Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review of Dark Star by Oliver Langmead

There are many modes and styles of storytelling.  Classic, minimalist, expository, stream of consciousness, mosaic, metafiction—and on and on go the ways in which an author can transpose their imaginings into fiction.  But poetry?  Have you ever read science fiction in metered form?

      Time to waste, so I escape the city
  At one of those seedy establishments
  They call ‘Glow Shows’ because they fill the girls
  So full of Pro’ it nearly burns their veins.
      Prometheus, resident wonder-drug;
  Pro’, Promo’, ’Theus, liquid-fucking-light;
  Prohibited by city law and shot
  By yours truly, Virgil Yorke, hero cop (1)

So run the first lines of Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star (2015, Unsung Stories).  And what follows is a story that lives up to every ounce of vividness contained in those few words—a proper story, just in measured form.

The effect replete, when Detective Yorke is called to the late night scene of a murder, the emptiness between the lines makes what imagery that is in the lines—the corpse’s neon veins—twice as powerful.  The city of Vox perpetually dark, the young woman’s body glows in the back alley, begging Yorke—and the reader—to learn what has transpired.  But just as his investigation begins, an even bigger crime calls Yorke away.  Vox dependent on the power generated by three dying stars, one has been stolen.  So, into the cold, dark night Yorke goes, battling his own addictions every step of the way, the metered verse stripping his story down to its evocative essentials.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review of Saint Rebor by Adam Roberts

Liberace revived, a neural net guillotine, robot brain builders, designer illnesses (like perfume!), endorphin drought, lunar Kafka—Adam Roberts is one of the most dynamic figures in science fiction at the moment, and his 2015 collection Saint Rebor (NewCon Press), which this list of ideas is a partial representation of, proves precisely why. 

Containing eleven stories (and one poem), three of which have never before been published, Saint Rebor is a brisk, vibrant collection that highlights the elasticity of Roberts’ imagination. “Gerusalemme Liberace” is the story of that flamboyant pianist, brought  back to life and parading the streets of the ancient city.  Preaching universal love in an awkward manner, Islamic and American governments join forces to put an end to the ‘threat’ in witty, relevant fashion.  Wikipedia defines ‘anhedonia’ as “the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable”.  After aliens arrive in the solar system, humanity experience the phenomenon in the story of the same name.  Begging aliens for the secret to interstellar travel, what are they willing to pay?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review of The World of Null A by A.E. van Vogt

It was Descartes, when asked “How do you know you exist?” famously replied: “I think, therefore I am.”  Other responses possible, it nevertheless is impossible to respond with any more rational certainty.  Descartes’ proof empirical, any system of logic is bound to fail in similar fashion.  In the world of science fiction, Philip K. Dick is the writer who has perhaps capitalized most on this subjective aspect of existence.  But he had his predecessors.  Defying Aristotlian logic in favor of General Semantics with the goal of laying hands on existence and identity, A.E. van Vogt penned The World of Null A in 1948.  The “controversy” that resulted only distracts from the (unintentional?) mark it set for Dick and other writers wrestling with certainty.

The World of Null A is the story of Gilbert Gosseyn.  Considering himself of superior intelligence in the workings of non-Aristotlian logic, he goes to the giant machine that rules Earth to be tested.  The result, however, is catastrophic—not in physical terms, rather existential.  Discovering that his memories are false, he sets about trying to rectify the situation—to get to the bottom of who he is and which memories are real and which are false.  The search by necessity taking him to Venus, he there discovers that even death cannot satisfy his quest.  Reborn with memories intact (‘reappearing’ the best descriptor), his quest revives itself anew with each dead end.  A larger plot in the solar system revealing itself while Gosselyn is in pursuit of his identity, getting at the heart of who he truly is soon has implications beyond just himself.

Review of City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton

Edmond Hamilton made a name for himself (at a young age) in the 1920s writing pulp science fiction and fantasy.  Captain Future and the Interstellar Patrol some of his most well known pulp creations, he is one of the most well known authors from the era.  So involved with genre, in fact, he met and married Leigh Brackett, another writer of speculative fiction.  Brackett’s writing more understated than his own, her presence brought about a change not only in Hamilton’s life, but also his writing.  It is in City at World’s End (1951) we see her influence.

City at World’s End is, for Hamilton, a mature effort. More in line with works of the time by Wilson Tucker and Ray Bradbury than the previously popular E.E. Smith or Murray Leinster, it utilizes a social experiment to attempt to elaborate on the human condition—ray guns, evil aliens, and space battles left to his pulp creations.  A nuclear explosion picking up Small Town, USA and depositing it millions of years in the future on a barren Earth, it looks at the social reaction to extreme change.  The problem with the experiment is, the maturity is relative.

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.