Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review of Drowned Worlds ed. by Jonathan Strahan

In the introduction to his 2016 anthology Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond (Solaris), editor Jonathan Strahan paints a dire picture for humanity: climate swings are becoming more extreme; environmental degradation is inching ever forward; and many natural systems that sustain life are threatening to collapse. Human existence as we know it appears in jeopardy—a dire picture, indeed.  When looking at the current state of science fiction, however, one could barely tell.  Environmental concern appears in pockets and niches, but with the sustained popularity of space opera, the techno-fantasies of hard sf, the pure escapism of most genre-blending, and the increased quantity of retro-pulp, the question looms: would the stories that Strahan selected for the anthology rise above to match the seriousness of his outlay, or simply be an overbilled gateway to more genre fluff...

Opening the anthology—and the first dog to mark the fire hydrant labelled “drowned Earth tableaux,” Paul McAuley’s “Elves of Antarctica” takes readers to the southernmost continent after ocean waters have forced the world’s population to the poles.  While telling of an ordinary Joe’s hobby tracking mysterious stones that turn up in the Antarctic ice melt, the focus remains laying down hard sf imagery in straight-forward, didactic fashion.  Next dog up at the tableaux fire hydrant is a reprint story (the only in the anthology): Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Venice Drowned.”  First published in 1981, the scene portrayed is a Venice nearly entirely buried underwater (of course) and a boatman who earns money piloting tourists to dive sites.  Minor drama occurs, but overall the scene is more important than the story.  Having a nice narrative voice but little else, “Inselberg” by Nalo Hopkinson is the next hound in line, this time about a tour operator and the group he takes to sea viewing underwater architecture (of course).  There is some fantasy/magic realism/exaggeration to spice things up, but it remains a tough piece to take with any seriousness.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review of Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

Space opera is like a cockroach. It just won’t die. Defying the ages and epochs of science fiction, it propagates itself at varying rates, a thread through the rope of genre, forever onward. And the base product remains identifiable throughout. A vast scope of planets and systems, cultures and aliens. Various evolutions of mankind, contemporary to unrecognizable. Technological innovation at each stop on the Action City line (usually in the areas of weapons and space propulsion, strangely enough). Simplistic political dichotomies providing tension... And given the sustained longevity, people do not get sick of it. Great-great-great-great grandson to E.E. “Roach” Smith’s Doc Lensman is Alastair Reynolds’ 2001 Chasm City.

Manhunts a la Robert Sheckley’s “The Seventh Victim”; head implants and cybertech via William Gibson’s Neuromancer; body upgrades, and new religions and cultures courtesy of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix; space elevators from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise; immortality drugs and giant worms a la Frank Herbert’s Dune; a murky revenge quest echoing strongly of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series—and on and on goes the list of clearly identifiable genre influences on Chasm City. Such combinations possible to be wielded in original fashion, Reynolds chooses to travel the more (if not most) conventional byways of science fiction. Then again, it’s space opera; roach DNA has long been known.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Contemporary readership apparently tired of traditional fantasy, a grittier, more visceral side of the genre has appeared on shelves and online shops in an ever-growing volume the past decade.  Few and far between are the titles wherein language is lush and evocative, honor and ambition are still virtues, or where the main character is sent on a numinous quest—no aegis to violence, quest for power, or burning hate fueling his days.   High fantasy has been replaced by grimdark.  Does that make Sofia Samatar’s wonderful 2014 A Stranger in Olondria retro? 

It’s inevitable that when the words ‘high fantasy’ are put on the table, images of knights in shining armor, wizards in pointy hats, castles and banners, princes and princesses come dancing to mind.  A Stranger in Olondria is none of that.  Well, none of that, precisely.  There is a young man on a quest, but he’s not a product of the Arthurian mold.  There is a fantasy land, but it’s not craggy peaks and and green meadows, rather, islands and fruit, deserts and spice.  There is magic, but it’s of the sublime kind—sages instead of mages, haunted dreams and poetry instead of spells and potions. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Taking Margaret Atwood’s collection of memoirs and essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination into consideration, it’s fair to say The Handmaid’s Tale was not a one-off. Atwood displaying a strong interest in utopian/dystopian fiction, she shows herself as familiar with its history as she is putting its concepts into story. A sort-of The Island of Dr. Moreau meets Neuromancer, Atwood’s 2003 Oryx and Crake is another dystopia, this time a gene-spliced world turned upside down by uncontrolled commercial research.

Flashing back and forth, from past to present, Oryx and Crake tells the story of Jimmy, or as he comes to be known later, the Snowman, and the predicament he ultimately comes to. One of few survivors after a mutated virus is set loose on the world, he lives among a group of humanoid people called the Crakers. Created and developed by Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake, the new species biological patterns likewise render them immune, but unlike Jimmy and other remaining humans, they are passive and peaceful, and settle their differences, sexual and resource-wise, amicably. The Crakers raised and educated by a former child prostitute named Oryx, the Snowman floats through the memories of his formative teenage years to arrive in an empty world where he must face the most telling choice of his life.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review of Thud! by Terry Pratchett

One of the great things about Terry Pratchett is how he can be appreciated and respected from so many angles. While probably the majority love the man for his diverse and unique sense of humor, it’s fully possible to also admire his colorful imagination, deft touch when interleaving plots, word-smithing, and other talents. I daresay, however, what elevated Terry to Sir Terry were his human concerns, something which his 2005 novel Thud! may be the most purely representative of.

Dwarf-troll relations are in a rough way. Becoming increasingly hostile, a war that happened hundreds of years ago has returned to contention—graffiti, street insults, bar fights, and public gatherings all leaning toward yet another. The City Watch required to mediate the resulting skirmishes, Vimes brings in reinforcements to help stem the tide. General peace pervades until an important dwarf is murdered. The dwarves producing a club as evidence it was a troll, it’s up to Commander Vimes to descend into the dwarves tunnels under Ankh-Morpork to investigate the murder scene. Discovering a lot of barely constrained hatred, some mysterious caverns and halls, and evidence that doesn’t quite add up, all is not what it would seem on the surface in the investigation. But with a second war threatening, a clock is ticking on Vimes to get to the bottom of the case, further bloodshed imminent.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review of Witch World by Andre Norton

Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly his Princess of Mars books, are often given credit as having a pervasive influence on the science fiction and fantasy field. While the influence is certainly non-existent in a wide swathe of works qualifying as such, there is perhaps a wider swathe where a case, big or small, can be made. In the case of Andre Norton’s Witch World (1963) a trial is not even necessary. Guilty as charged. But does Norton add something more?

Simon Tregarth is a man on the run. Having gotten involved with the wrong people in post-WWII activities, it’s not strange for attempts on his life to take place. Contacted by the mysterious Dr. Jorge Petronious late one evening, a solution to his problems seems available: be transported to a fantastical planet with a touch of the Siege Perilous stone. With seemingly no other option, Tregarth touches the stone and is whisked away to the land of Estcarp. Landing in an open field, he is witness to two men hunting a woman. Helping the woman, a witch named Jaelith, the pair escape, and he is introduced to her tribe. Martial prowess learned in the Civil Wa—sorry, WWII—called into need thereafter, war among Estcarp’s rival factions has a new twist, a John Cart—dammit!—Simon Tregarth twist.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review of Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

It’s my assumption that, readers who love Kurt Vonnegut do so for the biting wit and dark perspective/humor. One of literature’s great satirists, he used an idiosyncratic style—a flat, no frills voice—to emphasize the dramatic, fatalistic kinks of humanity in action. Quite apparently an admirer of Vonnegut, Andrew Smith penned Grasshopper Jungle in 2015 in very similar style.

Ostensibly YA though scalable to adults, Grasshopper Jungle tells of the adventures, and growing up that results, of Austin Szerba and his best friends Robbie and Shann over one summer in Ealing, Iowa. Typical teenagers, they smoke when their parents aren’t around, deal with hormones racing through their bodies, explore hobbies, attempt to comprehend emotions, and ultimately try to survive the giant praying mantis apocalypse. Yes, the giant praying mantis apocalypse…

The apocalypse beginning innocently enough, Austin and Robbie are beaten up at the local shopping mall one day by a group of boys from a rival high school. Their shoes and skateboards thrown onto the roof of a shop during the fight, the pair return in the evening to collect the lost property. Finding a lot more on the roof then they ever imagined, the two, along with Austin’s would-be girlfriend Shann, are pushed to explore the secret history of Ealing, particularly one of its founding father’s grand plans to create super soldiers during WWII. A virus unwittingly unleashed on the citizens of Ealing in the course of the trio’s investigation, it isn’t long before the small town becomes bug town.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review of Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are some the most low-quality material ever to find the light of day in publishing.  His imagination capturing something, however, the brawny Cimmerian helped spawn the sword & sorcery sub-genre, and the myriad of stories (low quality and otherwise) that have appeared since.  And they keep appearing.  One of the latest is Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015).  A full indication that sword & sorcery has matured significantly in the century since Conan, Howard would roll in the grave if he knew of Wilson’ tale.

The Captain and his crew of mercenaries have been hired to guard a merchant caravan on its long journey to the city of Olorum.  Danger and peril awaiting at every step, their trek takes them through deserts and cities, and the mysterious jungles of the Wildeeps.  Indefatigable, the Captain runs at the head of the caravan by day, fights mock battles with his crew by evening, and stands guard by night.  Seemingly impenetrable in person, interacting with him is difficult, something the crew’s sorcerer, a foreigner named Demane, has trouble with.  But cooperation between the two is necessary if the caravan is to arrive at its destination.  Beset by bandits, enduring the scorn of the merchants, and dealing with the exigencies of life on the road, the Captain, Demane, and the rest of the crew must work together if they are to survive the trek and the Wildeeps.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review of Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

In 2015, editors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois released the anthology Old Venus. Populated with shorts in tribute of Golden Age pulp on the green planet, the moments it achieves something more ambitious are few and very far between. Also released in 2015 was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. Likewise a retro work set (largely) on Venus, Valente imbues her material with a sparkling depth and transience that far exceeds the standard Martin and Dozois were chasing, however. The title apt, it’s a subtler light than the neon of pulp.

Working with the art of filmmaking, the relationship between the fictional and the real, and Hollywood of old, Radiance is a novel that possesses every ounce of Valente’s literary awareness and fervor for language. Paul Di Filippo calls it “uncategorizable fantastika,” which is, in fact, a shortcut from Valente’s own more complex but accurate description: “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery.” Dynamic to say the least, the milieu is never allowed to desiccate into simple retro-pulp homage, going further to tell a rich, multi-faceted tale of one woman’s life and legacy in Hollywood’s Golden Age—or what it would have been were the solar system alive with humanity.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review of River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a writer who uses a lot of different locations, histories, and cultures for novel material. It was thus something of a surprise to learn that River of Stars (2013) was to likewise be set in ancient China, the same as his previous novel, Under Heaven. Though shifting the clock ahead a few dynasties, from the Tang to the Song, one wondered what new material he might bring to the table. It turns out, a degree of significance.

With the latter days of the Tang Dynasty as its inspiration, Under Heaven portrayed a mid-rank military commander given an unspeakably powerful gift, two-hundred and fifty Arabian war horses, and the influence he (and they) had on events in the kingdom as they played out. History was ever-present in the shadows of the prose, but by and large the characters and the drama of their stories were the heart driving the novel. River of Stars possesses a similar focus on character and drama (what Kay novel doesn’t?), but the weight of history emerges from the shadows into the light. The scales not swinging wildly to the other side, River of Stars nevertheless feels driven by tides of fate rather than character agency, resulting in a more encompassing hold on the setting and the people within.