Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review of Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel

“Elvis Found Working as Ski Instructor in Alps”  “Family Chat with Santa Claus on Holiday in Caribbean” “Killer Ants on the March from Mexico” and of course: “Astrologists Confirm New Year Alien Apocalypse”  But if they were only harmless supermarket tabloid headlines intended for comedic effect all could be forgiven.  But the fact people exist with professed knowledge of such events is where the reality of humanity takes over.  And for as much as the premise of the Age of Information would seem to dispel such notions, it may only confuse matters further, particularly in the religious context.  Reality so diffuse across available media, religion in post-modern life has taken on its own tabloid ambiguity.

John Kessel’s Good News from Outer Space is a novel existing at the intersection of Christian doctrine, the mysteriously unexplained, and the technical and social sides of modern life (at least as it stood in 1989).  Bouncing off religious fervor, alien encounters, psychoses, and the media, the novel is a darkly humorous snapshot of that quirky, irrational side of humanity that quests for knowledge about the underlying reality of existence, and in the absence of said knowledge, can substitute the thing lying closest to hand with complete conviction.  Witty, coy, and sadly profound, Kessel writes with his finger on the pulse of humanity’s irrational tendencies, as scary as they sometimes are.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review of Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said something to the effect “nothing offends a woman’s vanity like a woman’s vanity.”  Though probably not the least politically correct statement of the era, such thoughts nevertheless did little to complexify opinion of women.  Scheming, jealous shrews who think only in terms of their own conceit the resulting image, adding the supernatural only darkens lines and casts longer shadows.  Women’s magic near automatically represented by ugly witches or aged, plotting spinsters, it’s as if we’ve come to accept the combination of spells and femininity as being nothing short of a malicious search for renewed beauty and youth, and revenge on those who have it.  Capitalizing on the idea in what is certainly dated fashion is Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943).  Penned in fine prose and plotted to a perfect T, the novel is a horror of both the literary and gendered variety.

Raymond Saylor is an ambitious sociology professor working at prestigious Hempnell University.  Life in an easy groove, his academic papers are accepted to positive criticism, his domestic life is at ease, his peers and students respect him, and he is in a leading position for the faculty chair that will soon be vacated.  But at the outset of Conjure Wife, Saylor discovers something when snooping through his wife Tansy’s dresser that changes everything: she has been practicing voodoo for years without his knowledge.  Tufts of feather tucked away here, magic charms hidden there, vials of graveyard dirt pushed to the backs of drawers, shiny buttons attached to clothes—all around their home she unearths the evidence as Saylor confronts her.  Despite Tansy’s protests that her magic has been protecting him from the feints and jabs of others at the university all along, the implements are burned, leaving Saylor ill at ease.  But a phone call jerks him from his reflection.  The professor’s heart set ticking, a student on the other end of the line is raving and crazed with the idea he has been wrongfully failed.  But the infuriated young man is only the beginning.  Issues with the dean’s wife revealed during a game of bridge, a love-smitten student harassing him, a seemingly mobile piece of building ornamentation, strange noises in the wind—Saylor’s world begins to crumble, professionally, academically, and domestically, around him.  But Saylor has not discovered all of Tansy’s secrets.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review of High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drought featured character studies of the human reaction to a slow moving yet ultimately disastrous environmental event.  Fresh water steadily regressing during an extended hot spell, the effect was myriad on the residents of the small town, each reacting in their own, human way to the increasingly desperate situation.  Changing the angle but keeping the focus group the same, Ballard’s 1975 High-Rise is likewise an examination of the nuts and bolts of thought inherent to a steadily deteriorating situation.  This time, however, the setting is as urban as can be: the modern, self-contained high rise.

The opening line of High-Rise, for as surreal as it rests on the page, announces itself in direct terms for what it is: a story of humanity decayed.  The decay subsequently portrayed through three characters, High-Rise gives page time to a handful of characters but most prominently three men. The first is Richard Lang.  A passive medical professor, he watches with little emotion as his fellow residents, shops, schools, and recreational areas in their 40-story building begin to show signs that the unspoken social agreements we all adhere to begin are eroding in the closely packed environment.  Children making noise, dogs making a mess, and everyone crowded together as they go to the 10th floor supermarket, public pool, and attempt to use the elevators—nothing has an effect on Lang.  Wilder is a documentary film maker who, when seeing the residents disagreements become communal, and upper floor residents, who generally look down on the lower floor residents, start to protect what they believe is theirs (elevators, trash chutes, roof gardens, etc.), makes a plan to reach the upper floors to have a look for himself.  Camera in hand, he meets more resistance than expected.  And lastly is the building’s architect, Anthony Royal.  A rich man with a much younger wife who occupies one of the upper-floor penthouses, as life below starts to degenerate toward complete anti-social behavior, he begins to think about moving out.  But can he leave his creation?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review of Eric by Terry Pratchett

Before the Discworld had Tiffany Aching, there was Eric Thursley.  An ambitious teenage boy, he wants his cake and to eat it, too.  Eric (1991), the ninth Discworld novel, sees the teen on a journey that parodies the Faust legend in a manner only Terry Pratchett can.  Rincewind bumbling along in tow, Eric achieves a higher plane of understanding in most unlikely fashion—all no thanks to the ill-starred wizard’s mix of luck.

A thirteen year-old amateur demonologist, Eric summons the unwitting Rincewind into a hex circle in his bedroom one evening and demands the cowardly wizard supply his three innermost desires: the most beautiful woman, to rule the world, and to live forever.  The boy’s parrot confusing matters, suddenly the three (the dirty-mouthed bird, included) find themselves in the jungles of the Tezumen Empire.  Exploring what is a thin disguise for Aztec culture, they learn many things while put in some tricky situations, but not before the Luggage with legs makes its appearance—and not a minute too late.  Their Faustian journey only beginning, the pair proceed to embark on a jaunt through time and space that traverses the most disparate of lands, hell just the last stop on the line. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review of A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

Dystopia is such delicate material to work with.  Done well, it quietly informs theme, emerges from the background at opportune moments to interact with character, and does its part to influence mood and atmosphere.  Done poorly, it is an in-your-face experience that detracts from the story in its exuberance of imagination and/or proselytizing.  Given such a large number of post-Y2K texts use the motif, it has become increasingly difficult for a writer to not only do dystopia well, but distinguish their world.  In her debut novel A Calculated Life (2013), Anne Charnock accomplishes just this.

A simple comparison: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War is DYS-TO-PIA. The author goes far out of her way to make the setting as black as possible.  The futuristic Manchester, England Charnock portrays in A Calculated Life is likewise grim.  But there is a significant difference in presentation.  Where Hurley takes every opportunity (paragraph, even) to cram some visceral, grimy aspect of life down the reader’s throat, Charnock’s manner of portraying a depressing world is rooted in more subtle ideas.  Teeny-tiny apartments, unsatisfied people, limited freedoms, narrow employment opportunities in an economically downcast period, drab building materials, the nuanced oppression of the class system—her setting clings much closer to empathy and relevancy than Hurley’s comic book sensationalism, resulting in a dystopia with potential to comment upon reality.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bubble World: The Emptiness of Pulp

A few months ago MPorcius called me out for stating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is an empty piece of fiction. He’s right.  I didn’t qualify the statement.  A Princess of Mars is an ideologically empty piece of fiction.  This important detail aroused in my brain a discussion regarding the relative merits of pulp speculative fiction.  By coincidence just a few days later, I discovered an unpublished case study in Speculiction’s archive that is so relevant I’ve decided to post it word for word in an effort to shed more light on the subject.

Research Title: Reader Response to Juxtaposed Forms of Speculative Fiction


Joe: likes science fiction but despises horror
Sally: likes fantasy but hates steampunk and hard sf

Case study #1

Both Joe and Sally were provided Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, given time to read, and then brought together for a discussion related to the books.  Time limit for discussion: one hour.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Modernism’s hopes for mankind found expression in numerous ways, many of which fell directly into the wheelhouse of science fiction.  Asmimov, Heinlein, Clarke and others made a living presenting visions of a better life on Venus, robots to perform human labor, and spaceships to other planets—lebensraum abound.  But the cyborg has always been a fence-sitter.  Venus a jungle paradise, robots the perfect servant, and gleaming spaceships between the stars—these three shine at a much brighter intensity than the augmentation of humans with mechanical parts.  Mankind wary of such personal intrusion, literature about cyborgs has always been more equivocal in tone.  From Budry’s Who? to Dick’s “The Electric Ant”, the genre has seen a cautious approach to the combination of machine and body.  Adding a layer of subtle—and all the more biting for it—political satire, Frederik Pohl’s 1976 Man Plus is another strong example of the ambivalence.

Man Plus is set in a future wherein the world is in the grip of socialism.  Only North America remains capitalist, and statistics and trends indicate war is ever closer to deciding for how much longer.  Believing human habitation of Mars is the only way to avoid conflict, US President Fitz-James Deshatine sets up a secret American program to modify a man physically for open-air life on the red planet in preparation for American colonization.  Deshatine’s strong Texan demeanor driving the program as fast as it can go, Roger Torraway is quickly called into duty: to sacrifice himself for the common good.  Stripped of nearly everything that makes him corporeally human, he emerges a cyborg man.  Much to the emotional pain of his wife and friends, his bat-like eyes, plastic intestines, wings for dealing with balance in Martian gravity, reptilian skin to withstand cold, muscles replaced with a substance that requires no nourishment, and lungs a set of pumps to deal with the pressure differential make him more machine than man, only portions of his brain left untouched.  As the statistics continue to indicate war is ever closer, Torraway’s trip to Mars looms more important—but for whom?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sign of the times...

Looking through the titles available on NetGalley today I was struck by how incredibly moribund speculative fiction is.  I can't help but think the collapse of speculative fiction would actually be a good thing - the whole fresh start, clean out the riff-raff thing...  I mean, just count the number of young women wielding weapons.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review of Chaga (UK) / Evolution's Shore (US) by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s 1992 Hearts, Hands and Voices (titled The Broken Land by US publishers), in and amongst its gush of ideas and frothing of language, seems to have far-future Africa as its setting, but never openly declares itself as such.  Making no bones about it, in 1995 McDonald started a series of novels explicitly set in the dark continent.  The first novel Chaga (Evolution’s Shore in the US) brought into the fold easier recognized tropes of science fiction, resulting in a more tangible, accessible revisioning of Africa’s future.

Gaby McAslan, a television reporter fresh out of university in Ireland, has her sights set on working in Kenya where a strange object from space has struck Kilimanjaro and is slowly spreading a bizarre crystalline substance at the rate of a few feet per day across the countryside.  Called chaga by the locals, it digests anything that is not alive, leaving in its wake indescribable masses—canyon walls, rippled blankets, and strange shapes sitting surreally in the open.  Gaby’s bright shock of red hair unable to equal her zeal for work, everyone—men, the UN, Kenyan government, local mafia, even her own news director—have trouble keeping the reins on her as surreal stories of chaga survivors begin emerging from the affected regions.  With reports of telepathy, healings, spiritual commune, and new, never before seen technology appearing, Gaby’s instinct for front line stories is well tuned.  But an even more bizarre object appears at the edge of the solar system.  NASA and other space agencies track the massive, undulating BDO as it dumbly makes its way toward Earth—a relationship seeming to exist with the chaga, but no scientist able to pinpoint what exactly it is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising 1.5 ed. by. Ian Whates

The follow up to Ian Whates’ solid Solaris Rising anthology is, surprisingly, not Solaris Rising 2.  Something possible only in the modern era, Solaris decided to publish a mini-anthology e-book as both a bridge and precursor to the second entry.  Solaris Rising 1.5 (2012) is, as far as I know, the only anthology bearing a decimal.  Whates himself admitting it was a surprise affair, the overall quality of the stories belies mediocre preparation, and ultimately does not meet the standard set by the first volume.  The authors apparently contacted at short notice to see what they had available, the resulting rush means that not all of the nine stories are up to snuff.  There are a couple, however, which may be worth it.

The first story in Solaris Rising 1.5 is Adam Roberts’ “What Did Tessimond Tell You?”  A single concept stretched thin—almost to the point of snapping, the story is science fiction as it once was: a grand idea populated by two dimensional characters.  Roberts builds suspense admirably, and the ultimate payoff will cause every reader to pause and think.  But it is not enough to prevent proceedings from being an idea indelicately injected into the lives of standby characters.  Apparently part of Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, “Two Sisters in Exile” is the story of a unfortunate incident between galactic adversaries.  When a Northerner mindship is accidentally killed, the Nam attempt to forestall vengeance by returning the metal corpse under a white flag.  Featuring a Vietnamese galactic empire filled with Vietnamese cooking (yet again), de Bodard is up to her old tricks on the surface.  But at the story’s core, the human elements (despite the death being a mindship) speak more to cultural relations and the ensuing difficulties, and as a result is one of the better stories in this mini-anthology.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review of Galapagos Regained by James Morrow

Megan at From Couch to Moon recently reviewed Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants.  In the discussion that followed it was noted that satire may be a lost form of speculative fiction.  The most recent title I could think of was John Sladek’s wonderful Tik-Tok, but that was published in 1983.  (I’m aware Pratchett is writing satire, Making Money is brilliant in this regard, but it’s satire amongst a wide variety of humor—slapstick, situational, wordplay, etc.)  I’m happy to say I’ve discovered who is still writing not only satire, but exquisitely pointed satire. 

Possibly the last of his breed, James Morrow is going about the the mode with all the spirit of those before him—Tenn, Sheckley, Malzberg, Pohl, and Sladek among them—but with an attention to detail perhaps not yet seen.  Galapagos Regained (2015, St. Martin’s Press), Morrow’s most recent title, is not only a wonderful addition to literature, but likewise in the early running for best books of 2015 given the focus, execution, and ultimately, the quality.  Possessing Gaiman’s charm, Vonnegut’s wit, and a sense of esoteric erudition of Morrow’s own, it comes highly recommended.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of Way Station by Clifford Simak

Why can’t we all just get along?  Because it’s complicated.  Because Billy Bob slept with my girl.  Because Sally called me stupid.  Because we need to keep gasoline prices down.  Because we’re animals.  Because the gods have deemed it so.  Because… I suppose I could take up the rest of this review with answers to that question.  But in the end, would any of the reasons be an overarching ideal that is inescapable?  Before you think too much about it, have a read of Clifford Simak’s 1963 novel Way Station.  Simple in presentation and simple in aim, it nevertheless carries the baton of hope humanity can overcome its tendency toward self-destruction.  (And yes, there are guns.)

Enoch Wallace lives in the extreme backwoods of rural Wisconsin in a time shortly after WWII.  Having fought in the Civil War, he is something of a human phenomenon; Wallace still looks like a thirty year old male.  But living so far from civilization, he’s been left alone, that is, until a CIA agent gets wind and decides to investigate.  Coming upon Wallace’s home while the man is out on his daily walk through the woods, the agent discovers that Wallace, interestingly enough, inhabits only one room of the old farmhouse, the remainder of the building blocked off with an invisible, impenetrable shield.  It’s the gravestone in the family plot beside the house with a most unusual grave marker, however, that really gets the agent’s attention.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review of Soldier of the Mist by Gene Wolfe

Of the variations of loss mankind faces, memory is one of the hardest.  Less physically and more existentially painful, memory deprivation is tantamount to losing one’s self; without the past to inform identity in the present, the mind can find itself in a stranger’s body.  Alzheimer’s an extreme, there are subtler variations of memory loss which nevertheless smear the personal conception of self across a subjective peep show of the remembered past.  Entering this gulf of equivocated identity is Gene Wolfe’s brilliant 1986 novel Soldier of the Mist.  The story of a soldier in ancient Greece suffering anterograde amnesia (the inability to form long term memories), the world through his eyes appears unstable and off-putting.  But as time moves on, the reader realizes the man’s condition is not as far removed from a healthy mind’s perspective of memory and the past as it would seem. 

Writing an account of his day on a scroll before going to sleep and encountering a scroll with the words “Read This” in the morning, Latro the soldier learns and relearns anew every day who he is, long term memory gone.  Struck on the head in battle, he retains hazy memories of his youth and language skills, but little else.  Name and home, for example, are a mystery.  Life literally taken day to day, instinct and the will of others guide his life.  On the losing side of the battle, he begins Soldier of the Mist a slave to the victors. Prized by them, he is allowed to befriend an Ethiopian and a poet, and soon comes into a friendship with a young slave girl—she the biggest help in retaining his notion of self.  After the battle a divine intervention sets him on a group pilgrimage to the Shining Mother. The circumstances of life and the condition of his memory quickly shift the focus, however.  His goals evolving with each stop on the map, it’s meeting the necromancer Eurykles that effects the most change.  Witnessing the resurrection of a corpse in a cemetery one evening, Latro’s perception of the gods, the living, and everything between intertwine to lead him closer to who he is.  Trouble is, he may never remember.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

There are numerous readers of speculative fiction whose brains are not activated by horror.  I am one of them.  Sophisticated interrogations of the human psyche can be engaging, but the cheap thrills of fear (and let’s be honest, fear is the foundation stone of the building of horror) are too narrow in aim for me to engage with as a genre.  I don’t get scared. I don’t even get a feeling of discomfort or lingering sense of wonder reading such stories.  Philip K. Dick, yes, but Stephen King, no.  Thus, take my review of Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend with a grain of salt.  A driven story, but oh so empty…

I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville.  The lone survivor of a vampire-zombie apocalypse, he lives in a barricaded home what remains of Inglewood's suburbs.  Watching the clock each day, he must be home before sunset.  The unearthly remnants of humanity climbing into the dark to hunt for fresh blood, they assault his home and conscience throughout the night, threatening to not only drive him insane, but kill him if they can get their fangs into his body.  Hammering wooden stakes through the vampires he encounters while collecting food and supplies in the daylight, the meaning and purpose of life deteriorate with each sunset, moving him to drink and depression.  The arrival of a mangy dog on his doorstep one day changes everything, however.