Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review of The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock

(Cue eager 1950s’ advertizing voice.)  Looking for something new?  Tired of that steady diet of popular fantasy with the same dichotomies, the same sense of style, the same touch points?  Need something fresh, something outside the mainstream of genre?  A plot that goes none knows where?  Characters so obtuse they’re normal?  Imagination of the most esoteric?  If this is you my friend, then look no further than the incomparable Mr. James P. Blaylock!  Fabulist extraordinaire, he mixes a drop of the supernatural into the mundane affairs of Joe Average to create a concoction most quirky—and pleasing for it!  Run, run, run to your corner bookshop and pick a book today!

After such a review introduction, I should pause to note the above tone is all in good fun, but the message is real; Blaylock is the scribe for the reader looking for something outside the fantasy norm.  His oeuvre unique across the spectrum of speculative fiction, one may choose almost anywhere (save the middle of series, or course) and walk away satisfied.  Take for example his delightful 1988 The Last Coin—as consistent, individual, and delightful as the day it was published.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review of The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem

Sherlock Holmes may very well be the world’s most famous detective (Watson would definitely hit the top ten for sidekicks).  King of logic and master of sly, where others see only flying pigs and water flowing uphill, the British recluse of Baker Street peers through the slush of misinformation to the jagged line connecting the dots of reality. This latter word significant, the underlying premise to all of Holmes’ cases is that a solution exists—an explanation that satisfies all the questions and parameters of the case in our real world, nothing fantastical about it.  Arthur Conan Doyle a brilliant writer, his creations, however, were fiction; in real life not all cases go solved and not all mysteries that life presents are unraveled.

A Scotland Yard case the perfect premise, in 1959 Stanislaw Lem penned The Investigation as a means of digging at the reasons behind this juxtaposition between fiction and reality.  A bodysnatching mystery of the most metaphysical, Lem racks up a high score for being a prime student of literature, from detective noir to Dostoevsky, and being incredibly insightful into the uncertainties of perception that dance and drum, hide and manifest themselves in the human brain as it encounters this little thing we call life.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

After finishing his landmark Book of the New Sun series in the 80s, Gene Wolfe branched out in a new direction; going from a science fiction/fantasy cum confirmation/subversion of epic fantasy, to ancient Greece and a soldier with a head wound that has destroyed his short term memory. Wolfe produced two novels that seemed like bookends on a simple but profound shelf of ideas.  Featuring Greek gods, a realistic presentation of life in the Greek archipelago more than 2,000 years ago, and a man coming to terms with a new perspective on life, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete are a natural pair opening and closing an enchanted and enchanting window in the soldier Latro’s life.  It was thus something of a surprise when, seventeen years later, Wolfe produced a third Soldier novel, Soldier of Sidon (2006).  Some surprises are welcome, however, even if their genesis is only partially explainable.

Riverland calling him, at the outset of Soldier of Sidon Latro sets out on a merchant’s journey down the Nile with an old friend, Muslak, and some new friends.  One a river wife hired in northern Egypt for the journey, Myt’ser’eu proves delightful, yet mysterious female company.  But not as enigmatic as some of the other men, women, and creatures he encounters.  Egyptian deities just as perceptible as the Greek, Latro’s journey finds him meeting a jackal-headed men, a wax lady, and animals of dreams and nightmares—black panthers, snakes, and crocodiles among them.  People and gods still playing games with Latro, the beleaguered mercenary in semi-retirement must again attempt to peer his way through what he perceives and what his scroll tells him he perceived to make sense of what his eyes and heart tell him is reality.  A temple in the southern reaches of Egypt near Ethiopia purported to be able to cure his memory issues, once again Latro pins his hopes on his own will and the powers of the divine—even if they are of a human age older.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review of Coyote Rising by Allen Steele

Coyote, Allen Steele’s 2002 novel describing humanity’s first attempt at colonizing the stars, was a solidly written story of planetary exploration.  Mankind’s first steps awkward and uncertain on the new world, the narrative unfolded in terms of discovery and adaptation.  It also ended on a major surprise: the Collectivists on Earth had arrived to implement socialism on the desperately libertarian people who remained alive.  Working with the idea humanity has settled Coyote to the point day-to-day survival is ensured, the follow-up, Coyote Rising (2004), unfolds in terms of the political interplay between the two groups: the original colonists, headed by Robert E. Lee, and the Collectivists who landed after, lead by the imperious Louisa Hernandez.  Fireworks literally and figuratively closing the show, it’s an equally enjoyable if not more cohesive novel than Coyote that takes the freshly colonized planet to its next cycle of human existence.

Using the same narrative style as Coyote, Coyote Rising is, to its benefit, a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas conjoined at plot to tell the story of the first colonizers fight against the oppression of the second wave. Starting small with the story of a middle-aged woman newly arrived on Coyote who must eke out existence on the outskirts of a dirty, fragmented society, afterwards minor events and seemingly small scale happenings escalate the situation on the planet to the point both sides end up in open war—the penultimate story a politically simplistic yet gripping telling of Coyote’s socio-political fate that features viewpoints representing all sides of the overarching story.  It pays off nicely.  Almost Keith Roberts-esque in his vectoring of these stories toward the underlying plot, Steele shows superb narrative control, allowing the character details, setting, and plot of each story to be individual yet ultimately focused on larger issues at stake on the planet, culminating in a satisfying conclusion. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Steampunk is an intriguing sub-sub-genre of fantastyka.  Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine are books that dig at the political and social ideas resulting from alternate technological versions of history.  But there is another side for which socio-politics are but another color on the palette of a more aesthetic, action-oriented experience.  Mechanical body parts, dirigibles, steam power, and a 19th century-esque setting are just some of the most recognizable tropes featured in Alastair Reynolds Terminal World, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, and James Blaylock’s Homnculus.  Running with the visually-focused side, Cherie Priest’s 2009 Boneshaker touches the major points of steampunk with motherly sentiment.

Boneshaker’s first few pages start off a bit, well, shaky.  Opening on a historical synopsis, it tells of Leviticus Blue (great name) and his boneshaking machine that one day in the 1850s went mad and tore its way beneath the earth, managing to loot Seattle’s biggest banks in the process.  Rupturing veins of poison gas en route, a madness settled upon the residents in the resulting atmospheric milieu, a madness mitigated only by the construction of a massive wall around the city. The living and the living dead trapped within, those on the outskirts have been left to squeak by however they can, the entire region in tatters.  With the Civil War burgeoning in the south, the Pacific Northwest is primed to fall into chaos.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review of The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois is well known for his The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies.  Roughly five-hundred stories having accumulated in the series as of 2005, at that time St. Martin’s Griffin asked Dozois to up the ante: to choose the best of the best.  Producing two volumes, the first being The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, the second The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.  (For the record, like the yearly anthologies, the best-of-the-best anthologies were also ice aged: The Mammoth Book of The Best of The Best New SF and The Mammoth Book of Best Short SF Novels, respectively.)

Dozois consciously trying to avoid stories that had been re-printed innumerable times in other anthologies while maintaining a consistently high level of quality, the anthology he compiled covers all the names of the field one would expect, while not always the stories. What Dozois continues to do is spread interest within the sub-genres and micro-genres science fiction has to offer, resulting in a solid collection of short stories, from the genre’s mainstream to a handful somewhat beyond (but not too far).  (See the bottom of this review for a complete list of the thirty-nine stories Dozois selected.)  The following review covers some but not all of the stories, thirty-nine indeed mammoth.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review of “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” by Kate Elliott

Every person has different hopes, expectations, and criteria when meeting someone for the first time; each gesture, statement, expression, etc. is judged, consciously and sub-consciously, for that ever-critical first impression.  Reading the first few pages of a story by a writer you’ve never read before is not dissimilar; technique is critiqued heavier than normal.  My introduction to the work of Kate Elliott via her 2009 novelette “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” did not get off on the right foot—even left foot, for that matter.

A kicked-dead-horse setting, moral buttons the size of Kansas, no understanding of mood or tone, and some of the most unpolished prose I’ve encountered since Brandon Sanderson’s books, the nice little story laden with empty pleasantries and confirmed with a limp handshake did not lead to a good first impression.  The first page, let alone the first few pages, is eye-rolling material.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review of Engineering Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

According to Jonathan Strahan’s introduction, Engineering Infinity (2010) is intended to be a survey of the state of hard sf short fiction at the beginning of the 21st century. Specific writers targeted, indeed if one looks at the table of contents there are several (white males) known for their realistic extrapolation on theory.  Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Gregory Benford are four easily recognizable names in the sub-genre.  But there are a number of stories in the collection which must really suck their bellies in to fit through the doors of hard sf.  John C. Wright, Gwyneth Jones, Charles Stross, and David Moles are not authors that immediately pop into mind when the term is bandied about, and the stories they provided for the anthology are dubiously hard sf, at best.  But throwing taxonomy to the winds (where it probably belongs), Engineering Infinity remains a solid collection of stories.  No single story outshining the others or existing entirely in nothingness, it is also a highly consistent selection.

The two stories falling furthest on the hard sf side of the line are by the Canadians, Peter Watts and Karl Schroeder. “Malak”, Watts’ addition, is freighted.  Examining the morals of drone technology in warfare, he shifts the Middle East conflict a few years into the future where flying weapons possess semi-AI minds and are able to make some decisions in combat.  The remaining decisions, well, they are unfortunately still left to humans.  “Laika’s Ghost” is also a political/military influenced story, but this time in near-future Kazakhstan where an agent has been sent to investigate the bomb making capabilities—bombs worse than nuclear—of the post-Soviet culture still existing in the backlands.  Stuck traveling with a paranoid American looking for asylum from what he saw on Mars, the investigation unearths a lot more than just bombs.  Highly, highly reminiscent of a Bruce Sterling story, “Laika’s Ghost” is interesting for not being a Cold Ware redux, rather a look ahead at what the state of world agriculture, politics, space travel, and, unfortunately, weaponry, may be like in the former Soviet states.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review of City by Clifford Simak

Clifford Simak’s work puts such a debate into my mind: where to draw the line between good intentions and overly-simplistic outlay?  If writers were judged on the sentiment of their work and its relationship to humanity’s future, Simak would rank among the most concerned.  Much of his fiction, for example his major novel Way Station, caution us against short-sighted views and champion a mindset which has nature and universal respect at its core.  What greater vision could a reader ask for?  But there is also much of his fiction caught up in unsophisticated ideas that scan at a quick glance, but upon any deeper examination, crumble into plainness, mindlessness, even cheesiness.  City (1952), perhaps Simak’s most famous work, only heightens the debate.

Extrapolating upon the direction Simak perceived society and technology to be moving post-WWII in the US, City is a series of eight stories (nine, depending on the version) presenting a chronological sequence of views of said extrapolation.  Positing humanity incapable of getting out of its own way, he portrays a future wherein dogs, after a jump in sentience, rise to the peak of civilization—not through the deft use of cunning or brute force, rather by stepping into a vacancy afforded by humanity’s mismanagement of its own affairs.   Self-interest and poor decisions deflating civilization, in an ironic utopia it’s canines who bring peace to Earth.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Non-fiction: Review of Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane

Journey to the West, one of the ‘four great novels of the Chinese canon’, is most often attributed to Wu Chengen.  Author and title requisite for fiction these days, most take for granted that indeed, he is the one who penned the story.  Wu is, in fact, the person who collected, collated, fit, polished, and presented in finished form the myriad pieces of the magnificent tale of Sun Wukong, Sanzang, and their quest for the holy sutras.  The original story having undergone thousands of iterations by street corner storytellers, the result is a narrative that holds its history in episodic rather than escalating form.

But this simple transition in the evolution of storytelling in China, from oral to written tradition, is but one minor—and late—step in the history of storytelling as a whole.  Before street corner storytellers were bards, and before bards, shamans, and before shamans simple gossip over the campfire—thousands and thousands of years of human culture and existence covered in this simple statement.  Tracing story and myth all the way back to its roots, another observation can be made in the manner in the evolution of stories: humanity’s subservience, or lack thereof, to nature.  From the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, Neolithic to the Bronze, Iron to the Information Age, humanity, an idea in this context identified by the West, has shifted its stance on the power of the Earth and its inherent forces.  Where once gods inhabited every rock and shadow, it was whittled down to a pantheon, and from the pantheon, distilled into one ruling god, and from one god to the belief mankind holds its fate in its own hands.  Science fiction the mode of discourse which most obviously represents the latter, we are left with scraps and tatters of what remains of the former.  Enter Sean Kane’s Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1998).