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.