainment, and impossible scenarios catering to melodrama, numerous works have employed the motif.  It’s fair to say, however, Algis Budrys’ 1975 novella The Silent Eyes of Time is the only to approach the concept from a purely corporate point of view. 

The Silent Eyes of Time is the story of the ageing corporate consultant Clinton Gallard and his assistant, Elizabeth Farrier.  Called off the plane he’s about to board at the start of the story, the reason is more interesting than he could have imagined: a scientist working at his company has discovered time travel.  The future the single option, and four years the maximum, the scientist has brought back coins and a newspaper to prove his travels are real.  But more than just news, Gallard and Farrier have been recalled from their business trip to organize the company’s response.  Desiring nothing more than to protect their assets and intellectual property, it’s up to Gallard to coordinate the cover up.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review of Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg



Knowing what a fan of Barry Malzberg Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is, seeing a copy of Beyond Apollo (1972) on the Polish version of ebay I decided to pick it up and have a go.  All the more intriguing is that the novel is—at least many claim—Malzberg’s most well known.  A thin book at 173 pages (but with 67 chapters), it is a quick but powerful read.  Dense, allusive, cutting yet indirect in its commentary, the novel is a prime example of New Wave science fiction that transcends the genre.

Beyond Apollo, contrary to the overwhelming majority of science fiction, is not, in fact a traditional story.  Fiction, yes, but the structure of the book is a collage of perspectives not all of which, if any, amalgamate coherently.  Granulated to say the least, the story of Harry Evans, the only person to return from NASA’s first two-man mission to Venus, is spread out like puzzle pieces on a table.  Ostensibly insane, Evans has been institutionalized by the space program in an attempt to draw from him the truth about what went wrong on the mission.  What happened to Captain Josephson?  Was he murdered?  Did he commit suicide?  How did events transpire?  What brought about Evans’ state?  With Evans fully willing to speak his mind, the problem is winnowing the truth from his thoughts.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review of Cleopatra Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand



Cleopatra Brimstone, the 2001 novella by Elizabeth Hand, is a bizarre tale of butterflies and perverted aggression.  It is the story of Janie Kendall, an only child who is raised in sheltered circumstances in middle America and grows into a university student with a great knowledge of entomology, butterflies in particular.  Raped after leaving campus one day, her life is never the same.  Retreating to her parents’ home—the only place she feels safe, it isn’t until a friend of the family arranges for her to house sit in London that she finally attempts to come to terms with the attack.  Handled in a fashion no one could predict, what results is a story that has been told before, but nothing even close to Hand’s terms.

Cleopatra Brimstone is the name of a variety of butterfly that Jane comes across while volunteering at the Royal London Zoo.  The name indirectly inspirational, her quiet American life comes to an end, and a counter-culture girl is born.  Doc Martens, black vinyl raincoat, and a shaved head just the beginning of the changes, how she moves forward with life will have the reader in shock and smiling.

Review of "The Choice" by Paul McAuley



John Steinbeck’s The Pearl is a powerful story as well as commentary: nothing brings out the greed and violence innate to humanity like the scarcity of valuable goods, that is, in a capitalist society.  Supply and demand determining the market, as well as thieves’ interests, when a rare item becomes available, rest assured somebody wants it, morals not always a scruple in acquiring the object.  Winner of the 2012 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, Paul McAuley’s novella The Choice is a sci-fi retelling of Steinbeck’s story (I don’t think intentionally), the title falling into place along the way.

The Choice is set in a Britain vastly different than what we currently know, yet familiar for the manner in which humanity persists.  Environmental destruction and global warming having taken their toll, the icecap in Greenland has collapsed, flooding the island nation, and as a result Lucas and his best friend Damian have grown up along a coast far different than maps currently describe.  Islands, channels, and mud flats the norm, the former farms and fishes to support his mother, while the latter works at his abusive father’s shrimp farm to get by.  Aliens having come to Earth in the aftermath of the flood, they traded environmental technology for rights to the other planets in the solar system.  One of these advanced ocean cleaners (called a ‘dragon’ by the locals) washing ashore one day, Lucas and Damian head to the beach along with others from the area to see for themselves what the the mysterious object actually looks like.  Their lives are never the same.

Review of Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin



Please note this review is for the novella Nightflyers, not the collection which also bears the name.

Wreathed in psi powers, zombies, and deep, dark space, George R.R. Martin’s 1980 novella Nightflyers is a page-turning horror/suspense/mystery.  The title is the name of the ship contracted to carry a crew of nine scientists to rendezvous with a legendary alien species said to be migrating in random arcs across the universe.  The captain a recluse, he never emerges from his cabin, yet keeps eye and ear on all of the crew as they go about their business on the flight to the next point the mysterious volcryn are supposed to appear.   Some of the crew possessing psi powers, trouble appears when one psionics starts to breakdown mentally.  Claiming an alien presence draws closer, the crew inject him with drugs in an attempt to enhance his ability to see the presence, something which all have felt but none have seen.  But the unexpected happens, and the crew’s mission begins to fade as more important tasks take over their days.  Getting to the bottom of the mystery takes all they have, and maybe just their lives.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review of Godlike Machines ed. by Jonathan Strahan



There are many things that make science fiction unique, and one of them is certainly sense of wonder.  Choosing ‘godlike machines’ as his theme, one must wholeheartedly assume Jonathan Strahan was aiming precisely at this aspect of the genre when soliciting authors.  The anthology a combo of hard science, space opera and planetary weird of the super-size variety, it’s fair to say he hit his mark with Godlike Machines (2010). Whether the anthology is just a one-off, however, comes down to the individual story.

I once heard Jack Vance tell how he was shown a science fiction picture and asked to write a story based on it—whatever came to his mind—and the two would later be placed in tandem in a collection.  The story he produced was “Sail 25”; a solid novelette, but not his best.  Godlike Machines in many ways results in the same situation.  I realize there are some writers who cannot work without such prompts, but inevitably, the best stories arise more organically.  They evolve through iterations in the imagination with nothing to the story’s direction.  When writing based on premise, it’s automatic that a few fences are erected and a few demands are placed on the story.  This is not to say everything must fit within a tiny box, only that the reader is always aware of the strictures of the underlying premise: the writer was not writing with complete freedom.  Godlike Machines is thus closer to pastureland than open range.

Review of There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life by Cory Doctorow



My apologies from the opening line; I normally try to rein it in, but in this case can’t help but let vitriol overflow into the review.  Cory Doctorow’s 2010 novella There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life is a piece of fiction that needs to be called out—to be taken to task for content, and in the process exposed for the troubling story that it is.  Before diving into the critique, I will first give the novella the respect of outlining the plot.

There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life (TaGBBT/NitBToYL) is the story of Jimmy, an ‘immortal’ growing up in post-industrial, post-human, post-everything America.  His father part of the pro-tech faction of what remains of humanity, Jimmy spends his days on patrol in a mecha with his robo-dogs hunting for wumpuses—self-replicating machines that traipse the remnants of the US breaking non-organic materials down into their basic components so that forests can regrow and the natural landscape one day return.  Jimmy’s immortal condition meaning he has a maturing mind stuck in the body of a ten year boy, conversing with the cute Lacey while out hunting in his mecha one day is anything but comfortable.  But teenage love quickly becomes the furthest thing from his mind as a band of enemy mechas attack Detroit, Jimmy the only thing that stands between a reversion to primitivism and the progress of science.

It took effort, but I feel that paragraph does the opening chapter of TaGBBT/NitBToYL justice.  What happens thereafter, well, only distances itself from the ideas of ‘coherent storyline’, ‘progressive worldview’, and ‘intelligent commentary’ one maddening step at a time.