Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising 2 ed. by Ian Whates

Of all the science fiction anthologies, it is perhaps the generic—the unthemed—anthology that has the greatest chance at touching warm spots with readers.  Unless the reader is obsessed with one particular theme or motif, e.g. A.I., cloning, robots, etc., there’s little chance a book full of relevant stories will fail to bore at times, or at least become redundant or repetitive.  Unthemed anthologies, or themed anthologies where the editor effectively turns their back at the door and lets the riff-raff in, tend to not only be more engaging in terms of ‘what comes next?’, but more varied across the trigger points of reader enjoyment.  This is all just a long-winded way of saying Ian Whates’ ongoing science fiction anthology series Solaris Rising remains a more inviting experience than many of the other offerings I’ve come across in recent years precisely for its variety. 

Containing nineteen stories all original to the anthology, Solaris Rising 2, despite its name, is actually the third in the Solaris Rising series.  A return to form after the in-one-eye-and-out-the-other feel of Solaris Rising 1.5, the “second” indicates that when an editor is given proper time to commission authors for stories, everything works in the reader’s favor.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review of The History of the Runestaff by Michael Moorcock

When reading China Mieville’s “50 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read,” there were several titles that struck me.  I can easily see the context for Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, Zamyatin’s We, Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (as tongue and cheek as that selection is), but other choices less so, including Pullman’s His Dark Materials…, Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and, perhaps most interestingly, Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon cycle (collected in the omnibus edition The History of the Runestaff).  Mieville citing Moorcock’s satirical stabs at British imperialism as the reason, apparently the cycle has at least one layer operating beneath its shiny epic fantasy facade. 

Having now read the Runestaff novels, I think it’s fair to say there is only one layer operating beneath—and it’s just an inch below the surface.

The History of Runestaff is comprised of four individual volumes: The Jewel in the Skull (1967), The Mad God's Amulet (1968), The Sword of the Dawn (1968), and The Runestaff (1969).  A mix of steampunk, sword and sorcery, and epic fantasy, the four volumes are connected linearly in telling the story of Dorian Hawkmoon as he fights the empire of Granbretan to prevent its conquest of Europe.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review of The Tenth Victim by Robert Sheckley

Before Running Man and before Surviving the Game there was Robert Sheckley’s nifty little short story “Seventh Victim.”  About a man hunting a woman through an urban environment, it is a mini-gem representative of Sheckley’s very particular brand of black satire.  The Italians apparently appreciative of the story, they expanded it into a script, the film La decimal vittima (The Tenth Victim) the result.  Later, Sheckley was later contracted to write the novelization.

The Tenth Victim is set in a world where humanity’s penchant for violence is curbed by legal manhunts called the Big Hunt.  The survivors of ten hunts gaining prestige and a major cash prize, the Hunt is a major media event.  Television studios worldwide vie for the best angles, the best insider info, and of course, the kill shot—literally and figuratively—tracking the hunter and hunted across the globe.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is one of science fiction’s most versatile participants.  Active in a wide variety of areas, from novel-length fiction to shorter works, editor to columnist, playwright to poet, he is even a painter.  His most active years as a novelist in the 60s and 70s, in 1973 he became a scholar, publishing Billion Year Spree a history of science fiction.  Thirteen years later, the development of sf having continued apace, he recruited author David Wingrove and together they revised the volume, updating content for the writers and novels that appeared in the meantime.  The title was also extended; Trillion Year Spree appeared in 1986. 

Starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and ending with the arrival of cyberpunk, Trillion Year Spree is an attempt to outline the history of science fiction, or, in the author’s words, “to provide a countour map without surveying every tree.  Organized ever-so-roughly in chronological order, Aldiss and Wingrove take the reader through the development of the field the past three centuries.  All major and some lesser known writers are covered, most often with brief discussions on their major works, as well as commentary on their place in the larger context of the genre.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review of The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys

If Joseph Campbell is to be believed, then the hero’s journey is a story as old as mankind.  And we keep on telling it. From the epics of Homer to the gush of epic fantasy currently on the market, the underlying formula remains relatively the same: take a person, separate them from their society, put them through the wringer to emerge triumphant in their society once again.  Such a quantity of such stories, in fact, there may be more than a thousand faces. 

The Falling Torch (1959) by Algis Budrys is one of the faces. The story of a scion raised in exile, Michael Wireman is thrust back into the thick of the war that pushed his father’s government to another planet.  With the expectation he will reverse the tides of fate, he is given contraband weaponry, contacts amongst the guerilla rebellion, and parachuted in to “save the day”.  As the prologue informs the reader, Wireman is successful, but as the intro to this review is also informs, it’s the journey that matters.

Review of The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker

Ahh, you’ve finally done it.  You’ve trudged through umpteen thousand pages of the latest epic fantasy series. You’ve read lengthy descriptions of how Anvus puts on his belt in the morning.  You’ve restrained yawning as the next leg of an endless quest is expounded upon.  You’ve listened to kings and knights discourse ad infinitum about the fate of the land and meaning of honor. And now you’re ready for the final volume, the ending of endings—the convergence of all dramatis personae in a clash that will seer the vault of heaven… only to have it trickle out in a scant few pages of meager scene.  Fear not.  R. Scott Bakker’s conclusion to the Prince of Nothing trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought (2006), meets if not exceeds all expectations.  The fact he does it with the same economy—the same quality over quantity approach as the previous two books—is a testament to its status amongst other such series.

The Holy War refocused under the leadership of Kellhus at the conclusion of The Warrior Prophet, a lot nevertheless remains unclear concerning the Inrithi’s assault on Shimeh.  The Holy War’s leaders more fragmented than ever concerning Kellhus’ status as a holy prophet, they reluctantly continue following him south toward the heathen capita at the outset of The Thousandfold Thought l.  But not without drama along the way involving Ikurei Conphas and his new status as Emperor.  Cnauir among the many confused, he too finds himself in a situation he never imagined—his visions more than his reality would seem to allow.  And Achamian, having survived capture at the hands of the Scarlet Spires, is now Grand Vizier and tutor, teaching Kellhus the ways of Gnostic sorcery.  As the Fanim and the mysterious Cishaurim sorcerers prepare for battle, the fate of human Earwa hangs in the balance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review of The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

I’m speechless.  I’ve not had so much true enjoyment reading a story in some time: aliens come to Earth to eradicate non-rationalist thinking, and space rangers save the day—all presented to the reader in intelligent fashion.  I don’t know if I’ve ever said such a thing about a story…

James Morrow’s 2014 The Madonna and the Starship is simply one of the most intellectually fun pieces of science fiction I think I’ve ever read.  Humor a fickle thing, of course, Morrow’s erudite mix of situational comedy, cultural irreverence, and pulp parody is apparently right up my alley.  Somehow able to mash the ideas of Christianity and Buck Rogers into a weighty yet amusing tale with humanity’s future (figuratively) at stake, it’s a feat I only a few writers with such scalpel-sharp style and wit could pull off.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review of The Paper Grail by James P. Blaylock

The true caper—that perfect mix of light-hearted fun and enjoyable adventure—is one of the most difficult literary tricks to pull off.  Too much comedy and you drown the plot.  Too serious and the story falls flat.  And the product as a whole must be genuine—to have a character unto itself.  James Blaylock has refined this art to a degree that few other writers have.  His books don’t sparkle, they glitter.

One of the novels of Blaylock’s so-called Christian trilogy (a thin moniker at best), The Paper Grail (1991) spins the Holy Grail into a fabulist escapade possible only in rural America.  It’s simply incomparable to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Chock to the gills with colorful characters and the remarkable realia of life in off-the-beaten-path northern California, it tells of the museum curator Howard Barton and his trip to Mendocino to pick up a 19th-century Hokusai sketch from an eccentric uncle.  Running into the residents upon arrival, particularly the screwball Mr. Jimmers, it isn’t long before Barton is dragged into the local scene—crystal readers, haunted house owners, curio shop proprietors, and of course, the evening parties of the glint-eyed Heloise Lamie who has her own designs on the Hokusai.  Studebakers lodged in trees, the art of John Ruskin, invisible kleptomaniacs, a tin shed that produces unearthly noises, cliffside tunnels, and an old flame, Barton finds himself caught in an age old war for something he doesn’t fully understand but may end up dead because of if he doesn’t start digging deeper. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, was surreal science fiction painted in the colors of Philip K. Dick but built on the chassis of a Raymond Chandler novel.  Successful style-wise, Lethem paid homage to a couple of his favorite writers while getting his feet wet in publishing.  Five years later as a writer with four novels and a short story collection under his belt, fully immersed, Lethem produced another novel of detective noir proportion, Motherless Brooklyn (1999).  Moving past homage and into singular, personalized fiction, it shows a mature author in control of his craft.  But Lionel Essrog is the reason to read.

Though Chandler will haunt the shadows of any private eye story, Motherless Brooklyn is written in Lethem’s own hand.  There is a murder mystery, shadowy NYC is the setting, and a fairly typical gamut of plotting—through police investigations, crime figures, and female interests—is run.  But the phrasing, the tone, and character portrayal are something different.  NYC is brought to minimalist life; the flow of story is more staid, less predictable; and Lionel Essrog is as memorable and atypically heartfelt a character as one can imagine.

Review of The Warrior Prophet by R. Scott Bakker

Gary K. Wolfe once made the statement on the Coode Street Podcast that bridge books in trilogies are useless—that it’s possible to skip the middle volume without missing anything for the third.  While there are several examples that support his claim, R. Scott Bakker’s The Warrior-Prophet, second book in the Prince of Nothing trilogy, balks at it.  Shaking off the bridge book blues, the novel picks up where The Darkness that Comes Before left off and escalates the story in critical fashion to the third and final volume, The Thousandfold Thought. 

Like the importance of The Two Towers to The Lord of the Rings, so too is The Warrior Prophet to The Prince of Nothing.  A convergence of powerful characters and a grand revelation about Earwa occurring at the end of the previous novel, The Warrior Prophet proceeds directly from this point.  Kicking off the Holy War, thousands upon thousands of soldiers are set marching to the land of the heathen Fanim and begin taking down cities one by one, all while fractures begin appearing in leadership.  Kellhus, despite starting to make a name for himself, has the mysteries surrounding his origin and purpose deepen.  Dreams of the First Apocalypse continue to haunt Achamian’s nights, making it more difficult for him to know how to proceed with Kellhus—the Scarlet Spires haunting his footsteps in the daytime.  Skin-spies continue to be revealed in key places, and the emperor, still reeling from his dungeon encounter, sits on the throne, digging himself ever deeper into a pit of fear and anxiety.