Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review of Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

Brian Aldiss designates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the first science fiction novel.  The story of human creating human and the discordant relationship that results, H.G. Wells took its inspiration and wrote the The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).  A similar premise (human attempting to endow animal with human intelligence and appearance), Wells nevertheless took time to examine the animal side in balance with the human.  The third link in this chain of humanity’s god quest (unnatural means of endowing sentience in living flesh) came after a much shorter interval: Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (1944).

But Sirius is also part of the natural evolution of the writer’s own oeuvre. Like Last and First Men’s follow up Last Men in London, Stapledon saw fit to rework the ideas of his novel Odd John, publishing Sirius nine years after.  Continuing with the theme of super-intelligence, Stapledon threw the gauntlet down to himself by shifting premise from super-human intelligence to super-dog intelligence, aka human intelligence.  While superficially seeming a cheesy idea, Stapledon unpacks the idea with his trademark attention to detail.  Few science fiction writers these days who look into every nook and cranny of the wild ideas their brains conjure, Stapledon opens the concept of Sirius from nothing, scrutinizes it closely, develops every inch within natural frames, then closes it in literary fashion.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review of The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Oh cosmic evil, wherefore art thou?  Ahh, a deep pit in the fields of rural Ireland, just where I thought.  At least, this is the dish William Hope Hodgson would serve.  His 1908 The House on the Borderland is the story of an Irish recluse’s encounter with inexplicable forces of the malign in the fields outside his home.  Even stranger is that the evil bears the head of a pig.  (I would have thought goat given all the pagan stereotypes, red eyes, horns, etc., but, what do I know of cosmic evil…)

The House on the Borderland opens with two fishermen going to the countryside for a little sport.  Encountering a strange house at the edge of a small gorge, rifling through the interior they discover a manuscript, and over a meal begin reading it.  The framing device effective, the tale the manuscript tells is one that requires that extra bit of narrative distance to work properly.  An unnamed narrator, living in the countryside with only his sister and dog, experiences the most bizarre happenstance one day.  Seemingly swept out of the Earthly dimension, he arrives in a massive field, and in the center sits a house—a house that bears strong resemblance to his own, yet made of jade and much bigger.  An evil swine entity making its presence felt more than seen in the ether surrounding the house, the narrator’s return home sees several of the swine beasts trying to break into his house.  Though defending himself with a shotgun, his inter-dimensional experiences are only just beginning.  Looking out his window one evening, time begins to shift from fast, to faster, to dying Earth.  And that is only one stop of the cosmic clock.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Review of Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist is the intriguing story of a mercenary soldier living in ancient Greece befuddled by anterograde amnesia.  Each night’s sleep wiping his memory of everything but his youth and instinct, each morning brings a new beginning.  And the perpetual fresh start was evident in the relative lightness of the book’s tone.  Meeting gods, being everyday in a new place, and forever meeting fresh faces (even though he may have already met them), Latro remained optimistic throughout that despite his memory problem he would find his way home.  At the conclusion of Mist he experienced a wake up call, of a sort, however.  Segueing into the next novel, Soldier of Arete (1989) digs itself deeper into Latro’s mind as he attempts to come to terms with the realities of length: the road home, and how he will handle his memory issues if there is no cure.

The scene at the end of Soldier of the Mist a major event in Latro’s life, the opening of Soldier of Arete nevertheless finds the slave-soldier in the same company. Watched over by the faithful child Io and befriended by the trustworthy Seven Lions, he and the army he is owned by continue to make their way across the seas of ancient Greece to worthy destinations.  Witness to a brutal execution at the story’s start, a figurative execution closes the novel, leaving Latro to have acquired a great deal in the middle.  Spending time amongst the Amazons, gleaning memory and scroll trying to uncover plots against his life, pawn to others when his memory fails, and always unaware who is and isn’t a god, his adventures are no less intriguing than Mist.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review of The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology ed. by Gordon van Gelder & Edward L. Ferman

Every five or ten years, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is poring over its backlog and publishing a fresh ‘best of’.  The first several editions edited by Edward L. Ferman, in the late 90s the magazine underwent transition, and Gordon van Gelder was added to editing duties.  But 1999’s Fiftieth Anniversary edition is different in more than just terms of editor.  The backlog search limited to the decade, The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary anthology features only stories published in the 90s.  Moreover, where the later anthologies (the 60th Anniversary and the Very Best of Vol. 2), contain stories by authors the majority of readers are familiar with, the fiftieth goes a more esoteric route.  Sharon Farber, Bruce Holland Rogers, Ray Vukcevich, Esther M. Friesner, Dale Bailey, and Michael Blumlein are generally authors known only to those deeply involved in speculative fiction.  The quality of their stories, however, is another matter.  Popularity not always equalling excellence, the lesser known names add an air of originality for unfamiliar readers, making the anthology an unexpected but no less enjoyable selection of stories from the Magazine.

Kicking things off is Elizabeth Hand’s touching novella “Last Summer at Mars Hill”.  About two teens dealing with their parent’s health problems during a summer holiday in Maine, it is paranormal fantasy (the fantasy sparing in its use) which touches upon terminal illness in poignant fashion.  “Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling is a one-off about the Asian cat sitting at the cash register of businesses worldwide.  Tsuyoshi, a video renovator, thinks nothing of passing along snippets of interesting old video onto the web when asked.  Helping his wife deliver a maneki neko one day, all hell breaks loose after following one instruction on his smartphone.  Sterling’s satirical take on modern life does explain how all of the cats ended up scattered around the world, but goes little further.   “No Planets Strike” by Gene Wolfe is a tale that, when divided into its component parts (alien planet, Shakespeare, talking barnyard animals, bad fairies, and Christian mythology), simply should not work.  Wolfe turning it all into a delight, the story becomes one of the most unique in the anthology.  “Sins of the Mothers” by Sharon N. Farber is a story that brings adoption and gene technology into sharp focus.  The story of an adopted man who finds his birth mother later in life, his reasons for seeking her out are not precisely altruistic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review of A Tale of Two Clocks by James Schmitz

After finishing a book that has no obvious flaws I feel guilty writing something of a negative review.  Viable critiques generally focusing on the concrete, more objective aspects of writing, James H. Schmitz’s 1962 A Tale of Two Clocks (also known as Legacy) has no glaring surface flaws.  The prose, while not attempting anything lush or attractive, nevertheless moves forward one step at a time and is technically correct. The structure, while perhaps a tad padded, nevertheless suits the story desired to be told.  The characters are rather flat, but they were never intended to win the Booker or Pulitzer, rather fill a space opera.  The setting, while not rich, occupies the backdrop.  And while developed at a slow pace, some sense of mystery and adventure is built.  In short, A Tale of Two Clocks does the the things it should relatively right.  Why then do I feel so underwhelmed?  I think it has to do with a more subjective aspect of writing: tone.

Seemingly unaware of mood, and thus unable to fully generate plot momentum, the tone of A Tale of Two Clocks is like that party guest who asks the socially appropriate questions, responds in uncontroversial fashion, and leaves at 9:30 when things are just starting to pick up.  This is strange as the main character Trigger, top graduate student researching mysterious alien plasmoid objects and a crack shot with her pistols, is most everything heroines of yesteryear genre are not, and would seem to be an inviting center point for a fun space opera… 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Review of Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Folk music in the US is viewed as an innocent, pastoral indulgence with roots in rural life.  Its lilt between twittering energy and melancholy not for everyone, there was, however, a time when it reached the heights of popularity—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, Carly Simon, and others big names of the 60s and 70s counter-culture movement.  In England, however, folk music has added dimensions.  Celtic history forever lingering in the background, the music can likewise have pagan undertones—the spirits of forest and meadow tucked into the melodies and lyrics.  Bringing together a folk band and the counter-culture movement in England in the early 70s, Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015, Open Road Media) is not only a beautifully written piece of nostalgia, but also a story about the essences of an age past that still haunt the bucolic reaches of England’s countryside.

Flower power with dark undercurrents, Wylding Hall is written in documentary format.  Akin to VH1’s Storyteller series, the novel steadily rotates through the recollections of the members of Windhollow Faire and the making of their smash hit album Wylding Hall.  Some just teenagers when they joined the band, one magical summer in the deep countryside of England at a worn down manor changes their lives forever.  Freedom, music, poetry, and a little hashish in the air, the light and joy of creation is offset by the shadows of Wylding Hall.  Amidst the fun, unexplainable events offset what could be the greatest summer of their lives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review of The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers ed. by Mike Ashley

Regardless of preferred genre, most readers know the names Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. Rider Haggard.  On the strength of Jekyll and Hyde, Captain Nemo, the lost worlds of Africa, and Martians attacking Earth, they are considered pioneers, and by default, stanchions of science fiction and fantasy of the late 19th century.  And all are men.  Who were the women writing speculative fiction at the time?   Unless the reader is a connoisseur of 19th and early 20th century genre, their answer is probably like mine: don’t know even if there were women writing spec fic.  Having just finished editor Mike Ashley’s The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers (2015, Dover Publications), I have been educated: there were women writing in that period, and not just writing, but producing stories of similar, groundbreaking quality as Verne, Wells, Stevenson, Haggard, and the rest.

The Feminine Future anthologizes fourteen short stories published between 1876 and 1930 by women writers.  Having read this byline, my initial concern was that Ashley had little material to work with, and therefore selected stories with only the thinnest of connections to sf.  My concerns were very misplaced. The stories selected are undeniably genre.  The speculative elements not minor or incidental, they occupy fundamental positions or are the foundations upon which the stories are built.  Whether it be robots or alternate history, shifts in time or social experiments, each possesses a recognizable trope or element still in use today, including some that are arguably their first appearance in print.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review of Sleeps with Angels by Dave Hutchinson

One of life’s little pleasures, it’s always nice to encounter a writer for the first time and discover a keen sense of style.  Mollifying whatever the actual content may be, it leaves a good first impression that goes a long way toward organizing a second encounter.  A magical ace seemingly forever up its precisely starched sleeve, Dave Hutchinson’s 2015 collection Sleeps with Angels (2015, NewCon Press) left such an impression on me.  I’m off to find his novel Europe in Autumn.

Containing six solid stories, one of which is never before published, Sleeps With Angels is, above all, very well written.  Each story carefully crafted, the prose is polished to high shine.  Like Ted Chiang, Hutchison is apparently one of those writers with a day job to pay the bills (he’s averaging about one story per year over the past couple of decades), allowing him to take his time, making sure the dross is pared away and what remains, on point.  “The Fortunate Isle”, the story leading off the collection, is a mini-police procedural that opens at the scene of a murder and quickly has the reader begging for more given the defined manner of presentation.  An elderly man shot through the head sitting in his own armchair, the woman in the house says its her husband before being whisked away to the hospital with her own emergency.  When an old Irish mafia feud turns out to be the cause, nobody is surprised.  It’s when somebody tries to steal the body, however, that the police are taken aback. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of Guards ! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Many science fiction and fantasy writers pass away each year, but few cause me personal pause.  Hearing yesterday of the passing of Terry Pratchett, however, a heaviness hung on my heart - exacerbated by his final, fitting tweet "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER."  The following review was queued but not scheduled to be posted for a few weeks.  As small a memento as it is, I've bumped it up in honor of truly one of the greatest figures the speculative fiction field has ever known, and ever will.  Much more to his stories than brilliant humor, the world would truly be a better place if everybody went out and read a Pratchett novel.  Thanks for the stories, Terry.

For those who missed it, the duology which opened Discworld, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic respectively, was a shot across the bow of epic fantasy.  Pratchett undermining familiar elements and having a laugh at its stereotypes, the two novels, however, proved not enough.  The 8th Disc novel Guards! Guards!, on top of introducing the City Watch sub-series and a couple of characters who would go on to achieve Hall of Disc status (Commander Vimes and Corporal Carrot), continues to dig at epic fantasy’s tropes, dismantling them in humor with every spadeful.  The farmboy slays a dragon to become king the stereotype targeted, the roast succeeds behind all of the humor Pratchett is known for.  Whether or not it works as a thematic whole, well…

The Supreme Grand Master of the appropriately named Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night has an idea: to overthrown the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and install a puppet ruler, himself Geppetto.  The details: find a long lost heir to the throne, find him a dragon to slay, and install him as king.  Using the magic he has acquired in a book stolen from the Unseen University library, the Supreme Grand Master sets about his nefarious scheme.  Meanwhile, Carrot Ironfounderson is being sent into the world of men by his dwarf parents.  Given the massive sword he was found abandoned with as a baby and a letter of recommendation to the City Watch, he leaves the mines for a new life—all 6’-6” of him. And he certainly finds a new life in Ankh-Morpork.  With the drunk Commander Vimes at the helm, the group stumble and bumble over one clue at a time trying to find a stolen book before the chaos of a dragon descends on the city. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction

From cyberpunk’s focus on near-future political and technological concerns to the explosion of singularity/post-human texts which followed a decade or two later, science fiction has moved from one end of the temporal spectrum to the other.  Cyberpunk generally more tactile, concrete, and relevant, post-humanism, by default, spends more of its time swimming in the waters of fantasy.  Though Charles Stross is best known for conveying just how wacky the far-future can be, there are other writers who capture the incredible possibilities of super-futures in intensely aesthetic fashion.  Hannu Rajaniemi is one, and his most recent collection Collected Fiction (2015, Tachyon) is one of the imaginative reasons why.  Whether or not Rajaniemi’s short fiction as a whole was ready to be collected, however, remains another question.

Rajaniemi has one minor collection under his belt (Words of Birth and Death, three stories), which essentially makes Collected Fiction his first.  Bringing together nearly all the short fiction he has published to date, it confirms the title while adding three pieces not previously published.  Totaling nineteen stories, none stretch into novella length; all are bite-sized vignettes of radically technical futures with a dash of mythic/pagan-ized fantasy.

“Deus Ex Homine” (translated to ‘god from man’) sets the post-human tone for Collected Fiction. 

“As gods go, I wasn’t one of the holier-than-thou, dying-for-your-sins variety. I was a full-blown transhuman deity with a liquid metal body, an external brain, clouds of self-replicating utility fog to do my bidding and a recursively self-improving AI slaved to my volition. I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t Jesus, I was Superman: an evil Bizarro Superman.”(1)

Also Rajaniemi’s first published story, it tells of a man and woman separated by a godplague—an intrusion of post-humanism that destroyed the man’s corporeal humanity (he requires a head implant to tell him others’ emotional projections) and subsequently the relationship.  The emotions are a bit forced, but informs the reader of the type of story to come.  Following this story is perhaps Rajaniemi’s most celebrated short to date: “The Server and the Dragon.”  A far-far-far future story of abstract dimension worthy of Iain Banks’ Excession, it’s about a world seeding by an AI computer that possesses significantly more mythic ambiance than hard sf.  Mother Goose on post-human steroids, “Tyche and the Ants” is about a young girl cavorting on a fairy tale lunar landscape.  But it isn’t before running into the Jade Rabbit, Moon Girl, Hugbear, and the Brain AI that she meets the miscreant little “ants”.  This is the first ever post-human bedtime story for children I have ever read, and perhaps the best of this collection.