Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I am agog.  Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 A Princess of Mars is a book I’d never read, that is, until turning the last page today—and I am agog.  Like a genre rosetta stone, I now understand the root of America’s pulp science fiction and fantasy tradition.  Purple prose, heroes of a larger-than-life variety, a plot that continually expands its extent of incredulity, science fiction cum fantasy cum science fantasy—all the pulpy pieces are in place in one big, mythically maudlin male fantasy of the finest, squishiest cheese.  And the blazing sexism, disguised racism, undoubted ethnocentrism—everything WASP-ish, I’m just agog…

A Princess of Mars is the story of John Carter, a man who comes to be the greatest hero Mars has even known.  An officer in the Confederacy, after the Civil War he goes west seeking a fortune in gold in Arizona.  Finding a rich vein, he and a colleague head to civilization to get the equipment and laborers they will need to mine it.  But a tragedy occurs, and Carter is forced to defend himself.  Finding a cave to hide out, strange forces take over, and before he knows it, he lies naked in the middle of the Martian wilderness.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

How to describe the ineffable?  Is it possible to iron the crinkles from the crumple? Can the pieces of a Faberge egg be put back together?  Do the glass beads form some pattern?  These are the daunting questions I face setting out to review David Lindsay’s 1920 A Voyage to Arcturus.  Thus I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: review a book through the lenses of its descendants.  In this way I might be able to approximate—and approximate, only—the ideas possibly going through Lindsay’s mind as he penned the story of Maskull, his strange visit to the planet Tormance, and the myriad fantastyka there encountered.

Jack Vance’s The Green Pearl, the middle work of his Lyonesse trilogy, is a book set in a rustic land reminiscent of Medieval England.  But not all of it.  One sequence of events taking characters on a trip through a dimensional portal to an alternate world, all manner of the bizarre is encountered in the aptly named Tanjecterly.  From animals shaped like houses to strangely colored flora and fauna, the land bears little in common with Earth.  Tormance, the planet Maskull finds himself traversing in A Voyage to Arcturus, is much the same.  Green skies, multiple suns, blue plants and trees, and creatures that can only be pictured in the mind’s eye, Maskull’s journey is as psychedelic as a Jimi Hendrix song.  The fact that chaos rules the geological formations—where a mountain exists one moment a lake may the next—only heightens the alien feel, and leads one to wonder: why has Lindsay taken Maskull, and by default, the reader to such a strange land?

Review of "Anticopernicus" by Adam Roberts

Coming to the knowledge Earth is not the center of the universe was a major milestone in human history.  Though perhaps affecting Western religions the most, the seep of that knowledge into the everyday person’s brain nevertheless could not have had anything less than profound impact.  While on one hand it’s possible to see realizing Earth as a satellite as a step forward in confronting this thing we call existence, there is likewise a distancing effect.  If Earth is not center of the universe, to what other mass forces and wills are we subject?  If we are but pawns in interstellar physics, to what else are we beholden?  Tackling the issue through a human lens, Adam Roberts self published the novella “Anticopernicus” in 2011.  The story of a woman whose deep space catastrophe places humanity just in front of another important milestone, it re-contextualizes the future of human existence in significant fashion.  I still think Copernicus would have been appreciative.

When aliens appear in the outer galaxy and request an audience, Ange Mlinko is one of the pilots selected to fly a delegation to meet them.  Removed from the list at the last moment, however, she returns to her normal life.  Indifferent to the rejection, life goes on and she eventually gets a gig capturing an ice asteroid for the Martian colony.  But after picking up the object and heading to the red planet, a string of bad luck unleashes itself.  One of her crew dies in unforeseen circumstances, and a short time later, another larger catastrophe wrecks itself upon the ship.  Staring her fate in the eye, mankind’s first contact with aliens conflates with her predicament, forcing the apathetic young woman to examine life from a new perspective.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Out of the Phone Booth Dressed in Black: Response to Benjanun Sriduangkaew's Alter Online Ego

Just what speculative fiction needs, another affair to be magnified ten times larger than it should be.  Case in point: Benjanun Sriduangkaew and the revelation of her alter online egos, Requires Only That You Hate among them. 

The short term: certainly the politically correct crowd is going to make a big hullabaloo about the revelation of the person behind Requires That You Hate and her other online personae.  Like a classic novel ending, she was standing among us all the time.  But let’s reflect on a few things.  One, Sriduangkaew could have simply closed down Hate with none the wiser, but instead chose to confess, which, for as much as it pales in comparison to the content that was apologized for, is worth something.  (Vox Day, after all, has yet to make a similar admission.)  Two, we all were young once and made choices and behaved in ways we regret.  Certainly it’s regrettable these mistakes were so public and vehement in Sriduangkaew’s case, but there are uncountable worse acts committed on this Earth every day than venting virulent opinion at fringe corners of the web.  The confrontation of the vitriol via apology seems to mark the beginning of the end of the immaturity.  Three, amongst the profanity and vehemence were some valid points regarding violent sexual behavior and racism in the fiction many genre fans support.  The genre needs to confront some of these issues, even if presented in jagged form, and should not be part of the fallout of this debacle. (And yes, Patrick Rothfuss is an idiot - see here.)  Four, the only reason this is getting the attention it is, is because Sriduangkaew is a writer.  Were the proprietor to have been revealed as Jane Doe, people would ignore it for the relative anonymity, and move on.  This relates to five: Sriduangkaew’s fiction puts its money where her alter ego mouth is.  On top of being dynamic linguistically, it never features those elements she so intensely spoke out about and is, in fact, some of the most unique short work being published in genre these days—not an easy feat to pull off.  And lastly, six: it's obvious Sriduangkaew is dealing with some real mental issues, paranoia, anxiety, the inability to release emotions healthily, egoism, etc. But like the steps of AA, owning up to your problems is the first.  'Hi, my name is Benjanun, and I have a problem.' has been voiced.  But having to stand and face the group of people who will rehash her transgressions in the most dire of tones is not part of the AA program.  Humans being what they, however, this is inevitable.  She did, this, she did that, she is evil, she is unworthy of existence is a kind of punishment and will satisfy some.  But it's not part of the cure; the mental issues appear punishing enough.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of The Embedding by Ian Watson

At its worst, science fiction is cheap, shallow entertainment on par with mainstream popular fiction that fails to induce anything in the reader save the thought ‘time wasted’.  At its best, however, science fiction can be a powerful tool for exploring the human condition and supply deep-reaching questions for thought.  Done right, it expresses aspects of existence that literary realism can (literally) only dream of.  After all, the opportunities for comparison and contrast, profundity and insight are exponentially myriad when the universe, not just the world, is your canvas.  Taking full advantage of the possibilities, Ian Watson penned The Embedding in 1973.  Using linguistics as a bounce point, humanity’s chances/willingness/ability to merge toward a common understanding are examined under a genre light that features aliens, political intrigue, jungle tribes, and language experiments in intelligent if not hackneyed fashion.

While there are several side stories, The Embedding can be divided into three main flows.  The first is set in the deep jungles of Brazil where the Xemahoa tribe live.  Pierre is a French anthropologist observing the tribe, taking particular note of their use of language.  Rather languages: everyday speech is in a format readily translatable into other known languages, while in their religious ceremonies another language, a language which combines fungal psychedelics with embedded words and phrasing, is used.  A controversial dam project threatening to force the Xemahoa away from their ancestral home and fungal grounds, it isn’t long before politics ad violence interrupt Pierre’s research.  Meanwhile in the UK. a highly experimental language study is underway—one that would certainly be illegal were it performed today.  Linguist Chris Sole teaches brain damaged children using embedded language, experimental drugs, and physical techniques that occupy the gray area of abuse, all in the hopes of not only better understanding human communication, but perhaps unlocking something deeper in the brain.  Appearing about a third to halfway through the novel is the third storyline.  Passing through the Milky Way is an alien ship, returning to its home world.  Its mission to understand reality deeper than known reality, they come looking to barter knowledge for knowledge in the hope humanity may offer some piece to their reality puzzle.  They, of anyone in the story, find the unexpected.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

I once taught a Business Ethics course at a Chinese university (not that the West is any better).  One of the exercises I did with the students is to ask them to list the things they would do if they could be invisible.  I did it enough times that the answers were generally predictable.  There was always the tiny number who had wildly imaginative ideas, followed by the minority who thought to become superheroes or super-policeman of some variety to stop evil doers.  But inevitably, the majority thought to use it for material gain or personal interest, usually involving robbing a bank.  Thus reading The Invisible Man (1897), it was a intriguing to discover H.G. Wells examined the mindset behind the desire.

Though Wells thought to use chemistry and biology to make a man corporeally transparent in order to test his limits, it was in fact the Greeks who first came up with the moral barometer. Called Gyges Ring, the wearer was rendered invisible—in pure fantasy terms.  Both triggers for ethical discussion, Wells uses the device in his story of Griffin, a man who has discovered the formula for invisibility.  Shifting immediately into reverse, he seeks to escape his fate by isolating himself to research the antidote.  Arriving at an inn in the small English village of Iping at the beginning of the story, the curious owner is mollified by Griffin’s willingness to pay without haggling in advance, and asks no questions why he is covered head to toe in cloth.  Baggage arriving shortly thereafter with all manner of bottles and vials inside, the owners believe they have a scientist as a lodger—a strangely accoutered scientist, but a scientist nonetheless.  But when strange events begin happening in the small village, most noticeably a burglary under near impossible circumstances, more and more questions start coming Griffin’s way.  The questions becoming drama, the little town is never the same after.

Review of "Finisterra" by David Moles

David Moles’ 2007 novelette “Finisterra” is the story of Bianca Nazario, a young woman recently arrived on the planet Sky from Earth.  Hired as an aeronautical engineer, her unwillingness to follow her family’s wishes and marry according to arrangment has pushed her to find work on the distant gas giant.  Employed by a group of poachers, her first few days are spent helping Valadez and his team capture and kill massive floating zaratanes—sentient creatures so big that communities of the poor and independent are able to eek out a living on their beings, and likewise so big their bodies can be chopped up and sold as commodities.  Her engineering skills intended to help design better air vehicles to aid in capture, Nazario finds herself in a moral delimma when Valadez asks her to the scene of an accident one day.  The politics of Sky unraveling in the aftermath, Nazario’s aeronautical knowledge may be the most useful talent she has as violence erupts.

“Finisterra” is a story that so desperately wants to be more than it is.  Featuring an equivocal ending, strong environmental and cultural themes, and elements that seem to speak to a strong socio-politcal agenda, its reality, however, is superficial.  Unable to escape the simplicity of its good and evil characterization, the strength of the novelette’s message fades with every contrived scene.  Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest possessing a similar premise (evil commercial interests invade the placid order of a benign alien group), her characters, however, are the center point upon which the ensuing agenda hangs.  Moles’ story lacks a similar focus.  This is not to say “Finisterra” should have an unambiguous ending or tone down the main thematic elements, rather that the characters should have been more subtle, more realistic, and more fundamental if it were to have fulfilled its ambition.  I will not say Le Guin’s characters are presented in purely realist terms, but there is a marked difference to the manner in which their plausibility affects the integrity of the story compared to Moles’.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of "Black Amazon of Mars" by Leigh Brackett

While there is certainly credit due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more.  Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic.  But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas.  Similar in name to John Carter, Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark features in some of her Sea Kings of Mars stories.  More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasized version of Mars comprised of more than just uber-heroism exists, her 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars” is a good example of how the student may sometimes outshine the master.

Accompanying the native Martian Camar the Thief to his home, the opening of “Black Amazon of Mars” finds Eric John Stark camped in the snow, the pair getting ready for bed so they can hit the trail early the next day.  Camar dying from injuries, however, he is unable to travel further, and passes away that night.  But not before bequeathing to Stark the lost talisman of Kushat.  Having to set out on the trail alone, it’s not long before Stark is accosted by barbarians and taken prisoner.  Thrust before their leader, the masked Ciaran, he is given a choice: join or die.  Chaos unraveling in the aftermath of his decision, Stark is swept up in a whirlwind of sabotage, battles, and a journey that ultimately decides the fate of the talisman and Camar’s home.

Review of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Today’s citizen thinks nothing of hopping on a plane and arriving on the other side the world later that day.  Though it requires a bit more planning, it’s possible to fly around the world on commercial jets within a period reasonably measured in hours, rather than weeks or months.  There is/was (?) even a reality tv show The Amazing Race exploiting modern global transportation for entertainment.  But of course, this was not always the case, and as a result we have the dramas of the great explorers—Cook, Tasman, Columbus, Cortez, et al.  But with European empires established and transportation infrastructure in place, traveling around the world as a paying tourist became possible in the mid 19 th century.  Taking advantage of the possibility, and throwing in a pinch of mystery and a sprinkling of humor, in 1873 Jules Verne penned Around the World in Eight Days, creating one of the world’s great adventure stories—literally.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of the rich aristocrat Phileas Fogg, and the test of honor he places upon himself.  Spending his days playing cards at the Reform Club in London, a discussion of travel one day brings about a wager for £20,000 that in eighty days he can traverse the circumference of the globe.  The bet immediately taken by fellow club members, Fogg does not set out alone.  His valet, the Frenchman Passepartout, comes in tow, but with all of the bumbling, it’s uncertain whether he will be a greater help or hinderance toward Fogg winning the bet.  The stakes not high enough, a massive robbery has recently taken place in London, and Scotland Yard are on the lookout for anyone carrying large sums of cash—something Fogg indeed has in his baggage. And, as they say, the chase is on.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy.  His view polarized, he states that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.”  Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand in hand.  But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the poster example of science fantasy silliness.

How does this look on a genre wall: medieval English knights are one day attacked by ray-gun wielding, blue-skinned aliens.  The knights push back the attack, and in the aftermath are able to take an alien hostage.  It learns Latin in the time it takes Anderson to write a paragraph, and soon enough the knights are taught to fly the ship and embark for France to destroy their sworn enemy.  Trouble is, the alien tricks the knights.  Instead of France, the ship is on autopilot.  Destination: the alien’s home planet.  Upon landing, the group of knights lay waste to the technologically advanced aliens with nothing more than spears, bows, and arrows—the beam weaponry and power shields they encounter no match. And that’s only the first 40 pages…