Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review of Peace on Earth by Stanislaw Lem

Ahh, Ijon Tichy, Stanislaw Lem’s intrepid researcher, adventurer, interplanetary traveler, scientist, explorer, diplomat, and all-round science fiction jack-of-all-trades. In Peace on Earth (1986), one of Lem’s last novels, he returns for his last escapade.

The brave Tichy has been callosotomised (left brain hemisphere severed from the right) at the beginning of Peace on Earth. His right hand doing very different things than his left, and mouth occasionally spouting words a moment later he wished it hadn’t, he consults with the world’s experts, trying to bring some sanity back into his life. Mental certainty not the only thing lacking, there’s a certain portion of his memory that’s likewise missing—and it appears the intentional result of the surgery after a visit to the moon.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review of The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

Robert Silverberg calls the 1950s the real Golden Age of science fiction, not the decade prior. With the bloom of Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, C.M. Kornbluth, Walter M. Miller, James Blish, Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Wilson Tucker, Robert Sheckley, and others, it's tough to argue. Producing books and stories that went beyond the confection of ray guns and drooling aliens, human concerns were brought front and center, even as the backdrops utilized the now-standard tropes of science fiction. One of the greatest if not the most unique writer to appear in the decade was Theodore Sturgeon, and his debut novel, 1950's The Dreaming Jewels, is the flag waving, marking the changing of the guard - or in this case, precious metals.

As fresh at the beginning of the 21st century as when it was first published in the mid-20th, The Dreaming Jewels is a singular story of self-discovery, alien jewels, and the value of quality relationships to personal stability and well-being. The life portrayed in traveling carnivals in (then) contemporary America is just the icing. Abused at the hands of a nasty step-father, young Horty escapes and is picked up by a passing show at the tender age of eight. Raised amongst a variety of freaks and carnies, he never loses sight of a mysterious jack-in-the-box he's had since birth—a jack-in-the-box which causes extreme anxiety near to the point of death when he’s separated from it. Their traveling show managed by the cadaverous Pierre Monetreto, Horty, and a kind woman named Zena, are eventually pushed to the brink of sanity by the man's inexplicable actions. A scientist by training, the point of Monetreto’s research is slowly revealed, and darker the portents become...

Review of Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

Marko Kloos' Terms of Enlistment (2013) is a precise result of the formula described in How to Write Military Science Fiction—emphasis on precise. It will be liked or disliked accordingly.

(Apologies for the short review, but sometimes a simple statement is enough.)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review of Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

China Mieville’s first collection Looking for Jake: Stories is an uneven selection of shorts. For as much quality writing is present, there is also mediocre, overwrought material. “Reports of Certain Events in London,” “The Tain,” and the title story remain some of Mieville’s best published short work. But the likes of “The Ball Room,” “Details,” “Go Between”, “An End to Hunger,” and “Tis the Season” are conventional at best, and as such, forgettable. (And dare I mention the “drunken dictionary” of “Familiar”??) Fast forward a decade to Mieville’s second collection, Three Moments of an Explosion (2015). A whole new facet of Mieville in short form is revealed.

Two pages long (and available here), the title story “Three Moments of an Explosion” sets the tone for the collection. Perspectives to a building demolition, they include the blackly sarcastic corporate view, the “urban melancholics” view who hide in its dingy shadows using ecstasy, and the view of the ghost who lives inside. Mieville seeming to indicate ‘hang on for the ride,” the twenty-seven stories which follow cover a wide, wide gamut of scenes and times, moods and modes, lengths and depths. From icebergs floating over London (and the exploration thereof) to the New Dead (corpses oriented like in video games), paranormal decks of playing cards (a great love story) to crystallized aliens in lava (a more mature rendering of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, in fact), zombie movie trailers to mysterious sunken fleets, decrepit space elevators to monologues with stolen idols, a classic (albeit slightly grotesque) ghost story to a bizarre yet weirdly interesting take on animal butchery, animate oil rigs to cross sections of art, china horses to scrimshawed bones in cadavers—no story seems to cover the same ground twice, a fact underlined by the careful, precise flow of language.

Review of A Life for the Stars by James Blish

An outward explosion of ideas (figuratively and literally), James Blish’s Cities in Flight sequence describes mankind’s transition from little Earth into the wide-wide galaxy via spindizzies—cities capable of interstellar flight. A Life for the Stars the last book of the four books published yet falling second chronologically, it tells of the young Chris deFord and the life aboard a spindizzy that befalls him.

Though published a few years after Heinlein had stopped writing juveniles, A Life for the Stars has a strong juvi feel to it. The teenage Chris press-ganged onto a spindizzy moments before it blasts off Earth into space, he soon finds himself receiving an education in astronomy, and on a path to becoming a leader and scientist in the interstellar community. Chris has several adventures on the way to discovering the worlds and cities mankind has settled in the universe, confirming, if not beating to death, the coming of age/young man in the wonders of space story. At times, the the story even feels like filler—an obligatory step in the development of the larger Cities in Flight sequence rather than an essential vision within that context. Which brings me to:

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Polystom by Adam Roberts

In perhaps the least likely of combinations, author Adam Roberts has a PhD and teaches in the area of English classics, yet finds novels published yearly (even occasionally awarded) in the field of science fiction. Victoriana and space ships unlikely bedfellows, Roberts keeps the two separate, rarely giving hints to his science fiction readers of his Dr. Jekyll existence (it has to be Jekyll). Roberts’ debut novel Salt is a fresh take on a classic science fiction conceit: contentious political ideals warring on a new planetary colony. His second novel On, while not overtly science fictional, is nevertheless a work certainly more in line with Christopher Priest’s Inverted World than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And his third novel Stone, despite its anti-hero, reverts back to more traditional sf tropes—a lot more than one finds in the poetry of Robert Browning, the subject of Roberts’ PhD thesis. With Roberts’ fourth novel Polystom (2002), however, something of his Jekyll appears in his Hyde.

Ostensibly three novellas rolling along, one building upon the previous, Polystom (despite that the title sounds like a setting) tells of the trials and tribulations of the eponymous man. Something of a dandy-dilettante, ‘Stom, as he is often called, lives on a massive estate. Waited upon hand and foot, he indulges daily in poetry, gourmet food, and long walks in the forest. His recent past colored by the deaths of both his fathers, as well as his newlywed wife, he consoles himself with airplane flights across the ether to visit his uncle on the moon. It’s upon reconciling his losses, however, that things get tough, and real decisions are required.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tunnel Vision: Exclusivity in Science Fiction in Robert J. Sawyer’s Review of Oryx and Crake

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic novel that toys with the subjectivity of utopian/dystopian ideals in a viscerally human world.  As is usual upon finishing an engaging novel, I went to the net, curious about others’ opinions and views.  It was there I encountered Robert J. Sawyer’s review of the novel—coming to a state of silent shock, or at least quiet awe, quickly therein.  As blinkered as a horse, Sawyer’s view is so hermetic, so self-assuming as to cause wonder.  Is science fiction really so limited in scope?  Is science fiction disconnected from other forms of fiction—an insular realm unto itself?  I was even left wondering, does Sawyer have an individual problem with Atwood—personal issues that overshadow his views…  But to the facts:

1. Sawyer opens his review of Oryx and Crake with comparison to another Atwood dystopia: “Yes, one might have been able to argue that her earlier, and quite terrific, futuristic foray, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, wasn't really science fiction — it had no basis in science…”

The last time I checked, there was a broad field of social sciences—behaviorism, politics, sociology, human anthropology—informing the speculation of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Without the hard sciences, however, it appears The Handmaid’s Tale is not science-based, and therefore not worthy of the “science fiction” moniker.   Is hard science indeed a determining factor of what is and isn’t science fiction?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review of The Golden by Lucius Shepard

Vampire fiction. There are a lot of ideas and opinions tucked into those two words. From perhaps the most ruminative look at the concept in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the cheese and pomp of Twilight and innumerable other similar consumables, a wide swathe of views and representations of the blood-sucking legend have appeared in fiction. As that thimbleful of regular readers will know, this blog is no friend to most vampire stories, precisely because so much material tends to be so far skewed to the sensational/operatic side. But there is a middle ground—a fuzzy place where mediocrity does not set this reviewer raving. Books like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream will not set the literary world on fire, but they remain reasonably digestible samples of the medium. While on vacation, I decided to take along another sample: Lucius Shepard’s 1994 The Golden.

After generations of gene purification, the Golden has been created. A woman with blood of the finest essence, the vampire families have set aside their feuds to gather at the castle of the Patriarch to feast. Trouble is, the day before festivities the Golden is murdered in most brutal form. Protégé to the powerful noble Agenor, the volatile Beheim, has been assigned the disreputable task of finding the murderer. Needing to be solved in the coming two days before all the guests leave, Beheim’s questions and answers take him to the darkest corners of the castle. Talking with the likely murderers, friend and foe become ever harder to discern, and ultimately Beheim’s own life is put into jeopardy as the vampire social fabric comes unraveling around him.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review of The Deep by John Crowley

There is much of epic fantasy that, regardless of its primary intents, glorifies war in some fashion.  Honor, courage, nobility, heroism, etc. the most common of themes, war and conflict most often prove the best backdrops to realize them.  But epic fantasy that uses war and conflict to comment on concepts available at the next plane of thought?  John Crowley’s spartan debut The Deep (1975) is such an exotic object.

The Reds in perpetual conflict with the Blacks, The Deep opens at the end of another battle.  Their traditional battleground, called the Drumskin, covered in dead bodies from both sides, the Enwives are left to clean up the mess as the generals and leaders head back to their cities to lick their wounds.  Among the bodies, the Endwives find a Visitor.  Neither male nor female, the Visitor tells a strange tale, of coming from the stars, and wanting to return.  Captured by a captain in the Red army, he is taken back to the capital and installed as a secretary.  And the war continues.  An assassin taking out a key leader in the Red army, the war goes on, and the Visitor is left to fend for himself, finding a way back to his home. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of Mort by Terry Pratchett

Roll back to 1987, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is but a blip on the reading world’s radar. With only a duology (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) and a stand-alone novel (EqualRites) published, Pratchett was just beginning to feel out the breadth of ideas at his fingertips, the vast numbers of Discworld readers not yet onboard, let alone cognizant of the behemoth moving on the horizon. Electing to take the series in yet another new direction for its fourth novel, Mort, Pratchett reverted to a side character from the previous novels and set him center stage. And full of ennui.

DEATH is feeling anxiety. After thousands and thousands of years of collecting the dead for the afterlife, a certain languor for existence has settled in. He’s grown weary of his trade and wishes to have an apprentice so he may explore other aspects of… existence. Descending upon a trader’s market late one evening, he happens upon the unwitting Mortimer. Mort a phlegmatic young man, he soon enough finds drama enough working alongside DEATH, attending the final moments of the Disc’s inhabitants’ lives. While unable to stop himself from preventing a regicide one evening, Mort soon after learns the meaning of fate, and is eventually allowed to go out on his own to usher mortals into the great beyond. It’s when the hourglass of the daughter of the assassinated king is running low, however, that Mort’s true beliefs are tested.

Casting the fated farmboy in a new light (er, shadow?), Mort’s adventures in the employ of DEATH are regal, but only by association. Like Eskarina in Equal Rites, Mort, after being separated from his youth and the familiarity of home and family, has a lot of figuring out to do with this thing called life. Mistakes are made, decisions necessary, and personal problems—problems perhaps with no clear answer—need to be sorted out.